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BILLIE FLYNN

BILLIE FLYNN

BILLIE FLYNN

A Canadian Flying Legend Hangs Up His Flight Suit

 

CDR’s Aviation Editor, Joetey Attariwala, has interviewed the Canadian flying legend many times, but that was mostly in his role as an F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin. Now, the former RCAF fighter pilot is moving on after four decades of flying high performance jets, so we thought it would be an appropriate time to get his reflections on an amazing career and life.  Here is Joetey’s sit-down conversation with the flying legend.

 

CDR: Billie, it’s great to talk to you again! As you know we’ve chatted many times, but this time it’s going to be about you and not a sophisticated fighter jet like F-35. So, first of all congratulations on your retirement and why don’t we just start at the beginning – what prompted you to join the Royal Canadian Air Force?

Flynn: Well, my father was a fighter pilot. He flew F-86s, CF-100s and Voodoos. So, I grew up around fast jets. I sat in cockpits in the hangars on Sunday after church, and I grew up wanting to live in that world. The second part of that answer is I grew up around fighter pilots and they were so amazingly passionate about flying jets. They had a camaraderie and a trust that I innocently believed that the rest of the world also had.

My parents were RCAF veterans and they were married in the church on the base in Baden-Soellingen where I flew 25 years later. My father flew in the South dispersal of the three dispersals at Baden. I also flew in the South dispersal. When I first landed there, I met the Officers’ Mess manager who had been hired by my father and godfather 25 years before. Needless to say, I was blessed with growing up in a world where I at least knew what fighter jets were all about, and I had a sense of that lifestyle without ever having flown any airplane before I actually went to pilot training.

 

C.O. OF THE BALKAN RATS

 

CDR: Can you tell us about some of the more memorable times in your service with the Royal Canadian Air Force?

Flynn: First of all, I was blessed with extraordinary timing throughout my career and it started with being selected as the first CF-18 pipeliner to fly the Hornet – that put me on the very first CF-18 course, the very first squadron, the very first live scramble, the very first person sent to chase a Russian Bear bomber off of Newfoundland and so on, throughout my entire career.

The most memorable part was being the Commanding Officer of the Balkan Rats in combat in Operation Allied Force, which was what the rest of NATO called it. Leading in combat, commanding men and women under the duress of war time, and as an individual stepping up the ladder in a Hornet to face the risk of being shot at is life changing. It defined who I was for the rest of my existence to this day.

 

CDR: Can you explain to us how being in a small Air Force like the RCAF prepared you to fly for major fighter jet OEMs like Eurofighter and Lockheed Martin?

Flynn: There was no path forward ever for a Canadian to fly for someone like Lockheed Martin or Boeing – the big OEMs that weren’t in Canada. In a small air force you are typically underfunded, understaffed and over-expected to do things, so we were all given responsibilities very early in life and matured significantly earlier than would have been the case for many of us if we had worked in a bigger air force.

The result was adaptation and a sense of confidence that gives us a unique experience to go or build new roads or bust down doors and make opportunities happen – to dream big and fulfill those dreams. I would never have achieved what I did if I had not come from a tiny air force like the Canadian Air Force.

Billie Flynn

FIGHTER PILOT VS TEST PILOT

 

CDR: How would you compare being a test pilot in the military with being a test pilot for a fighter jet OEM?

Flynn: As a military test pilot your job is to fly and report on what you’ve flown and to learn more about it – it’s a singular focus. As a civilian test pilot, we have ownership of the product. That means we help design, develop, ground test, and fly the vehicle. When things don’t work, we re-fly to get things right.

That’s a full circle of development whereas the military test pilot has the tiniest part of that circle of how to develop any part of a product. A military test pilot’s job is to learn the testing skills but as a civilian test pilot, you realize the skillset that’s needed to build, in my case 5th Generation jets, is dramatically deeper than any of us had as military test pilots.

There was no path to Lockheed Martin for someone like me, so I retired as a Commanding Officer, right out of combat, and Eurofighter presented an interesting opportunity. I flew it for four years in Munich, Germany, as a “German” but I struggled with their culture and their lack of focus to make that aircraft a great fighter. Then Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter contract and my path forward became clear.

 

CDR: Okay, so you had that foundation of working with Eurofighter on the Typhoon, then what?

Flynn: Typhoon was important in my contribution at Lockheed Martin. It gave me the experience of being a foreign test pilot having flown all over Europe with other companies. That’s a multicultural experience, not just being an Edwards Air Force Base military test pilot, which I had been previous to that.

 

CDR: So what specific chain of events led you to employment at Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defence contractor?

Flynn: I flew thrust vectoring research as an F-16 exchange test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in the early 90s. I was a project pilot with the F-16 Multi-Access Thrust Vectoring aircraft which is now called VISTA. I flew the NASA F-18 HARV – which stands for High Alpha Research Vehicle. And then I fought BFM in a NASA F-18 against the X-31. My experience in thrust vectoring research gave me the relationship with NASA and Lockheed Martin that led them to offer me a job years later.

 

SKUNK WORKS TEAM

 

CDR: Billie, as you know, we’ve had occasion to talk both formally and casually over the years but I’m wondering how you feel about the work you did on a project called Auto GCAS [Auto Ground Collision Avoidance System]. I’d be very interested to know which project you are most proud of in your flying career.

