The Fraser Blues are a familiar sight to thousands of Langley residents, especially those who attend any annual Remembrance Day ceremonies.
For the past 15 years, without fail, a flight of between eight and four Navion aircraft have flown past local cenotaphs.
Group leader George Miller and fellow pilots Guy Miller, Ray Roussey, and Clive Barratt were up again this Nov. 11, flying over six cenotaphs from Abbotsford to Surrey, including three in Langley.
“We have not missed a Remembrance Day yet,” said Miller, despite ugly flying weather some years.
Miller has personal reasons for wanting to keep going up each and every year.
“I owe a lot of remembrance to the many friends that were killed in the military, that I flew with,” Miller said.
A Royal Canadian Air Force pilot for 35 years, Miller was just an 18-year-old living in Ottawa when he signed up. He had never even been on board a plane as a passenger when he announced to the recruiters that he wanted to be a pilot.
But soon Miller was at the controls of an aircraft, and within a few years he was living in Germany at a Canadian air base.
It was the height of the Cold War, and NATO was frantically arming itself against the Soviet threat.
That meant getting planes in the air and pilots in those planes, whether they were ready or not.
“During the tenure of the F-86 Sabre, we had 111 pilots killed,” said Miller.
The 1950s-era F-86 was replaced by the very fast Starfighter, on which Miller spent three tours.
Canada lost 37 pilots to Starfighter crashes.
Miller described it as a “missile with a man in it.”
It was fast and designed to operate at low altitudes, so any engine failure meant the pilot had to bail out immediately.
In addition to the fear of the Soviets, the attitude of daredevil flying had carried over from the Second World War, Miller said. There were fewer safety concerns by far in those days than there are now, and that led to the deaths of pilots.
“My thoughts go specifically to certain people,” Miller said.
One of those is Ronald “Rolly” Rolston, who was killed in a Starfighter crash in 1957.
Rolston had been in the squadron a year and was a year younger than Miller. The 22-year-old had been flying with a squadron doing training in Rabat, in Morocco, over the Atlantic coast.
When the squadron returned to Zweibrucken in Germany, they left some beautiful weather and returned to foul conditions.
Rolston was scheduled to fly first thing the day following his return, without any training to acclimate to the different conditions, Miller said.
“Right after takeoff, something happened to him,” Miller said.
The Starfighter’s landing gear stuck, and while trying to deal with that, Rolston’s plane crashed into the ground.
“It was such a needless death,” Miller said. “He was so young.”
Ralston left behind a wife, Anne, and a young daughter, Lorraine.
“It seemed like almost every week we were going to a funeral,” said Miller.
In addition to attending the funerals of friends and colleagues, the air crews had to deal with the knowledge that their families were living in base housing – and that if a nuclear war broke out, the bases would be among the first targets.
“Those were tense times,” Miller said.
Attitudes towards preparedness, training, and safety changed over the next few years. Miller said that today, a rate of fatal crashes like the one suffered early in the Cold War would get a squadron shut down.
After years with the RCAF, including time flying with the Snowbirds, Miller was the manager of the Langley Regional Airport when he first joined a local flypast group that was training to head out to the local cenotaphs on Remembrance Day.
That was 15 years ago. The group would later be dubbed the Langley Reds, and for more than a decade has been known as the Fraser Blues. The group, a mixture of former military and civilian pilots, all with extensive experience, still trains together in close-formation flying and does a few air shows or special events every year.
This year, they will visit six locations: at 10:45 a.m., an Army, Navy, and Air Force Veterans Club on Mt. Lehman Road, at 10:56 the Aldergrove Legion and cenotaph, at 11 a.m. the Fort Langley cenotaph, at 11:05 the Langley cenotaph, and at 11:12 the Cloverdale ceremony, finishing past a ceremony in Port Kells.
To hit their cues they’ll have to be accurate on timing and navigation.
Miller said he’s confident the group will do well.
“Because the pilots are so capable, I don’t worry about them,” he said.