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The Globe and Mail

Duchess will visit Alberta site where her grandfather trained pilots

Les Grieg, Vancouver businessman, served in the RCAF. While stationed at an air base in Calgary he worked with Peter Middleton, he tells of their times together and shows photos of the aircraft he flew and a party at the base in Calgary.

Laura Leyshon/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

A tiny, normally quiet aerospace museum in Calgary is in a frenzy of preparation for what it hopes will be a royal visit of a personal nature.

When Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge touches down in Calgary for the first time, she'll be in the shadow of her grandfather's Second World War service seven decades after he mentored young pilots in one of Canada's critical contributions to the war effort.

And a group responsible for preserving that type of historic aircraft hopes she'll be able to experience her grandfather's flight firsthand: They've offered to take her up in the kind of Harvard craft Peter Middleton would have flown, over the same stretch of land in Airdrie, Alta.

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Mr. Middleton was barely 22 years old when he arrived in Canada for the first time, an ocean and a continent away from home. The commanding officer was in charge of a team training Royal Air Force pilots, who were among more than 210,000 air personnel educated in Canada as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan - a vital, multicountry undertaking that helped the Allies fight the war in the skies.

Les Greig was with him.

"Of all the instructors there, I can still remember him. He was a flight commander. He was one of us," Mr. Greig said. "The only thing we were interested in was our flying. That was our life."

The instructors were tight-knit, young and completely green, Mr. Greig recalls.

"They couldn't train pilots in England because the Jerrys were flying - they'd shoot you out on sight." So they'd board ships to train abroad, with no idea where they were headed.

At the time, he said, Calgary was a "nice, clean town" of about 100,000 people; the bitterly cold winters and unfamiliar grid system a jarring departure from foggy, labyrinthine England. The officers split their flying time between the Calgary base at the No. 37 Service Flying School and an airstrip in Airdrie.

Every other weekend, when they got Friday afternoons off, the team would drive down to Calgary and take over the second floor of the swanky Palliser Hotel - now a Fairmont, where William and Kate are rumoured to be bunking during their time in Calgary.

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"We called it the Paralyzer," Mr. Greig said. "It was our home for the weekend, and the joke was we were getting paralyzed: We took our beer down there and every room on the second floor was air force. Every room was a party room."

When the base closed and the officers went back to Britain, Mr. Middleton trained on Mosquito fighter-bombers, tasked with nudging German doodlebugs away from London targets. He got his first brush with royalty well before his granddaughter, serving as First Officer to the Duke of Edinburgh in 1962. He died late last year, just after his 90th birthday.

The site where Mr. Middleton and Mr. Greig lived is now Calgary's Aero Space Museum. Heritage Minister James Moore, who's been tasked with playing host to the royal couple, told Calgary reporters last month that he's "sure it will be highlighted as [Kate Middleton]makes her visit."

That means intense preparation for the site's two huge hangars and the historic aircraft they house, said the museum's liaison, Brenda Blair. In addition to the cosmetic prep of replacing flags and perfecting landscaping, they've sent a summer intern to comb through archives in search of any evidence of Mr. Middleton's time spent at the base.

"Our main focus is to have actual, documented, real proof that he was here," Ms. Blair said.

Mr. Greig could help with that: He says he has photos of Mr. Middleton and the other officers at a graduation dinner for a group of trainee pilots. But he plans to give Kate first dibs before publishing them.

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In the meantime, the Vintage Wings of Canada, a group dedicated to preserving old-school aviation, hopes to get the couple up in the air in a Harvard aircraft. They're scheduled to be in Red Deer as part of a cross-Canada tour commemorating the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and have offered to pop down to Airdrie and take William and Kate for a spin.

Lesley Neaves, whose parents are part owners of the airport where Mr. Middleton would have flown, said they're prepared to shut the airstrip down for a private tour once they get the go-ahead. "We thought, 'Wouldn't that be fantastic if we could organize for them to be in the Airdrie air park and offer to give them rides, just to feel how it would have been?'"

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