Flynn: Well, I am most proud of being a contributor to the development of Auto GCAS. We have changed the world of aviation. I was a project pilot on the Skunk Works research team that helped develop and mature that technology which eventually ended up in the F-16 and then later in the F-35.

The team that I worked on from AFRL [Air Force Research Lab], NASA Dryden, the United States Air Force and our Skunk Works team – our relatively small team – made the technology finally work and get accepted. I realized that we were going to change the world and that’s evident by prestigious awards that have been given to the team and this technology.

Let me get some statistics out there. Auto GCAS has saved 10 pilots and 9 F-16s already. For the CF-18 – and I think I have the number correct – seven of sixteen CF-18 fatalities are from CFIT [Controlled Flight Into Terrain] including my classmate, Gerry Milligan on the very first course, and Tristan deKoninck who was on the second course.

The fatalities continued throughout the CF-18 life and Auto GCAS will never let that happen again. Someday every human who flies in an airplane will fly in an aircraft that is equipped with Auto GCAS. It’s all because of this immensely talented research team that I was proud to be a part of.

Billie Flynn

DEVELOPING THE F-35

 

CDR: I kind of suspected you would answer that way since that program was all about saving lives. Hopefully, that will cross pollinate into every platform in the future but please talk to me now about the F-35 and what that program has meant to you.

Flynn: The F-35 to me is the graduation ceremony for test pilots. It is all the marbles – the program and the test flying dwarfs everything else in history – it’s not just the size of the program, but it’s the complexity of the airplane and the expansive testing that was required that demanded so much from so many people for so many years to get it right. I was fortunate enough to have a significant input into the aircraft and its development and that makes me immensely proud.

 

CDR: So tell me about your Fini flight. What thoughts were running through your mind during that time? Did you do anything fun for yourself beyond whatever test card you might have had?

Flynn: Well, first of all, one has to understand the significance of the Fini flight. If you’re that good you don’t have to tell anyone which means no low passes, no afterburner vertical departures – no showing off. I went out to appreciate the blessing of being permitted to fly the coolest fighter on the planet, and to have been able to be a fighter pilot and test pilot for almost four decades.

My wife was allowed to come to the United States and be on-site in Fort Worth to watch and be part of the whole thing. All of that was just an extraordinary thank-you that they offered to me, and for me a thank-you to them. It was very emotional. In answer to the last part of your question, I did do my full air show routine over a farm somewhere in Northern Texas until I ran out of gas.

 

LIVING A KINETIC LIFE

 

CDR: I love it, that’s so fitting!

Flynn: Someone in Texas got a show!

 

CDR: Awesome. I know you said it was emotional, but what was going through your mind?

Flynn: In a very positive sense, this last month I have felt how blessed I was to live a little boy’s dreams for so long. Every step of my career has been a step up and a step forward. I’ve never made a lateral step, and I’ve never had to go to a lesser airplane.

It’s always been something bigger, better, and faster, so it was just the appreciation of how fate, luck and choice have been such a part of allowing me to live my dreams. I lived this kinetic life for a long time.

 

CDR: I think that’s a great way to describe it, Billie. So how do you feel about retiring before Canada has chosen its next fighter jet?

Flynn: If I waited for Canada to complete the procurement of any military article, I would be years in my grave. I grew up as a son of a fighter pilot. I spent an entire military career in the Canadian Armed Forces, and I’ve since been around the defence industrial complex for another 20+ years. I have seen how the Canadian government procures military articles and I recognize that it does not follow a path that anyone can ever rationalize.

So I am disappointed that I didn’t get to fly the first Canadian F-35 but I have so much more of a life to live than just honchoing this procurement effort that I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I will say that I have an opportunity now as a civilian to have much more strategic influence with key stakeholders as a former test pilot, technical expert and Canadian than I did as a Lockheed Martin test pilot.

 

THE SEXIEST FIGHTER JET

 

CDR: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but of all the planes you’ve flown, what’s the one you love the most and why?

Flynn: There’s two parts to the answer. You always love your first girlfriend, so to me that was the CF-18. But, and it’s a big but, if it was Sunday afternoon and you were taking out your Ferrari for a drive, I would take a clean F-16 every single time. It is the sexiest fighter jet ever made. It is a rocket ship and nothing is more thrilling than flying as fast and aggressively as you can in a Viper.

 

CDR: What do you wish your legacy to be as this part of your career comes to a close?

Flynn: F-35 in Canada… period.

I will also tell you that I believe in dreaming big and using all our passion to chase down those dreams and make them a reality. It applies to everyone in life, not just in my particular case of flying airplanes. My children have learned by witnessing my passion, and they carry it in their life in fields that are much different than mine.

I want that passion to be recognized as an example for others. Look, I was blessed. I’m still here – there are so many times when I otherwise should have died in a jet, and I’m humbled that it did not happen to me. I intend to use those lessons that I learned sustained on the edge for decades, and intend to use those as lessons to pass on to others.

 

CDR: What’s next for Billie Flynn?

Flynn: I am transitioning to a life where I’m going to write, I am going to speak publicly, and move to a world where I translate decades of this kinetic lifestyle into lessons so others can live their lives well.

 

CDR: Congratulations again Billie on a great career. From that last comment I’m guessing there may be a book in the works. Again, many thanks for this and all the other passionate chats we’ve had over the years about aviation!

 


 

Joetey Attariwala is CDR’s Senior Staff Writer and Aviation Editor

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