Obituary: Atholl Sutherland Brown, from fighter pilot to B.C.’s chief geologist

Decorated fighter pilot Atholl Sutherland Brown, who went on to serve as B.C.’s chief geologist, has died in Victoria at age 93.

A graduate of Oak Bay High School, Sutherland Brown joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at age 18.

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He was soon part of the Royal Air Force in Burma where he flew 48 missions as the pilot in a two-man Bristol Beaufighter, a twin-engine fighter-bomber, during the Second World War.

He died Friday.

“He was a man of great integrity,” said Tom Burdge, of Victoria, who served with the RAF. “He was a very astute man, very intellectual.”

Sutherland Brown was an executive member of the Vancouver Island Aircrew Association, which Burdge also belongs to.

The war years were recounted by Sutherland Brown in his book Silently Into the Midst of Things: 177 Squadron RAF in Burma, 1943-45. Airmen flew at low levels as they targeted rail lines and bridges. Sutherland Brown was wounded when his own cannon shell exploded.

“We had high losses,” he said in a 1997 interview with the Times Colonist. “There were 40 per cent casualties.”

Sutherland Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

Remembrance Day would always find him at services in Greater Victoria. He said in 2007, “The Oak Bay cenotaph probably has 100 names on it. And I went to school with most of them.”

Sutherland Brown attended and spoke at special events, such as services at Christ Church Cathedral in 2013 to commemorate the Battle of Britain, urging his listeners not to forget, hoping to avoid more wars.

Until recent months, Sutherland Brown performed his “airforce exercises,” which included push ups, sit ups, and jumping jacks, said son Brian S. Brown, of California.

“He was a warrior in mentality. He had this incredible strength and drive.”

A golfer, Sutherland Brown carried his clubs himself until a little more than a year ago, only catching a ride on a cart for part of the course.

“What is inspiring is that he was active mentally and physically,” Brown said. He saw himself primarily as a scientist, his son said.

After the war, Sutherland Brown went to university, earning a PhD in geology at Princeton. He retired as chief geologist for the B.C. Geological Survey. Geology was a passion for the rest of his life.

Sutherland Brown wrote two other books. Searching for the Origins of Haida Gwaii: Adventures While Mapping the Geology of the Islands, 1958-1962, which described not only his geological work but included character sketches of people he met there. He also wrote a book about his father, who was known as Buster, A Canadian Patriot and Imperialist — The Life and Times of Brigadier James Sutherland Brown.

Geologist Nick Carter worked with Sutherland Brown for many years with the province of B.C. and the two became friends. Carter described the Haida Gwaii work as “one of his [Sutherland Brown’s] landmark achievements.”

Sutherland Brown was a leader in initiating detailed geological description of mineral deposits around B.C., complemented by papers putting them into a regional geological framework, Carter said. “This was landmark stuff as well,” the first documentation of this kind in B.C.

That work was carried out at a time when B.C.’s mining sector was booming and new mines were opening.

Geologists held Sutherland Brown in high regard, Carter said. He was “one of the big names in the local geological and mining community.”

Sutherland Brown was predeceased by his wife Barbara, known as “Doogie.” He is survived by his wife Ruth, son Brian, daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and two grandchildren.

A service will be held at UVic’s Interfaith Chapel on Jan. 19 at 12:30 p.m.

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