Born to Lead

By Dave O'Malley


In a world where “leadership” is commoditized and sold to us by life coaches, in professional development workshops and self-help books, one thing is clear — true leaders are born, not certified. Of course, certain aspects of leadership can be quantified and shared and even learned, but the true apex leader is one who leads by instinct and with love — for the work, the mission and the people. True leaders have no hidden agenda, no political debt to pay, or no ego requiring stroking. They live for one thing, and that is leading men and women as together they accomplished greatness. 

Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid.

In the late morning of Wednesday, September 20, 1944, a single, dirty blue reconnaissance Spitfire Mk XI touched down on the muddy Allied airfield at San Severo, Italy. Several days of passing weather fronts and intermittent rain had kept the choking dust down, but severely limited the number of ‘recce’ sorties that 683 Squadron, Royal Air Force could launch. The pilot brought the aircraft to a stop, raised the wing flaps and with the canopy open, turned back to the dispersal where his devoted ground crew was awaiting his return. Mud splashed up from the landing gear and the fighter's sides were painted with greasy exhaust stains, the result of hard running for more than three hours. His unescorted and unarmed mission had taken him from San Severo two hours after sunrise north-northeast and 550 kilometres across the Adriatic Sea and Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to Mohács, just over the Hungarian border where he had then turned southeast. He then followed the blue serpent of the Danube nearly 250 kilometres to Belgrade, all the while methodically photographing ports, air defences and airfields using his fuselage-mounted vertical cameras. The targets circled on the folded map he held on his lap included enemy installations at Mohács, Apatin, Borovo, Vukovar, Novi Sad, Alibunar and Belgrade Port. Desultory flak had hounded his high-altitude course down the river and east of Belgrade, he was relieved to turn southwest towards “home”, more than 580 kilometres away.

At the dispersal area, the Spitfire slowed to a stop and the pilot nodded to his crew as they scrambled underneath to chock the wheels and retrieve the battered grey film cartridges from the camera bays. With his oxygen mask dangling, his head remained down in the cockpit while he processed the engine shutdown. As he cut the fuel flow, the engine surged briefly then stopped entirely. In the silence that followed, his ears rang and the voices of the men seemed distant and muffled. The 12 blued exhaust stacks tinked and ticked as the metal began to cool. He unlatched and lowered the cockpit door against the fuselage and pulled his helmet off, smiling down from the cockpit, but his face was weary and creased, his hair matted and wet. He was exhausted from a feverish headache he had before he even took off, as well as the long, tense mission and more than a year of constant operational flying. His name was William Keir “Bill” Carr, a Newfoundlander in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and this was the last of his 142 operational sorties deep behind enemy lines. While he would never again fly over enemy territory, he would take home with him hard-won operational experience and a desire to lead men and women that would culminate in his future command of Canada's air force, universal respect and a place in the pantheon of Canada's greatest aviators—Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame. He was just 21 years old.

Stiff from hours in the cockpit, Flight Lieutenant Bill Carr eases himself out of his photo reconnaissance Spitfire after a photo sortie during the Italian campaign while his ground crew open the camera bays to retrieve his film.  Photo: Carr Family Collection 

A 20-year old Bill Carr smiles from the cockpit of his Spitfire in a revetment on the island of Malta. Though it was usually hot on Malta, Carr wore heavy clothing to combat the freezing temperatures encountered at the high altitudes where he usually operated (25,000-30,000 feet). Photo: Carr Family Collection 

Bill Carr (right) and a fellow Spitfire pilot pose for a photo at Malta in 1943.  Photo: Carr Family Collection 

King George VI (Left) chats with Bill Carr and an unidentified Group Captain during a visit to an airfield in Italy on July 26, 1944. Fifteen years later, Carr would fly the king's daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, on a visit to Canada. The day before the King's visit, Carr flew a two-hour recce flight over enemy territory in support of X and XII Corps movements.  Photo: Carr Family Collection 

Carr was born in 1923 in Newfoundland when it was an independent dominion of the British Commonwealth. From early childhood, he displayed extraordinary capacity to tackle any project and achieve outstanding results. He graduated from high school at the age of just 15, and three years later at 18 he graduated from Mount Allison University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Though his extraordinary intellect and resolute work ethic were native, Carr's combat experiences in the Second World War and in particular under the leadership of his wartime commander, Wing Commander Adrian Warburton, DSO and Bar, DFC and Two Bars, shaped and strengthened the central marker of his complex character—that of a leader in its purest manifestation.

