Jack Knox: After 100 years on earth, pilot’s memories of sky remain

From Times Colonist – link to source story

Jack Knox / Times Colonist / MAY 30, 2021

TC_245045_web_VKA-price-10313.jpgReg Price turns 100 on Monday. He earned the Distinguished ­Flying Cross for his service as a pilot in the Second World War. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Reg Price has an unnerving story about flying a four-engine Lancaster bomber out of a base in Lincolnshire one night in November 1943.

The heavily laden aircraft had only just lifted off and lumbered into the blackness, heading for Germany, when flames began to shoot out of the inner starboard engine. Price shut down the engine, but had to fight to keep altitude. article continues below 

Then the inner port engine conked out.

Gradually, but inexorably, the plane started to drop. The crew chucked out everything they could — ammunition, the navigator’s sextant — to reduce weight. Still, it was a good thing the terrain below sloped downward to the coast. Had they taken off in the opposite direction, the plane would have crashed.

Finally, over the North Sea, Price got just enough height to allow the Lancaster to dump its bombs. Then the 22-year-old, on only his second mission captaining a bomber, managed to make it back to base for a two-engine landing.

The thing is, the Saanich man doesn’t talk as though this episode was particularly noteworthy. There are other memories from a four-decade flying career that stand out.

There was the period he spent ferrying Britain’s badly wounded Korean War soldiers from Singapore to the U.K., a non-stop trip today but back then a five-day endurance test with stops in Colombo, Ceylon; Karachi, Pakistan; Habbaniya, Iraq; and Malta.

There were the flights carrying United Nations peacekeepers into war-torn Yemen and the Congo in the 1960s.

There were his years carrying the likes of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Mikhail Gorbachev around the world in private aircraft.

There was the time he parachuted a wicker basket full of gifts to an inaccessible Inuit settlement in the high Arctic. The kids like the presents but one elder was more excited about the accompanying Christmas tree; in the barren north, he had never seen one before.

And then there was the magic of flight itself. “Flying across the Prairies on a dark winter night with no cloud, just imagine how many stars you can see,” he says today.

Reg Price turns 100 on Monday. He has loved airplanes almost as long.

He was just a boy on an uncle’s farm in southern Ontario when he looked up one day and saw a silver DC-3 cutting across the sky. When the Second World War came along, he enlisted in the RCAF, much to the consternation of his father and other army-veteran relations. “They were horrified when I joined the air force, but I wanted to fly airplanes and the army didn’t have any.”

He ended up posted to a Royal Air Force squadron, the lone Canadian in a crew of Aussies and Brits. By the time he was done, 31 missions complete, he had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He had also found the woman with whom he would spend most of his life. Elsie was an English girl who drove the trucks that carried the air crew to their bombers. They married Aug. 2, 1944.

Wartime made for an odd existence for the flyers, one that saw them constantly toggling between the fear and intensity of bomber missions and unremarkable, everyday life back on the ground. One moment Price would be over Berlin — flak reaching up toward him, German night fighters flashing by, the Lancasters in danger of flying into or dropping bombs on one another in the dark – and the next he would be back in England, shopping on the high street. He remembers lining up outside a movie theatre with Elsie. “We were standing shoulder to shoulder with Italian prisoners of war. They didn’t have any guards.”

Then he’d find himself back up in the air. In March 1944 Price survived a raid over Nuremberg that proved to be Bomber Command’s costliest of the war. The RAF lost 545 ­crewmen that night, more than died in the entire Battle of ­Britain.

Price couldn’t find a flying job in Canada after the war, so he signed on with the RAF for another four years. Then came a return to the RCAF back home, including time flying up north, followed in 1964 by a switch to flying corporate and private aircraft, which he did for 20 years, first in Montreal, then Calgary.

In all, he flew 35 different types of airplanes — starting with a Tiger Moth so primitive that its gas gauge was a tube with a floating cork — into 365 airports around the world, everywhere from the military outpost at Alert, Ellesmere Island, the most northerly inhabited place on the planet, to Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island in the south Atlantic.

He last worked as a pilot on Oct. 31, 1984. Three months later Reg and Elsie pulled into Victoria, having left minus-30 Calgary the day before, towing a sailboat.

When Elsie died in 2013, they had been married 69 years, three months and change. He misses her.

As he turns 100 — joining an 11,500-member club in a country of 38 million — he shows few concessions to that age. He gets about with a cane, lives independently in a Royal Oak retirement complex. He just gave up driving in January, having gone accident-free his entire life. He is adept with modern communication technologically (though when driving from his daughter’s home on Bear Mountain he would marvel at the precision of a car navigation system that would have made pilots green with envy in the old days).

Technology has changed over the past century, but have ­people? “I don’t think so, not really.”

He is content. “Obviously, I miss my wife, but other than that, it has been a good life.”