Friday, September 23, 2011
WWI ace pilot, Lieutenant Colonel William Barker, is Canada’s most decorated hero, but how many people these days have ever heard of him? 50,000 people lined the streets of Toronto for his state funeral in 1930, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest and most respected pilots in the world. He had twice taken the Prince of Wales for a flight, once while still recovering from his near-fatal wounds, and with his shattered arm in a sling. As his biographer, Wayne Ralph, states, “He was in a very profound sense the hero’s hero, the man the other heroes held in awe.” Among those was legendary Billy Bishop, Britain’s and Canada’s top ace, who became Barker’s friend and partner after the war when they started one of the first airline services in Canada.
With their Curtiss seaplane, they were able to take passengers between Toronto harbour and the Muskoka lakes, and for sightseeing flights. Arthur Bishop, Billy’s son, told me that they often flew family and friends to Sir John Eaton’s cottage, Kawandag, on Lake Rosseau. Billy had married Sir John’s niece, and one day took her aunt, Lady Flora Eaton for a trip from the cottage to the city. This is how Lady Eaton described the flight in her memoir, Memory’s Wall:
“I sat in the open cockpit for almost 2 hours as we made our ‘lightning’ trip to the city. Jack was waiting for me at the Toronto waterfront, and never have I seen a more perturbed husband! ‘You, a mother of 5 children, risking your life in a thing like that!’ On the way up Yonge St. his driving was so erratic that I finally burst out, ‘Look dear, I may have been taking a risk when I went in the plane, but that is nothing compared to the danger I’m in right now!’ He couldn’t help laughing.”
The Bishop-Barker Company was perhaps ahead of its time, and only survived for a few years. Bishop suffered head injuries in a crash, and didn’t fly again for over a decade. He went off to Britain to make his fortune, but stayed friends with Barker and always held him in high esteem. Barker joined the fledgling RCAF, and in 1924 served as its first director. As nominal president of the young Fairchild Aircraft company, he was demonstrating a new biplane near Ottawa when he was killed in a crash. 81 years later, there will finally be a monument erected to him. See more about that here.
Bishop and Barker appear in book 3 of my Muskoka Novels. One of my objectives in writing historical fiction is to incorporate real people whenever feasible in order to accurately portray an era. And in my own way, I pay homage to them.
If you’re interested in Barker, you’ll enjoy Wayne Ralph’s biography, William Barker VC: The Life, Death & Legend of Canada’s Most Decorated War Hero.