While on Malta, Flying Officer Carr visited a photo studio so he could send his mother a picture of himself wearing his tan tropical uniform.    Photo: Carr Family Collection 

Portrait of his mentor. Wing Commander Adrian Warburton, DSO and bar, DFC and Two Bars, Bill Carr’s commanding officer at 683 Squadron. The son of a naval officer, Warburton was born in England, and christened on board a submarine in Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta. Below his decorations (DSO, DFC and 2 bars), on his left breast pocket, Warburton wears “The Order of the Winged Boot”, an unofficial award given to airmen who had been shot down and forced to return to their base on foot or by other means. Warburton became one of the most successful and best-known aerial-reconnaissance pilots of the Second World War while flying sorties from Malta and North Africa in 1941–1943. Photo via the Imperial War Museum

Bill Carr would survive the war but Adrian Warburton would not. He would later write that, of the nine squadron commanders under whom he served, only Warburton stood out as an exemplar of the ideal leader, describing him as courageous, sensitive, wise, loyal, demanding, charismatic, innovative, selfless and above all loved and respected by his men. Carr had all these attributes, but unlike the near-mythical Warburton, he would benefit from nearly a century to use them for good.

Carr would take to heart the many lessons his wartime commander and mentor taught and, posting after posting, blaze an incandescent trail up the command structure of the RCAF and leave an unparalleled legacy of innovation and respect that rightly earned him the sobriquet of “Father of the Modern Canadian Air Force.”

Mapping his New Country.

Upon his return to Canada, Carr was posted to a photo reconnaissance unit at RCAF Station Rockcliffe in Ottawa. There he learned to fly the float-equipped Noorduyn Norseman bush plane and spent the next three summers flying photo survey teams and their supplies throughout the remotest parts of northern Canada. Like combat reconnaissance flying, this work was technically challenging, requiring the same extreme navigation skills, but in an environment that was devoid of visual markers like rail lines, bridges and human habitation. As difficult as it was, it offered the perfect way to decompress from the months of combat flying and the loss of so many friends. Up there in the limitless Canadian wilderness, there was epic fishing, wide open skies for flying and breathtaking starry nights around the campfire for contemplating his future. 

During his summers in the far North, Carr ferried photo survey crews and even did a little survey work himself. Carr loved to camp, fish and paddle his entire life, so his summers flying and navigating in the North held some of his favourite memories. Photo: Carr Family Collection 

Bill Carr’s Norseman 2496 is seen tied to the shore on an unnamed lake in Canada's far north. Carr can be seen squatting on one of the floats.  Photo: Bill McRae Collection

While Carr ascended to the very top of the Royal Canadian Air Force, his power came from his early experiences as a Second World War fighter pilot and northern bush pilot. He was, at his heart, a rugged, no-nonsense air force man, just as happy out in the bush where baths were few and far between as he was in the boardrooms of Air Command.  In this photo taken during one of his summers in the North he looks straight out of Central Casting for a rugged bush pilot. Photo: Carr Family Collection 

On August 15, 1945 he was camped with a survey crew on a remote and unnamed lake some 250 kilometres west of Rankin Inlet when he tuned in the BBC World Service on the shortwave radio in his Norseman. Instead of the expected reserved tones of the news readers, he was met with a jubilant and excited voice announcing the dropping of atomic bombs and the unconditional surrender of Japan. From this remotest of places on earth, far from the horrors he had witnessed, Carr's Second World War chapter was finally closed. From that day forward, the lake where they were camped was called Victory Lake. (See Victory Lake, Nunavut)

In the extreme stress environments surrounding combat operations and seat-of-the-pants bush flying where mistakes could be fatal, the young lad from Newfoundland learned to trust his own exceptional abilities and those of his colleagues as well as the capabilities and limitations of his aircraft. Above all, he learned to think for himself.

