Canada's Cold War Fighter Pilots
by Colonel W. Neil Russell, CF Ret.
From Golden Age to Silver Service
To review, by definition the "Cold War" was the period of tension which existed between the Soviet Union and its allies and the United States and its allies, during the period 1946 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Canada contributed to the balance of power by joining NATO and supplying military forces among which the most effective was 1 Canadian Air Division, headquartered at Metz, France, with its twelve squadrons and over 300 front line fighter aircraft.
The mission of the Air Division was to help protect Central Europe in the event of air attack. In their day, from the mid 50s to early 60s, the pilots of 1 Air Division, flying the made-in-Canada Canadair F-86 Mark VI Sabre, were known as the best air fighters in Europe, proving themselves unquestionably by consecutive winnings of the Guynemer Trophy for excellence in air-to-air gunnery. Among the pilots of the Air Division, the most effective were young high school graduates on a five year short service commission, many of them just 21 or 22 years old. These young pilots worked hard, played hard, were fearless in air combat, and made excellent leaders. Was their style of life and type of flying dangerous? Yes, some 107 died, many of their bodies interred in France and all of their names recorded in granite on a memorial at the RCAF Memorial Museum in Trenton, Ontario.
However, the vast majority of Sabre pilots would not trade their life for anything. They were confident and proud that they were performing a worthwhile function, contributing to the balance of power, during the years which many would consider the "Golden Age of Canadian Aviation".
But, the "Golden Age" could not last forever. In 1961 NATO was confident that it had enough day fighters and asked Canada to amend the role of 1 Air Division. Canadair reached an agreement with the American Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to build under licence the high performance F-104 Starfighter, improved in Canada, as the "CF-104". The Canadian 1 Air Division was reduced from 12 Squadrons to eight and later six, with two squadrons in the role of tactical photo reconnaissance and the remainder as low level nuclear strike bombers. It could be said that the new war time role of the Air Division was to deliver tactical nuclear bombs "with sterling silver service". Flying the supersonic, single seat CF-104, with its sophisticated all-weather sensors, navigation and fire control systems was undoubtedly the greatest challenge ever faced by Canadian pilots [For an excellent description read "Reflections of a Nuclear Strike Pilot, by Eric Mold, Legion Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009".] Pilots completing a tour on Sabres were natural first choices for postings to fly the new fighter bombers. But many on the short service commission were not given the chance. In 1963, calculating that there was a surplus of aircrew, Air Force Headquarters published the list known as "The Famous 500". While the list, contrary to public perception, included navigators and air traffic controllers as well as pilots, many on the list were Sabre pilots of 1 Air Division. The pilots which were affected, many by then married with family responsibilities, were extremely disappointed, feeling betrayed by their government. Times were tough at first; however, eventually nearly every Sabre pilot released turned out to be successful, either in business or as a senior airline pilot.
There was also another change which effected the change from "golden age" to "silver service". In 1966, France, lead by President Charles de Gaulle, withdrew its military forces from NATO and announced that Canadian and American bases in France must be closed. Eventually, 1 Air Division became 1 Canadian Air Group with headquarters at Lahr, Germany and just two air bases, Lahr and Baden-Soellingen. Ultimately, in 1994, these two bases were also closed and all of Canada's forces in Europe returned to Canada. This also was a great disappointment to the personnel involved; however, not entirely a sad event, but full confirmation that the Cold War was over and NATO had won.
In total, during the period of the "Golden Years", 1951 to 1963, in the order of 1,625 Canadian pilots flew Canadair F-86 Sabres. Almost without exception, if interviewed today, every one of those pilots would say that the years of flying the Sabre were the best in his life. It was not just a matter of the human-machine interface that pleases all pilots, but the comradeship among squadron mates which surpassed rank, background and position. There was the sense of pride, knowing that you were among the best and most respected military professionals in NATO, fulfilling an important function, contributing to the balance of power that helped prevent global nuclear war. This sense of comradeship and status among Sabre pilots has outlived the Cold War. Today, the 21 to 22 year old pilots are in their 70’s, many active in "SPAADS", the association with the name contrived to give it a connection to the fighter pilots of the First World War, "RCAF Sabre Pilots Association of the Air Division Squadrons". Due to age attrition Association membership has declined from its high of 729 members; however, it is still one of the most active veteran associations in Canada. If interested further visit SPAADS
So, that's the story of Canada's Sabre cold war fighter pilots, starting from the first, a review of the Cold War, then through the forming of 1 Air Division in Europe to the pilots themselves, their wartime role, how they trained for it and the results. This is intended to be a living story. If you have comments or if you wish to add to the story, the author would be pleased to hear from you via Wneilrussell3@aol.com.
Colonel Russell served as a Sabre pilot and later as tactical intelligence officer in 1 Air Division Headquarters from January 1959 until November 1963. He was on duty in the 1 Air Div Combat Operations Centre during both the second Berlin Crisis and Cuban Missile Crisis. Later he was posted to the Directorate of Air Intelligence, Air Force Headquarters, Ottawa where his work included monitoring the daily activity of the Soviet Long Range Aviation and Rocket Forces. That is why, in relation to the Cold War, he says, "I was there".