Survivor: World’s oldest fighter pilot a Canadian

Sometimes in this business you meet exceptional people.

Four of us sat around a table in the George Hees (veterans) wing of the Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto. There was Ed Botterell and his charming wife Garlyne, your correspondent, and Ed’s father Henry J. L. Bottrell, the reason for this get together.

What makes Henry exceptional? First of all he is close to 101 years old and he doesn’t dodder. And I don’t know about you, but in my book that is exceptional. We should all hope to achieve that state.

He is also, according to record, the last surviving Allied fighter pilot to have seen action in World War I.

I saw Henry being interviewed on television by Jonathan Straw, an aviation enthusiast, historian and number one fan, and felt Henry was so spry, sharp and…well.. exceptional, that he would make a good subject for CARPNews to commemorate Armistice Day.

Born in Ottawa, he was working with the Bank of British North America when in 1917 he joined the Royal Naval Air Service. Earlier that year his older brother, Edward — who had enlisted along with other Toronto Argonaut football players and was about to be promoted to Captain with the 48thighlanders — was killed by a sniper.

Henry went to England to learn to fly, and then on to France. He pranged his aircraft when the engine failed on takeoff, was badly injured, sent to hospital in England and then demobilized from the RNAS. But he did not return to Canada. By May of 1918 he was back in France, this time with 208 Squadron flying the famous Sopwith Camels, remaining overseas until March 1919.

Photostats of the pages of his Flying Pilots Log make fascinating reading. Not a Billy Bishop or a Ray Collishaw, Canadian aces who shot down gaggles of Hun aircraft, Botterell’s entries are a terse word snapshot of how it was flying daily missions in a Camel (his favorite aircraft), a Snipe or a Bristol over the Western front:

Low bombing. Dropped four bombs on lorries on Douai Road. Fired 150 rounds into trenches. Bullet hit pressure tank and air pipe.

Fired 400 rounds into balloon. Saw observer in parachute (observers had them but of course pilots didn’t). Balloon gradually crumpled and went down.

Dived with flight on 7 Fokker biplanes. Fired 100 rounds into one which dived steeply and disappeared into cloud.

Bullet penetrated cowl and cracked windshield. Drove E/A (enemy aircraft) east. Badly archied (anti aircraft fire) and shot from ground.

Low flying along road near Orne. Hit post and broke left main spar. Flew to base and landed ok.

There are souvenirs of two of these flights at the National War Museum in Ottawa: A chunk of fence post removed from a wing spar and a pair of goggles with the right lens cracked by a German bullet.

After the war, Henry returned to a successful banking career, a happy marriage and an avid interest in sailing, tennis, cycling and music. His English bride, Maude, who came to Canada after the war, died in 1983. Henry continued to live in Montreal until two years ago, when he came to Toronto.

The famed aviation artist Robert Taylor plans a painting of his Sopwith Camel in flight over France, and has asked Henry to sign prints.

Henry Botterell celebrates his 101st birthday on Nov. 7. Why not send him a birthday card? The address: 3rd St. West, Room 365, George Hees Wing, Sunnybrook Health Centre, 2075 Bayview Ave., LTSW North York, ON. M4N 3M5. Despite everything, Henry does not seem to be overly impressed with his longevity.

“You should meet my older sister,” he says as I take my leave. Edith lives in Ottawa. She will be 103 in February. Must be something in the genes.

The Way I See It Anyway.