After 1947, Carr continued in recce and aerial photo work until the summer of 1949, flying not only the Norseman, but the legendary B-25 Mitchell and Avro Lancaster with 413 Squadron at Rockcliffe on operations throughout the Canadian Arctic. Around the same time, he would meet and then marry Elaine Mulligan of Ottawa who would be there at his side for the next 60 years, supporting him and raising their three children Virginia, David and Peter. 

Following this, Carr began a period of professional development which included a two-year science program at Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology, a posting to Central Experimental and Proving Establishment in June of 1949 where he oversaw the Photographic Research and Development Section while continuing to fly the Mitchell and Lancaster. From 1951 to '53 he was an Operations Staff Officer at Transport Command HQ and then was posted to RCAF Staff College in Toronto where he was groomed for senior leadership positions. Throughout his Transport Command and Staff College postings, he actively maintained his flying status and continued building hours on North Stars, Dakotas, Beech C-45s, Harvards and T-33 jet trainers.

Taking Command

In 1958, Carr, by then a Wing Commander, took command of 412 Squadron at Ottawa's RCAF Station Uplands. Formerly a Spitfire fighter squadron, 412 was (and still is) the RCAF's VIP transport squadron, responsible for flying politicians, government officials, air force brass and personnel as well as VIP visitors. After a decade of staff and development postings, Carr was happy to be in the pilot's seat again, especially flying the de Havilland Comet jet airliner on transatlantic service. In a career of extraordinary accomplishments, his command of this squadron was a particularly bright highlight and a time when his preternatural gift for leading men and women truly came to the fore. 

In the tradition of his former commander Adrian Warburton, Carr was devoted to the people he led and in return he received loyalty, the highest levels of performance, deep respect and the kind of love that man and women give to those they trust with their lives. He often identified and mentored outstanding officers and encouraged talent when he saw it. 

One of his young pilots, Flying Officer Bob Fassold, was one of those who benefited from Carr's advice and encouragement throughout his career. Fassold, who retired as a Major General and Surgeon General of the Canadian Armed Forces had this to say about Carr:

“He had very high and inspiring expectations and performance standards for all aircrew and squadron members. Consequently, we achieved such high levels on our own, that we not only took great pride in ourselves, but also in our 412 squadron mates, and especially our CO. Carr seems then and still today to somehow quietly radiate competency and authority … and a high regard for the importance of everyone to the unit objectives. He never went around ‘commanding’… he just ‘did’… and clearly expected the same of you. Throughout his career, day in and day out, and to this day, he has set a glowing personal example of leadership in how to get things done right… sometimes even having to resort to unorthodox methods. In so doing he has contributed to the successes and enjoyment of life for so many.”

Even in his late 80s, Fassold would call him for advice and continued to address him as “Sir” nearly 55 years after they served together.

There are no written words that adequately capture the leader that Bill Carr was. The phenomenon of his authority was something that had to be experienced to be fully understood. Much of his power was founded on emotion — love for the work, respect for his people and joyful pride in accomplishment. The work required to reach the goals he set was shared by everyone including himself. He was hands-on without micromanaging and he took the same joy from his squadron's accomplishments as did his people. It was the purest form of what is known as the “squadron spirit” — a powerful bond that is viscerally missed long after most servicemen and servicewomen have retired.

During his time with 412 Squadron, Bill Carr flew many dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth, General Charles de Gaulle and Princess Margaret, but the crowning achievement of his command was personally flying Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on his 1958 around-the-world tour. Over a period of 49 days, Carr and his crew completed 32 flights in the Canadair C-5 VIP transport starting with New York and then flying east, through Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and across the Pacific Ocean. One can only imagine the state of Diefenbaker's hearing after nearly 84 hours in that noisy airliner.

