Living the dream: Robert ‘Scratch’ Mitchell

The career question Robert “Scratch” Mitchell had to answer as a young man was not whether being an aviator was what he wanted to do, but rather, whether he was going to be able to resist the gravitational pull of becoming one.

Scratch Mitchell, left, stands with his father Bob and grandfather Fred.
Scratch Mitchell, left, stands with his father Bob and grandfather Fred. Mitchell Family Archive Photo
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Mitchell occupied a unique position in Canadian aviation: he was potentially the third generation of fighter pilots starting with “Grampa” Fred Mitchell who flew more than 400 missions in Spitfires during the Second World War.

The fighter pilot seed was sewn with Fred’s son, Bob Mitchell, who continued the family tradition and joined the now jet-age Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).  Bob flew the CF-101 Voodoo, the F-5 Freedom Fighter, and eventually went on to become an instructor in the CT-114 Tutor.  He retired from the RCAF after 20 years and continued flying in civvies.

Despite being surrounded by these warrior aviators for his entire life, Scratch had a period of fairly typical teenage rebellion. Doing the exact opposite of what his father and grandfather might have wanted–well, it’s just what crazy teenagers do, isn’t it?  Events still in the distant future also provide a hint of what Scratch may have felt at the time: flying may be a big part of his future but it may not be his entire future, and it may not be military aviation at all.

There eventually did come a day when Scratch looked at his strengths, took stock of the opportunities life had laid before him and sat down with his father: “I think I’m going to go down to the recruiting office.”

The decision set in motion events which eventually led to Scratch’s own 20 year career with the RCAF. Not just any career, but one which included a tour as a CF-188 demonstrator pilot, and two tours with the Snowbirds, including one as team lead.

Scratch knows now–teen angst notwithstanding–he really was born to fly all along. He also learned early on that simply being a good stick-and-rudder man was likely not enough. He embraced every opportunity to complement his hands-on flying skills with academic studies and obtained a bachelor of arts in sociology and a masters degree in strategy and management. They were to prove even more useful than Scratch could possibly have imagined at that time.

This commitment to continuous learning is an important point Scratch makes whenever he speaks to young aviators just beginning their careers: in addition to being the best pilot you can be, it’s equally important to think about what else you can do which makes you unique.

For Scratch, his combination of an arts degree, post-graduate business training, along with an amazing range of additional training opportunities with the RCAF, was the key to opening up all the options both inside and outside the military.

At the same time, the opportunity to perform at-the-limit aerial manoeuvres in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators provided an additional fulfillment Scratch found deeply satisfying.  Also, in their standout red uniform, Snowbird pilots are “micro-celebrities,” as he said with a wry smile, but then quickly acknowledged he really enjoyed it.  Scratch realized that while flying was coded into his DNA, so was being the star of the show.

As he approached his 20th year with the RCAF, Scratch recognized this was the inflection point where he would have to consciously accept the “sword placed on my shoulder” to join the upper echelons of RCAF leadership. Everything in his career to that point had prepared him for that eventuality. He clearly understood that while there would be many rewards, there would be much less hands-on flying. Perhaps none at all.

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Looking back, he clearly remembers the precise moment. He was sitting on a surfboard in Coolangatta, Australia, when he decided he would leave the RCAF to pursue a career in film, which eventually included acting, producing and directing. In a life one would think was filled with scary moments, Scratch said it was one of the scariest of his life.

Similar to his flying career, Scratch believes being successful in the brutally competitive entertainment industry means having a special capability others don’t have. Naturally, for him it was his flying acumen. In his former career, it was a given. In his new career, it’s what makes him unique. He trained as an actor, and found that his organizational skills and academic qualifications were a perfect fit for producing and directing.

In a much shorter of period of time than anyone expected–including Scratch–he landed Airshow, the documentary series on Discovery Canada chronicling life on the airshow circuit. This particular evolution of his career was complete, and his film career was off and running.

Check out the in-depth interview with Scratch Mitchell on The WorkNotWork Show.

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