Photo: Peter Handley
Ask just about anyone born before 1980, who was the first person in the world to break the sound barrier and you will be answered quickly with “Chuck Yeager!” In fact, Chuck Yeager has been immortalized best through Hollywood in films like ‘The Right Stuff’ and, for that reason, is such a well-known name across the globe.
Yet, ask any Canadian who was the first to accomplish that same great feat in Canada and few would be able to answer correctly, let alone at all; most certainly not among young adults and later generations.
The name “Al Lilly” is not so commonly spoken in the same worldly context as other legendary aviation greats of this past century such as J.A.D McCurdy, Amelia Earhart, the Wright Brothers, or Billy Bishop. Nevertheless, he was indeed one of this nation’s most distinguished test pilots and a remarkable one at that. Alexander ‘Al’ Lilly was Canada’s first pilot to break the sound barrier. It happened at RCAF Station Dorval in August 1950 in a Canadair Sabre 1 prototype, the first off the manufacturer’s assembly line. Al Lilly was, at the time, the Chief Test Pilot of Canadair, responsible for flight testing over 100 different models of aircraft during an era when Canada was a world leader in cutting-edge aviation technology.
While these great accomplishments have certainly been recorded and are buried deep in the history pages, Canada was not so forthright in dramatizing its aviation super-elite. It just wasn’t the Canadian way, and Al Lilly didn’t live such a life of self-importance. Friends and family would state he humbly went about his flying career as just another day at the office. It wasn’t until his picture appeared in newsprint of his astonishing feat that his two young daughters, Joan and Pat, began to understand how skilled their father truly was as an aviator. Later however, media would confuse Al’s accomplishment with that of Janusz Zurakowski, a Polish native who moved to Canada in 1952 to join Avro Aircraft Limited in Toronto as chief development pilot. That year, Zurakowski flew supersonic in the Avro Canada CF-100 fighter, the first straight-winged jet aircraft to achieve this feat. At the time of his passing in 1989, the press hailed Zurakowski as Canada’s first pilot to break the sound barrier – a factual oversight that has since been retracted.
This year, the year that Al Lilly would be 100, his name gained the honourable distinction that it deserves. On 26 May, in a special dedication ceremony at Ottawa’s Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, Vintage Wings of Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police joined forces to pay special tribute to the late Al Lilly by dedicating his name to the Vintage wings of Canada Sabre 5, known as Hawk One.
Chris Hadfield, Canadian Space Agency Astronaut and pilot of Hawk One, was joined by RCMP Superintendant Greg Peters, Director, Strategic Partnerships Heritage Branch, to present the dedication for members of Al Lilly’s family at a private reception at the RCMP Hangar.
Family, members of the RCMP and Vintage Wings of Canada assembled at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police hangar facility at the Ottawa Airport to honour Al Lilly and dedicate the Discovery Air Hawk One Sabre in his name for the 2010 flying season. Photo: Peter Handley
The VIPs - Author Mary Lee (left ) and Chris Hadfield listen during the dedication ceremonies. Photo: Peter Handley
Superintendent Greg Peters, Director, Strategic Partnerships and Heritage Branch talks about the contributions made to the RCMP flying service by Al Lilly while flanked by a veteran pilot of today's service, Sergeant Major Raymond Huet. Photo: Peter Handley
At the dedication ceremony, Chris Hadfield, Hawk One pilot, Vintage Wings of Canada board member and Canadian astronaut gives an impassioned speech about “Al” to Lilly’s family and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Flanking him to his right is the nose of Hawk One and to his left is veteran RCMP pilot Sergeant Major Raymond Huet. Photo: Peter Handley
Despite the 30 C heat, the assembled dignitaries remained relaxed and cool in the shade of the RCMP hangar. Photo: Peter Handley
Many dignitaries were on hand to pay tribute to the life and accomplishments of Al Lilly. Left to right: RCMP Corporal Craig Kennedy; Assistant Commissioner Bernard F. Corrigan, Commanding Officer, National Headquarters; Michael Potter, founder of Vintage Wings of Canada; Patricia Hassel, daughter of Al Lilly; Chris Hadfield, astronaut and Hawk One pilot; Rob Fleck, COO of Vintage Wings of Canada; Superintendent Greg Peters, Director, Strategic Partnerships and Heritage Branch; RCMP pilot Sergeant Major Raymond Huet. Photo: Peter Handley
So who really was Al Lilly and what is his story?
Al Lilly’s distinguished career in aviation began while serving with the RCMP, flying bush planes; and later with the RCAF as Chief Flight Instructor for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) preparing young pilots for the Second World War. But before aviation there was another important facet in Al Lilly’s life that led to great contributions in Canada, making his story all the more worthwhile to tell and to commemorate.
Born Alexander John in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, he was a son to Harold Lilly, owner of an automotive and farm equipment dealership that specialized in Ford automobiles. Through his dad’s business, Al came in contact with the RCMP who used the dealership to service their vehicles. It must have been an indelible impression, for Al eventually enlisted in 1932.
It was with the RCMP that Lilly’s early affection for aviation, first ignited as a boy when he had encountered ace pilots of the First World War, could finally be realized as a career path rather than just a passion or a hobby. It wasn’t until 1937 that Lilly requested permission to take flying lessons and petitioned to join the Aviation Section the following year. He was a strong advocate for advancing aviation in policing having seen first hand the limitations of dog-sled teams and the canoe and recognized that planes could better serve the North.
