For former fighter pilot, flying a family tradition

When cadets of the 848 Royal Roads Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron form up on Tuesday, they will hear from a third-generation fighter pilot and lifelong airplane lover.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Rob (Scratch) Mitchell, who attended Esquimalt High and the University of Victoria, will address the cadets at their 39th annual review.

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Mitchell, 46, is a 20-year-veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a fighter pilot who flew the CF-18 and spent six years with the force’s aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. He is also the son of a fighter pilot and the grandson of another.

Even today, he flies with the Patriots, an American private aeronautics team, travelling to air shows and displays.

Mitchell said he is especially honoured to be the guest of 848 Air Cadet Squadron. The cadets will march past, stand for inspection and listen to an address.

He was never an air cadet, but regularly encountered air cadets at air shows as a Snowbirds member. He always enjoyed answering their questions and seeing their interest.

But his most personal connection is his 13-year-old daughter. Always a bit of a rebel, she surprised him one day with the declaration that she wanted to be a fighter pilot — and to join air cadets right away.

“She’s been anti-establishment her entire life and she’s loving” cadets, Mitchell said.

Mitchell also has an 11-year-old son who wants to be a pilot. But he’s most fascinated by the water bombers used to battle forest fires.

This connection to aircraft and flying is now a well-established tradition for the family.

Mitchell’s grandfather flew a Spitfire during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force, while Mitchell’s father flew the F-101 Voodoo during the 1960s.

Mitchell earned the name “Scratch” during the 1980s, early in his flying career in the Canadian Air Force with a French-speaking unit.

Mitchell said he was asked if had ever done air-to-air refuelling, flying his plane to a tanker aircraft, attaching to a hose and getting a fill-up in air. Mitchell had done it — once — and said: “Oui.”

When he got up in the air, the tanker aircraft was different from the one he had seen before. But he thought: “How different can it be?” and went ahead anyway.

It turned out it was very different. The hose connection flew past and banged along the canopy of his aircraft. As he landed, he told his colleagues he thought he had suffered a scratch and he was sure he could just buff it out.

But when he looked, he discovered the scratch was a deep gouge over two metres long.

“I had just about taken the whole canopy off and my head off with it,” Mitchell said.

His fellow pilots were not in the least concerned or solicitous. In fact, they thought it was hilarious, and he has been Scratch ever since.

“It’s not like the movies, where you get a real cool call sign for things you are good at,” Mitchell said. “It’s usually some terrible blunder.”

He now lives in Vancouver and works in the film and television industry, directing, producing and even doing a little acting.

His flying experiences, as a lone fighter pilot in a CF-18 conducting patrols in Canada’s North and as a member of the highly disciplined Snowbirds team, have informed most of his life. Mitchell said he hopes the cadets will be interested, too, and perhaps even a little inspired.

“There is so much hype around flying,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to bring it down to some human stories.”

The 848 Royal Roads Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron review starts at 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday at Belmont Secondary School, 3041 Langford Lake Rd.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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