Who Was The First Canadian Pilot To Break The Sound Barrier?

From Canada's Air Force - www.airforce.forces.gc.ca

A man, a dog and a plane; the life and times of Alexander John Lilly

July 8, 2010

By Mary Lee

Ask any Canadian who the first Canadian aviator to break the sound barrier was and few would know.

Other Canadian aviation greats such as J.A.D McCurdy, Billy Bishop or Len Birchall are better known than Al Lilly. Nevertheless, he was one of this nation’s most distinguished test pilots and Canada’s first pilot to break the sound barrier.

It happened at RCAF Station Dorval in August 1950 in a Canadair Sabre 1 prototype. At the time Al Lilly was the Canadair chief test pilot, responsible for flight testing more than 100 models of aircraft in an era when Canada was a world leader in cutting-edge aviation technology.

HIghlighting its aviation super-elite just wasn’t the Canadian way, and Al didn’t make an issue of his achievements. Not until his picture appeared in newsprint because of his astonishing feat did his two daughters, Joan and Pat, begin to understand how skilled their father truly was as an aviator.

Later media confused Al’s accomplishment with that of Janusz Zurakowski, a Polish native who moved to Canada in 1952 to join Avro Aircraft Limited in Toronto as chief development pilot. That year, Mr. Zurakowski flew supersonic in the Canadair CF-100 fighter, the first straight-winged jet aircraft to achieve this feat. At the time of his death in 1989, the press hailed Mr. Zurakowski as Canada’s first pilot to break the sound barrier – a factual error that has since been corrected.

Al would have been 100 this year. On May 26, in a ceremony at the RCMP hangar at Uplands airport in Ottawa, Vintage Wings of Canada and the RCMP paid tribute to Al by dedicating the “Hawk One” F-86 Sabre in his name.

Colonel (ret’d) Chris Hadfield, a former Air Force pilot, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut and now Hawk One pilot, and RCMP Superintendant Greg Peters, Director of Strategic Partnerships Heritage Branch, made the dedication in the presence of Al’s family at the private ceremony.

Al joins the Mounties

Al was born in Moose Jaw, Sask., a son of Harold Lilly who owned an automotive and farm equipment dealership specializing in Ford automobiles. Through his father’s business, Al came in contact with the RCMP who used the dealership to service their vehicles. Eventually, Al enrolled in the Mounties in 1932.

In 1937, he requested permission to take flying lessons and petitioned to join the RCMP Aviation Section the following year. Thus his career began flying bush planes. He was also a strong advocate for advancing aviation in policing, having seen the first-hand the limitations of dog-sled teams and canoeing, and recognizing that float and ski equipped planes could better serve the North.

Although his brief career with the RCMP led to greater aviation accomplishments, is best remembered by the Mounties for encouraging dog services in policing.

Al’s dog, Prince, joined him on a search for a missing trapper and, in the course of the rescue effort, Prince found shelter from bad weather for both Al and the trapper. Al instinctively knew there was value in dog skills and shared this insight with the RCMP.

By 1935, the police dog-handling services were officially formed and Al was one of the first to be assigned his own dog, a German shepherd named Black Lux. The two formed a close relationship; Al often brought Black Lux along with him during flying lessons and in the back-seat of his car while courting Genevieve, who later became his wife.

The RCMP transferred him to Ottawa, which would bring an end to his flying time. But Al had a dream of flying and he realized he had to leave the RCMP. In July 1939 he purchased his discharge and went to Great Britain to fly with Imperial Airways (the precursor of British Overseas Airways Corporation).

The RCAF years

When the Second World War broke out, Al returned to Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, teaching new pilots in the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP). He then flew with Ferry Command, transporting equipment and many types of planes across the Atlantic. He also received a commendation from King George VI for delivering the first six Hudson twin-engine bombers to Britain. By the end of the war, Al was chief test pilot for the command.


Following the war, Al joined Canadair and was instrumental in positioning the aircraft manufacturer as one of the largest producers of aircraft in the world – a distinction that brought recognition to Canada during the Cold War era. There he captained the inaugural flight of the North Star aircraft and the F-86 Sabre, to name a few. And in 1950, he broke the sound barrier for the first time in Canada.

During his 30 years with Canadair, he rose to the position of vice president before retiring in 1970. He passed away Nov, 21, 2008 at the age of 98 – just months before witnessing the Vintage Wings’ “Hawk One” F-86 Sabre take to the skies as a cornerstone of the 2009 Canadian Centennial of Flight celebrations.

Being a modest man, Al rarely talked about his supersonic experience, the war years, or saving up all his hard-earned money during the Depression for flying lessons. “He had a quiet confidence,” explains Lee Parsons, nephew and also an avid aviator. He daughter Pat Hassel, who travelled from California to take part in the dedication, said that Al would share his tales about his career only when pressed, and only then did friends and family learn just how proud and enthusiastic he was about flying and about Canada’s aviation leadership.

His legacy

Al Lilly is a holds a special place among this nation’s aviation leaders; he is a member of the Order of Canada and Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

“Al realized how wings could take Canadians far and wide in the accomplishments of many feats,” said fellow Aviation Hall of Fame inductee, Col Hadfield, during the dedication of Hawk One in Al’s memory.

“Al Lilly laid the foundation for many more great accomplishments with flight. I’ll be touching Al’s name as I climb into the cockpit of Hawk One.”

Tagged: rcmp, canada's air force, sound barrier, al lilly, history



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