Although flying during his brief career with the RCMP was the catalyst to greater accomplishments in aviation, Al Lilly’s tenure was best acclaimed for encouraging canine services in policing. As the story goes, Al’s dog, Prince, joined him on a search for a missing trapper and, in the course of the rescue effort, Prince was able to find shelter from the encroaching poor weather for both Al and the found trapper. Al instinctively knew there was value in K-9 skills and shared this insight with the RCMP. By 1935, the police dog-handling services were officially formed and Al was one of the first to be assigned his own dog, a German shepherd named Black Lux. The two formed a fond friendship. It certainly must have been a trustworthy one as Al often brought Black Lux along with him during flying lessons and in the back-seat of his car while courting Genevieve, who later became his wife of close to 70 years.
A young Alexander Lilly and his beloved companion and partner in crime prevention Black Lux. As Cam McNeil says... Lilly was the ONLY RCMP Dog Master in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. Photo: from The Quarterly, via Cam McNeil
So how does one leave his partner, a loyal canine and man’s best friend, to go on to other things? It seems apparent that when your dreams to fly are as strong as Al’s, leaving the RCMP behind for Great Britain was the only course of action. And so, Lilly purchased his discharge in July 1939 and set forth to fly with Imperial Airways.
The jump to Imperial Airways proved to be that crucial stepping stone to a long and varied four-decade-long career in aviation. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the RCAF drafted Al Lilly as a Squadron Leader bringing him back to Moncton, New Brunswick, home of the active Moncton Flying Club, where he taught new pilots under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. He would go on to fly throughout the war period including, in 1940, with Atlantic Ferry Organization (ATFERO) out of Montreal, transporting equipment and planes across the Atlantic. It was in this role that he received a commendation from the King of England for delivering the first six Hudson twin-engine bombers to Britain. By the end of the war, Al had been appointed as Chief Test Pilot by the Atlantic Ferry Organization which became RAF Ferry Command in 1941.
Following the war, Al Lilly joined Canadair and was instrumental in positioning the aircraft manufacturer as one of the largest producers of aircraft in the world - a distinction that gave Canada much notoriety during the Cold War era. There, he would command the initial flights of a wide variety if aircraft from the 4-engined North Star aircraft airliner to the various models of Sabre (F-86).
During his 30 years with Canadair, he rose to the position of Vice President before retiring in 1970. Sadly, he passed away 21 November 2008 at the age of 98 just months before witnessing the Hawk One Sabre take to the skies as the cornerstone of the 2009 Centennial of Flight celebrations.
Al Lilly at the age of 97 - at a memorial to veterans in his home of Dieppe, New Brunswick. Lilly's induction notes at Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame read:
The application of his superior skills in Test Flying, leading to vital improvements in many aircraft during war and peace, have been of outstanding benefit to Canadian aviation."
Alexander Lilly had an unblemished career of 35 years as an instructor, test pilot, transport pilot, and aviation executive. In 1932 he joined the RCMP and while on detachment at Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan he advocated the use of ski or float equipped aircraft to replace dog-teams and canoes. The RCMP later transferred Lilly to headquarters in Ottawa but since this would remove him from flying opportunities, he resigned and went to England to join Imperial Airways, the predecessor of British Overseas Airways Corporation. When WWII broke out, he returned to Canada and became Chief Flying Instructor with the BCATP and eventually joined Ferry Command in Montreal. In this position he flew several types aircraft including the Hudson, Ventura, Boston, B-25, C-47 Dakota, B-24 Liberator, Catalina, Boeing B-17, Lancaster, and Mosquito. On August 8, 1950, Lilly flew the first Canadian manufactured F-86 Sabre jet, and gained the distinction of being the first in Canada to break the sound barrier. Photo: Art Cuthbertson, Dieppe Military Veterans' Association
A father, a friend, an uncle, a great uncle and a great grandfather, Al was many things to many people. But, being a modest man, Al rarely talked about his supersonic experience, the war years, or saving up all his hard-earned money during the Depression for flying lessons. “He had a quiet confidence,” explains Lee Parsons, nephew and also an avid aviator. As explained by his daughter Pat Hassel who travelled from California to take part in the dedication, only when pried did Al Lilly share tales regarding his career or did friends and family learn just how proud and enthusiastic he was about flying and about Canada’s aviation leadership.
In reality, Al Lilly is among the pantheon of this nation’s aviation leaders. He has been inducted by the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame and as a member of the Order of Canada. Fellow Hall of Fame inductee, Chris Hadfield surmised in a poignant speech on Al Lilly’s aviation career that these accolades are but two dimensions that mark superiority and distinction for Canadians. The third dimension is the living, functioning tribute, and in aviation that lies in the foundation known as Vintage Wings of Canada. It is our mission to celebrate Canada’s aviation heritage and inspire Canadians with powerful stories of the heroes, aircraft and events that make up this great legacy. Commemorating, educating and inspiring Canadians about its aviation heroes like Al Lilly will perhaps awaken a spirit long forgotten in the classrooms and found only in the footnotes of unused history books.
“Al realized how wings could take Canadians far and wide in the accomplishment of many feats,” said Chris Hadfield, “Al Lilly laid the foundation for many more great accomplishments with flight. I’ll be touching Al’s name as I climb into the cockpit of Hawk One.”
The moment of dedication. Chris Hadfield and Patricia Hassel, Lilly's daughter, with their hands just touching the name of Al Lilly emblazoned on the fuselage of Hawk One. Photo: Peter Handley
Love a pilot in uniform? How about the Red Serge, the greatest, no sexiest, uniform on the planet and the sky blue of a Hawk One pilot? Hadfield and Huet chat at the side of Hawk One. Photo: Peter Handley
Two of Al lilly's Great Grand Nieces were on hand for the dedication. Regan Lilly (Inset) gets fitted for her Hawk one helmet while Jorja Lilly plays with her toy airplane. Photo: Peter Handley