In Billy Bishop’s backyard, another storied Canadian fighter pilot has begun to settle into retirement.
Billie Flynn is 62 years old and still looks like he could hop on the bike for a couple of hours each day and manage to chop a cord of firewood after. That’s exactly what he was doing Tuesday before reflecting on a 40-year-career that included routinely pushing the limits of modern technology and the human experience as a test pilot.
“I chased a very big dream, and I lived that dream for a very long time,” Flynn said.
Perhaps it’s fitting that after a career of “pushing right to the edge of that cliff” he’s now surrounded by them living in the Beaver Valley near Flesherton.
Flynn grew up as a self-described “air-force brat”. His parents were both in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and met in Germany at the RCAF Station Baden-Soellingen.
“On Sundays, after church, my father would take my brother and I into the hangar and I would sit in the cockpit of fighter jets,” Flynn said.
Flynn joined the RCAF himself after graduating from the Royal Military College of Canada. He was one of the first pilots to fly Canada’s new CF-18s in the early ’80s. At the time the plane ushered in a new era for the RCAF – a 4th-Generation aircraft equipped with two 64K computers.
“You can’t even think of a computer that operates that slowly now, and we considered it super sophisticated in the day. We called it a video game, but that’s like playing Pong or, at best, Space Invaders,” Flynn said.
Yet the plane did things in the air and reached speeds that the older generation of pilots never would have imagined, he said.
He also experienced his first brush with death while he was a young pilot.
In 1983 during a training run, the plane Flynn was in crashed into a snowbank. Flynn “miraculously” walked away unharmed, but the instructor seated in front was maimed for life, Flynn said.
“It was a terrifying couple of minutes. It taught me some critical life lessons like how to trust your instincts and how your training will help you in emergencies, and most importantly, how to have the courage to get back in the saddle, to get back up on the horse, and not let our fears dominate our lives,” he said.
Most of Flynn’s 23-year military career took place during peacetime. In 1997 he was assigned the Commanding Officer of 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cold Lake, Alta. As tensions grew in Kosovo, it quickly became apparent that Flynn and his squadron would be flying combat missions with little to no real-world fighting experience to that point.
In 1999 he was the commanding officer of the Canadian Task Force in Aviano, Italy, and on the brink of what would become known throughout the world as Operation Allied Force in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
“We prepared ourselves for a future that was not planned for us. We had to be prepared for a future where combat was possible without any idea of what combat would look like,” he said.
He flew 25 combat missions and his unit received Battle Honours from Queen Elizabeth II, the first such distinction for a Canadian fighting unit since the Second World War.
“There is nothing in your life that you will ever do that will prepare yourself for actually going into combat,” he said. “To actually walk out to an aircraft and go fly a mission when you know you’re going to be shot at, and you know that your enemy wants desperately to achieve some success in trying to shoot you down, that takes a character and nerve that you can never develop or imagine in a peace-time world. It changes you for the rest of your life.”
Following that experience, Flynn took a path rarely travelled by Canadian pilots. He became a test pilot for the European Aerospace and Defence Company based in Munich. He tested the Eurofighter Typhoon and Tornado fighters.
In 2003, Flynn joined Lockheed Martin as a test pilot where he would go on to demo the F-16 Super Viper and later the F-35. All the high-powered simulations and the predictive computing power at the disposal of the manufacturers and engineers couldn’t replace what Flynn’s job was – to find the limit.
“It still takes a human to get into that airplane and push it to its boundaries, because we don’t truly know where the limits are. So, you have to go find out for yourself,” he said. “You have to believe in your instincts. Your sixth sense. That’s the intangible that will keep you from going just a little too far, just a little too fast. That’s the intangible that will keep you from running off the cliff.”
By the end of his flying career, Flynn had traded in the Pong-like computers in the ’80s-era CF-18s for the immersive “spaceship-like” supercomputer experience inside the 5th-Generation F-35.
He said his helmet is like Iron Man’s with a heads-up display right on the visor. A large touchscreen computer in the cockpit gave him a full scope of everything in the air, on land, and over the water at all times.
“Now a pilot isn’t just flying an airplane and dogfighting like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, but you’re flying a spaceship,” he said. “It’s more sophisticated and complex of an experience for a human than any virtual reality or any video game one can imagine, and that’s just day-to-day operation.”
He was in the thick of it all still when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Based in Texas with family back in Canada, Flynn wanted to be closer to home during a tough time.
“There was no hope to get our family back to normal with the state of COVID-19, and I couldn’t manage that separation any longer,” he said. “Could I have kept flying? Absolutely.”
When he was younger Flynn said he read the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, and that it pointed him in the direction of becoming a test pilot. Wolfe once said he was inspired to write the book to find out why the astronauts accepted the danger of space flight.
“There is no notion of being a daredevil or thrill seeker in anything that a test pilot does. Every test pilot knows the very long history of fatal accidents and every test pilot knows that when they go fly and push the flight boundaries of an airplane that there’s a very real chance that something catastrophic could happen,” Flynn said. “I dreamed of what the men in the books that I read were doing. I dreamed of doing that, and over the years chasing those dreams and working hard, being fortunate – with that incredible balance of fate, luck, and choice – it allowed me to open paths to become a test pilot and fly the airplanes that I got to fly.”