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Growing up on the Prairies in the small town of Killarney, Man., a young Bill Carter sat with his family in the fields, watching the Red Knight fly daring aerobatics in the sky.
“I saw the famous Air Force Red Knight that would come to small town fairs in his T-Bird,” said Carter.
The Red Knight was a Royal Canadian Air Force aerobatic aircraft that operated from 1958 to 1969 and performed at air shows across the country.
Carter would become mesmerized as his eyes trained on the red-painted CT-133 Silver Star performing loops, rolls, Cuban eights, horizontal 360s, inverted flight, and high-speed passes.
From the first time he saw those planes whizzing across the sky, he knew one day he would be like his idol and perform at air shows across the country.
“Seeing the Red Knight probably had more influence on me learning to fly than anything,” he said.
Carter’s other passion in life was hockey.
He loved playing the game on the crisp winter ice, inhaling the Arctic air with Prairie winds blowing around the rink. He was a slender teenager whose butterfly style emulates the goalies of today’s era, but back then coaches wanted stand-up tenders who weren’t floppers and guessers.
“I ended up playing senior hockey in Rosetown, Sask.,” he said.
While playing the game he adored in Saskatchewan he also discovered a flight school and began taking flying lessons. It was love at first flight.
When Carter wasn’t flying or playing hockey he worked at the local bakery to pay the bills. Eventually, he had to make a choice.
“Flying recreationally was simply becoming cost prohibitive and I had to decide whether I should quit cold turkey or take up flying as a new career,” he said.
With money being tight, Carter decided: “My wife Judy and I made the choice that I would put hockey on the sidelines and learn to fly commercially. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Carter’s first real job came as a dockhand with Hooker Air Service at Pickle Lake in Northern Ontario. Pickle Lake is an historic aviation centre, and it was also a major commercial fishing hub for many years.
Soon after Carter’s arrival he was flying all of the company’s aircraft–a Cessna 180, de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, DHC-6 Twin Otter, Bellanca 66-75, two Beechcraft 18s, a Douglas DC-3 and eventually its Cessna 180.
“I’ve always loved flying in the bush,” he said.
In 1971 Carter left Hooker to fly for Transair, which was Manitoba’s leading airline at the time. During his career with the regional carrier he was based in Winning and flew a number of different types of aircraft–the Grumman Goose, DC-3 and Twin Otter.
In 1973, he started flying jets as a co-pilot on the Fokker F28.
A year later Carter was upgraded to captain on the Japanese-built YS-11 turboprop, two of which were used by Transair to fly primarily in northern Manitoba and the Artic.
By June 1981, Carter was upgraded to captain on the Boeing 737-200 at Pacific Western Airlines, which he flew for the next 10 years. During that time he bought his first small aircraft, a Champion, to fly into the bush so he could enjoy fishing and hunting.
“I love the bush and I always have,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the bush, as much as 60 days a year hunting and fishing, and I was able to combine my love of flying in the bush with a number of small aircraft that I purchased over the years.”
In 1986 Carter purchased a 7KCAB.
“I just wanted something to fly for fun, but I didn’t expect I’d be using it for business a few years later,” he said.
Soon, Carter was flying in air shows on the weekends and during his days off in the summer. He recalls passing up opportunities to upgrade to the airbus A320 in order to keep his seniority on the Boeing 737, which allowed him weekends off to partake in the increasing number of air shows that wanted him to attend.
In 1989, after more than 30 years as one of Canada’s most accomplished airline pilots, Carter’s passion for air shows led him back to the dream he had as a small boy: To one day follow in the Red Knight’s footsteps.
He wanted to encourage kids to fly and entertain them, the same way his idol did so many years ago.
“The air show business developed because I started receiving requests at small airports in Alberta for their flying breakfast aviation club,” he said.
Since starting the air show circuit, Carter has performed for more than 10 million people in Canada and the United States. He’s performed in more than 100 small towns across Canada and more than 40 in Ontario alone, accumulating over 2,700 hours in his Pitts Special aircraft.
Carter’s company over the years has been fortunate to be sponsored by Esso and Leavens Aviation.
He currently owns a factory-built Pitts Special S2S, which was specifically designed for air show flying. Carter modified the aircraft to improve its aerobatic and cross-country capabilities. The engine develops over 260 horsepower, and the aircraft has a gross weight of 1,575 pounds (714 kilograms) and a top speed of 212 miles per hour (341 kilometres per hour).
“The excitement of the air show starts right from the word go–with a half-roll on takeoff into a very low inverted pass.”
During his 13-minute precision performance, Carter smoothly executes tailslides, loops, multiple snap rolls, hammerheads and a mile long, low-level, knife-edge pass.
Of course, there are the Carter trademarks, both inverted and knife-edge ribbon cuts. Carter keeps the performance right in front of the crowd at all times.
The excellent smoke system, announcing and music provide great visibility and excitement. Carter admits it isn’t just the flying at the air shows he enjoys.
“There’s a mystique about flying, whether it’s a Pitts Special, a CF-18 or 767,” he said.
“A lot of young people come to air shows to see what aviation is all about and I can’t wait to tell them.”
When Carter reflected on his amazing career as a pilot, he noted one his fondest memories: “I flew the Pope from Edmonton to Fort Simpson, N.W.T. in 1986 and I was able to speak to him in the galley of the Boeing 737, where he gave me a beautiful rosary. And of meeting two of the original Red Knights, Bill Slaughter and Rod Ellis.”