Wing Commander Bill Carr, commander of 412 Squadron, with Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker and Mrs. Olive Diefenbaker. Carr flew the couple and their entourage around the world in 49 days in 1958, visiting European and Commonwealth countries around the globePhoto: Carr Family Collection 

Bill Carr leans from the window ofthe unique 412 Squadron Canadair C-5 VIP transport and places the Queen's standard in the pennant stand during the Queen's visit in 1959. The flag flying from the aircraft on the ground indicated that the Queen was aboard.  Photo: Carr Family Collection 

After 412 Squadron, Carr was selected to lead the air elements of United Nations peacekeepers during the Congo Crisis in 1960, the first time multiple international air forces flew under the banner of the UN. He successfully integrated the personnel and equipment of the 15 participant nations into an effective flying service that brought supplies, personnel, and security to the region.

Carr's military career would follow a breathtaking climbing track over the next 18 years and his outstanding accomplishments are almost too numerous to list for this tribute. One thing is certain, Bill Carr was first and foremost a pilot. Throughout his career, he made sure to keep his hand on the throttle as much as his duties allowed time for. Upon retirement in 1978, he had more than 16,000 hours and dozens of aircraft types recorded in his log books — a near impossible total for an air force pilot.

After getting back from the Congo, Carr, along with his family, was posted to RCAF Station Namao, Alberta (CFB Edmonton) as Base Commander. There he continued to fly aircraft with base squadrons — C-130 Hercules and C-119 Flying Boxcars with 435 Squadron. During his time at Namao he would develop connections with the United States Air Force's Strategic Air Command which used the base for their air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

From this point on, Carr's military command career was a series of giant leaps upward. After attending National Defence College in 1964, he was made an Air Commodore (the equivalent of a Brigadier General today) Carr and family moved to St, Hubert, Quebec where he was Director of Planning, tasked with organizing the new Mobile Command Headquarters. 

At the beginning of 1968, Carr's ability to navigate highly complex and emotionally charged sea changes came into sharp focus. That year, Canada's ground, sea and air forces were amalgamated and reorganized into a single entity and command structure. Called “unification,” this paradigm shift was in fact highly divisive, especially among those veteran leaders and service people who had come through the Second World War and who had written much of their service's glorious history.  Particularly sensitive was the loss of individual service uniforms, symbols and rank nomenclature. Carr's combat reputation, innate authority and ability to listen to stakeholders transformed him into a leader with the ability to pull consensus from discord and to soothe fractiousness with logic and purpose. 

During this difficult period, Bill Carr was made Director of Forces Objectives and then later was promoted Major-General (a year previously, this would have been Air Vice-Marshal) and given command of Training Command. This meant that the family once again picked up roots and moved to Winnipeg. Under his command, the training syllabi of former army, air force and navy air programs were amalgamated and streamlined. Such was the strength and common sense of his leadership that today, a half century later, the helicopter pilots and crews who support army and naval operations wear the wings of the air force.

By 1971, his brilliant star had risen high in the sky for all to see. That year, the Carrs moved to Colorado Springs where Bill took over as NORAD's Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations working once again with leaders of the United States Air Force. Two years later, the Carrs were back in Ottawa with Bill taking on the mantle of Chief of Air Operations for the Canadian Forces. Shortly after, he was promoted to the second highest military rank in Canada—Lieutenant-General—and made Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff.

Father of the Modern Canadian Air Force

A year later, Bill and Elaine moved the kids back to Winnipeg. Here Bill was charged with the fusing together of the disparate air-elements of Canada's military forces into one cohesive command structure that oversaw the training and operation of air and support crew for all of Canada. It was Bill's work in leading the creation of Air Command that earned him the bestowed title of “The Father of the Modern Canadian Air Force.” Indeed, Carr's work was to no small extent responsible for reestablishing air force control, direction and stability following unification. Much of the present-day RCAF's international reputation for professionalism and excellence comes from the structure Bill established half a century ago.

