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Many of us have been inspired to chase a dream at a young age. For George Kirbyson, born October 1946 in Mayerthorpe, Alta., his dream began with a movie about legendary British fighter ace, Sir Douglas Bader.
As with many Canadian pilot stories, this one starts with the Air Cadets in Whitecourt, Alta., where Kirbyson earned his pilot’s licence through the flying scholarship program, logging his first hours on the Fleet 80 Canuck, a popular Canadian-made taildragger.
After high school, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). With 70 flight hours to his credit, Kirbyson bypassed the de Havilland Chipmunk trainer and strapped into the then-modern Canadair CT-114 Tutor jet trainer, a far cry from the little Fleet 80 he’d been flying in Edmonton. He earned his RCAF wings on the CT-133 Silver Star and after a few months at the School of Instructional Technique, became a CT-133 instructor at the age of 19.
He was later posted to Cold Lake, Alta., to fly the CF-104 Starfighter, which required transitional training on the iconic CF-86 Sabre in Chatham, N.B.
In 1969, Kirbyson went to Lahr, Germany with 441 Silver Fox Squadron, flying reconnaissance (training) missions between Southern France and Northern Denmark.
“Flying reconnaissance in the CF-104 was great,” he told Skies. “Sometimes you’d go from the surface to 60,000 feet and not talk to anybody, and you always flew when the weather was good.”
In the summer of 1970, 441 Squadron joined 439 Squadron at 4 Wing in Baden-Soellingen, Germany. Kirbyson’s final year with the RCAF was served back in Cold Lake as a CF-104 instructor.
Then 27 years old and living in the Vancouver area, Kirbyson joined Canadian Pacific Air Lines (CP Air) as a DC-8 second officer in 1973. His impressive airline career spanned 33 years on six different aircraft, including the Airbus A319, A320 and A321, and the Boeing 737 and 767.
Maintaining senior first officer status was crucial because it allowed Kirbyson time for the flying he loved most of all — in a Pitts Special S2-B as a member of the Canadian formation aerobatic team, the Ray-Ban Gold, which he joined as a show pilot in 1983.
Unfortunately, less than a year later he experienced a serious cockpit fire as a result of a fuel leak while departing Langley Regional Airport in formation with teammate Rod Ellis. He was forced to land in a nearby farmer’s field.
Kirbyson suffered third-degree burns on his face, arms, hands and legs. His ears were protected by his headset and, likewise, the palms of his hands from gripping the controls. He spent 33 days in hospital recovering with multiple skin grafts. Doctors told him he might never fly again.
They were wrong. Just three months later, Kirbyson set off to pick up a new plane. Another month to ready the plane in Langley and by 1984 he was flying a show with the Ray-Ban Gold in Cleveland, Ohio!
Kirbyson has amassed over 2,000 hours on the Pitts, 1,500 of those on the one he bought in 1984. Though the team disbanded in 1990, he still flies his plane in its original paint, the only one of the four still flying in those colours.
“The time flying in transit with the team was probably the most memorable,” said Kirbyson. “We got to see so much of North America from a perspective not many get to see it from. I took my son Jordan to a lot of shows. I think it gave him a chance to learn a bit about life in the Air Force and get a lot of exposure to aviation.”
It made a big impression. His son joined the RCAF and became a CF-188 Hornet pilot, something that makes Kirbyson incredibly proud.
Jordan Kirbyson had a chance to work with his dad in what will be the final professional chapter of the elder Kirbyson’s flying career. In 2004, after his final two years with Air Canada, and then 60 years old, Kirbyson began flying an IAI Westwind for Montreal-based defence contractor, Top Aces. Jordan had joined the company not long before and was flying the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet.
At Top Aces, Kirbyson flew a variety of training missions for all branches of the Canadian Forces pulling targets, flying mock attacks and even impersonating hijacked airliners. While he and his son never had a chance to share the cockpit of the Hornet, they did get together in the Alpha Jet a few times and flew alongside each other as well.
“George has maxed the course,” said James “Preston” Manning of Top Aces. “[He has had] an absolutely tremendous aviation career, accumulating more than 30,000 flight hours in 64 types. During his time at Top Aces . . . over the past 13-plus years, he has embodied all of Top Aces’ values. A true professional, and a highly respected member of our team, George has continued to serve at the tail end of an amazing career, providing important training to our Canadian Forces.”
By the time you read this, Kirbyson will be 73 years young, will have flown his last mission with Top Aces and will be retired from professional flying. He’ll still be enjoying the skies around Langley in his Pitts with his son and flying airshows with his friends at the Canadian Museum of Flight.
30,000 flight hours, that’s 1,250 days. It’s also 1.8 million minutes (if you’re counting). That’s a very large part of your life to spend doing something — but if you really love that something, then it’s probably been more of a blur. As I discovered, that incredible milestone doesn’t even have a footnote in his logbook.
We should all be so fortunate to do what we love so much for so long. Enjoy your retirement, George!