Chris England knew since high school he wanted to become a pilot.
His career with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) took him around the country and the world, from flying with, and later leading, the Snowbirds, to helicopter missions, to the Pentagon in Washington D.C. to working at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
England was born on a Canadian air base in Germany, where his father was a fighter pilot.
“I think in the back of my mind I always thought that would just be a normal career aspiration for me was to become an air force pilot,” he said.
When England was a teenager the family moved to B.C., where his father flew as a Medevac pilot. Fascinated by flight and being in the cockpit, he never missed a chance to fly with his dad, even if it meant hopping into the plane at 2 a.m.
“I remember we went to Castlegar one time to pick up a worker, a CN worker who had had his arm cut off in a tragic train accident,” he said. “The ambulance attendant handed me this silver box when they were loading the patient in the airplane and he said ‘you be very careful with that silver box,’ and I said ‘why?’ and he said ‘it’s got the guy’s arm in it’.”
England got his wings in 1989, after completing the air force’s regular officer training plan (ROTP), with a degree in history, from UBC. His first posting was to CFB Summerside in Prince Edward Island. When the base was closed down in 1990, he was transferred to Yellowknife.
“It was a big transition from flying over the water all the time, to flying over ice predominately for three years,” England said. “And then I got into the jet world and I was flying old fighters out of Comox in the early ’90s to mid-’90s.”
He was selected as a member of the Snowbirds in 1995 and spent two years in Moose Jaw, Sask., with the team.
“And as most of us say, it was a privilege to be part of the team,” England said. “We sort of borrow the red suit for two years and then we pass it on.”
He stayed there for some time, training air force student pilots and said he seemed to be assigned students who had difficulties flying in formation.
“I think it probably knocked a few years off my life though,” England said. “Some of these guys did pretty scary things, but I managed to fix their problems and most of them went on and graduated.”
After some time behind a desk in Ottawa as an administrator, it was time for something completely different.
After the first year of flight training, Canadian air force pilots branch off into different areas such as rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft. So when England decided to train in another branch, he found himself in a helicopter pilot training program with much younger classmates following the usual progression.
“All these students looked at each other and realized none of them had been born when I actually joined the air force,” he said. “I was affectionately called Grandpa for the rest of the helicopter course.”
Learning to fly a helicopter was different, fun and a challenge for England. He flew Sikorsky Sea King helicopters off ships in the Halifax area for four years, including a number of operational tours around the world.
England said he was surprised to be made deputy commanding officer at the squadron, ahead of peers with more experience flying helicopters. When he was offered a chance to become the commanding officer of the Snowbirds in 2013, it was a difficult decision because England was four years into a five-year commitment as a helicopter pilot.
“I was really torn, because I had been embraced by this maritime helicopter community,” he said.
After discussing the offer with his boss, who advised him to take the opportunity, England accepted. The two years were a privilege, but went by quickly.
“I look back on it and it just seemed to be an instant in time,” he said.
His next position took him to the Pentagon in Washington D.C., representing the RCAF at the Five Eyes Air force Interoperability Council (AFIC), with the goal to improve how the air forces of Canada, the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand and Australia cooperate around the world.
“I used to tell people that I was a five-minute drive to the Pentagon,” he said. “But my designated parking spot was about a 20 minute walk to the front door.”
After four years, he wanted to return to Canada, but since there were no postings at home, he instead went to work at NORAD in Colorado Springs in 2019. He worked as the command centre director, with the responsibility of keeping North America’s airspace safe, in a collaborative effort between Canada and the U.S.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he found himself sequestered in the Cheyenne Mountain Complex for 30 days at a time, working 12-hour shifts, unable to go home at night. England wanted to return to Canada, so he retired in 2020, around the same time his parents moved into a senior’s community in Qualicum Beach, where they had been living for some time.
He said quite a few people ask if he has his own plane, but for England, the planes are too slow and the fuel too expensive.
“After having gone 1,500 km/h low level, you sort of realize you don’t want to be flying around in a slower aircraft,” he said.
Looking back, England said he has many fond memories of his career and it was a privilege to serve.