A very telling photo of Major-General Bill Carr sharing a beer with a corporal in an all-ranks mess. One gets the feeling that Carr is truly listening to the corporal and offering undivided attention — a hallmark of his leadership over the yearsPhoto: Carr Family Collection 

Now a Lieutenant-General (three stars on the helmet), Carr poses in front of a T-33 Silver Star jet. Carr maintained currency as a pilot throughout his career, amassing more than 16,000 hours in dozens of aircraft types.  Photo: Carr Family Collection 

Now, at the very top of the command structure of the air force, Bill Carr finally bid his air force goodbye, retiring in 1978—just in time for the first flight of the Canadair Challenger 600 series business jet. Like many military leaders, Bill Carr's network, reputation and leadership skills was much sought after by companies supplying equipment and services to Canada's armed forces. Following retirement from 37 years service to Her Majesty's Canadian Forces, Carr went to work as Vice President of International Marketing for Canadair (later Bombardier Aerospace). It was a smart move for Canadair at a time when pre-sales of the Challenger 601 were stalling. Carr's ability to speak to the truth combined with his international military standing secured for the company the sale of seven aircraft to the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and thereby securing the future of the program and Canadair/Bombardier's growth over the years.

A Leader and Mentor to the End

After his full retirement in 1988, Carr continued to influence and comment from the sidelines. For decades after his retirement, air force commanders always knew that LGen William Keir Carr was monitoring their incumbency carefully. Despite the loss of his wife Elaine in 2008, Carr remained an active leader, mentor, and influencer in RCAF and RCAF Association circles.

In 2013, Bill Carr was honoured at Vintage Wings of Canada with a banner raised to the rafters alongside those of other RCAF heroes like Stocky Edwards, Chris Hadfield, Bill McRae, and Max Ward.  Photo: Peter Handley

As the 21st century began, Carr took up the cause of the long-ignored Canadian airmen of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command who had no special decoration to indicate to the nation their unequalled sacrifices of the Second World War. While those who fought in the Battle of Britain, at Dieppe or at the Battle of Hong Kong were recognized, there was nothing for the Canadians of Bomber Command, whose members died from day one of the war to the end and at a rate far higher than any Allied service of the war. A shocking 44.5% of Bomber Command aircrew died on operations including approximately 10,000 Canadians. These men undertook a complex task with appallingly mortal risk, with steadfast determination despite well-understood consequences and with profound strategic consequences for the war effort. Yet, they were not only not recognized for this accomplishment, they were sidelined by senior politicians and maligned by the media for a job they were recruited and trained for and commanded to do. 

Bill Carr recognized this injustice and worked in his late 80s to right the wrong and bring honour to those men he felt had been slighted. In 2012, Carr and other members of a committee secured a special decoration — the Bomber Command Bar (or Clasp) — to be worn on an airman's Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and indicate to the world that person's courage and sacrifice. It is a testament to Carr's view of the military world that all Canadian members of Bomber Command, whether aircrew or ground crew, are eligible to receive this award whereas the Royal Air Force only awards air crew.

Leaders of the calibre of Bill Carr are often forged in fire. There is a saying that “at the hour of greatest slaughter, the great avenger is being born.” It is a beautiful, if somewhat poetic expression, which simply means that out of times of stress and intensity the great leaders arise. Bill Carr entered the leadership stage during the Second World War, a time when the free world and those who risked their lives for it yearned for leaders to help defeat an immoral enemy and to guide them safely to victory and home.   

Bill Carr died Wednesday, October 14, 2020 in Ottawa at the age of 97. His direct hand on the shoulder of leadership has ended, but his legacy lives on in the quality of the women and men who lead the modern Royal Canadian Air Force. 

Now, at the end of his life, a divided world in crisis once again longs for true leaders — men and women who put partisanship aside, who inspire others to achieve excellence, who lead by example and who shine light on the truths that we all share. Leadership is a pay-it-forward sort of business. Adrian Warburton showed Carr the path to greatness and he travelled down it. Throughout his lifetime, Bill led by doing, not commanding, and laid out a fertile ground where other natural leaders could be discovered, nurtured and given responsibility. His example is in no small way why Canada's armed forces continue today under strong, experienced, innovative and thoughtful leadership. 


Dave O'Malley








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