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Lieutenant-general William Keir Carr (Bill Carr), father of the modern Canadian Air Force.Courtesy of the Carr Family Collection

Young pilot Bill Carr earned a reputation for boldness during the Second World War flying his Spitfire on 142 daring reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. Lieutenant-General Carr, who died in Ottawa on Oct. 14 at the age of 97, burnished his reputation for boldness during the 1970s when he became the “father of the modern Canadian air force.”

In 1943 and 1944, Flying Officer Carr, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, flew a Spitfire Mk. XI, unarmed and unaccompanied, over Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia and the Balkans on flights that provided vital intelligence on enemy movements, bridges, highways and future bombing targets.

On one mission over Perugia, Italy anti-aircraft fire from the ground exploded in front, behind and on either side of his aircraft. According to Wayne Ralph in Aces, Warriors and Wingmen, further shrapnel bursts shredded the parachute he was sitting on, nicking him on the backside. Without a parachute, Flying Officer Carr was left to nurse his Spitfire on a long and nerve-racking flight back to base.

Near the end of his tour in 1944 over Munich, Germany, he was chased by a high-speed plane he did not recognize but that he later was convinced was a German ME 262 jet fighter. He believed he escaped only because it was an experimental aircraft that was not armed.

Pilot Officer, later Flying Officer and still later Flight Lieutenant Carr, although a member of the RCAF, flew with 683 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. He had been thrilled to be posted to Malta directly from a training squadron in Britain. As he said, “I was excited to be going where the real action was.” Later his squadron operated from San Severo, about halfway up the Italian boot.

Flight Lieutenant Carr called the light blue Spitfire Mk. XI “a real beauty” and “a dream to fly,” adding that a pilot didn’t so much sit in it as wear it because of the tight quarters. But everything was placed exactly where it was needed.

Carr's personality made him seem much larger than he really was.Courtesy of the Carr Family Collection

On reconnaissance versions of the Spitfire, fuel tanks replaced weapons and ammunition storage areas to gain speed. But the planes also often flew at high altitude, and Flight Lieutenant Carr at one point reached 49,000 feet, switching his oxygen tanks to “Emergency” to get enough air.

Flight Lieutenant Carr ended his operational tour and his wartime frontline service in September, 1944. Stunningly, he was still only 21. Shortly afterward, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his outstanding service, with the citation noting his “skill, enthusiasm and dogged determination.”

Flight Lieutenant Carr – always known as “Bill" – was, in person, a compact man. Lieutenant-General Fred Sutherland, who knew him well, described him as “not big in stature, but big in presence.” His sheer personality made him seem much larger than he really was. He was a devotee of the air force’s 5BX fitness plan even in his retirement years. He might have had a bit of spare time for fly fishing or banging out a Scott Joplin song on the piano now and again, but mostly things were about the air force.

William Keir Carr was not Canadian by birth. He was born in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, then a British dominion, on March 17, 1923. His family owned Samuel Harris Export Co., part of the Newfoundland fishery. His mother, Eleanor Carr (née Harris), was exceptional in being both a university graduate and a registered nurse, having trained at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Mr. Carr, one of six children, was a brilliant student, graduating from high school at 15 and Mount Allison University in New Brunswick at 18. After university he was accepted for pilot training in the RCAF. He completed that training in Ottawa on July 31, 1942 with his pilot’s Wings pinned on his tunic by First World War ace Billy Bishop.

Posted to Britain, he was assigned as a reconnaissance pilot to No. 9 Operational Training Unit in Aberdeen, Scotland. He flew a couple of flights over France to gain experience and was transferred to Malta. Then began the first of his 142 missions.

Carr was made a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.Courtesy of the Carr Family Collection

Flying reconnaissance aircraft, as he did, was risky because the pilot was completely alone. Poor navigation, marauding enemy fighters or bad fuel management could bring disaster. Flight Lieutenant Carr noted that only half the officers he trained with survived the war. He wrote, “Thirty of us are still alive, not because we did it better, but because that’s the way things are in war.”

At the end of the conflict, Flight Lieutenant Carr wanted to pursue a civilian career in aeronautical engineering. However, the University of Toronto would not accept his credits from Mount Allison, resulting in the decision to remain in the air force. He later called that “one of the best I ever made.”

In 1948 the proud Newfoundlander met Elaine Mulligan on a blind date and married her shortly after. They had three children, Virginia, Peter and David. Virginia (Carr) Baldwin told The Globe and Mail that her parents moved 29 times in the postwar years. She remembers that one of her father’s most frequent finger-wagging comments was, “Kids, do you realize how lucky you are to be Canadians?”

Squadron Leader then Group Captain Carr continued a rapid climb through the ranks. In those times he was able to fly most aircraft in the RCAF inventory, including the de Havilland Comet airliner, which the RCAF began operating in 1953. (In civilian service, however, the sleek Comet suffered devastating crashes and had to be grounded and modified.)

In 1958, Wing Commander Carr took command of 412 Squadron in Ottawa, still today the RCAF’s VIP squadron. His duties included piloting prime minister John Diefenbaker on a round-the-world trip and later piloting both the Queen and Princess Margaret on Canadian tours.

In 1960, he deployed to the Congo, commanding air units from a dozen countries in support of a peacekeeping operation.

Carr succeeded in having Canadian Forces Air Command created in 1975.Courtesy of the Carr Family Collection

As the 1970s approached, the Armed Forces were in the grip of the hugely controversial unification program. Unification left the army more or less in one piece in Mobile Command, the navy folded into Maritime Command but the air force mostly split up, almost destroyed as an institution. Individual service uniforms, symbols and ranks were abolished. Morale crashed to the ground.

By 1974, the Newfoundland native was promoted to lieutenant-general because of his outstanding leadership and organizational abilities. Indeed, his leadership is what most colleagues remember about him. Lt.-Gen. Sutherland described working for him as “the equivalent of getting a PhD in strategic leadership.” A former chief of the defence staff, General Paul Manson, described him as “smart as a whip, forceful and outspoken.”

Lt.-Gen. Carr was then appointed deputy chief of the Defence Staff, the third highest post in the Canadian Forces. He began a campaign to rebuild the scattered and shattered air elements into a single formation – a new air force. The campaign was supported by both chief of the defence staff Jacques Dextraze and defence minister James Richardson.

With deft behind-the-scenes moves, sure diplomacy and determination, Lt.-Gen. Carr finally succeeded in having Canadian Forces Air Command created in 1975. Gen. Dextraze then appointed the Newfoundland native to head it. The new headquarters was located in Winnipeg, not coincidentally Mr. Richardson’s home town.

For three years, Lt.-Gen. Carr set up the new organization and made it work. The campaign turned him into a hugely admired figure, an icon of the RCAF. For past and present members, he was “the father of the modern Canadian air force.”

Carr with prime minister John Diefenbaker, right, and Olive Diefenbaker, centre.Courtesy of the Carr Family Collection

Lt.-Gen. Carr later commented, “I had the opportunity at the right time to see that some of the damage done to our airpower during the heady days of the unification could be repaired.”

In 1978, he retired from the air force, but took up a position as executive vice-president of sales with Canadair and later Bombardier, promoting the Challenger jet.

Lt.-Gen. Carr received many honours in his career. In 1976, he was decorated as Commander of the Order of Military Merit (CMM). He was made a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University in St. John’s in 2016.

In the past two years, Mr. Carr had suffered a series of strokes and a broken hip. He was predeceased by his son David and his wife, Elaine. He leaves his daughter, Virginia; son Peter; and their families.

With files from Dave O’Malley