You can take Dick Sanderson out of his Second World War fighter bomber, but you can’t keep him down.
Now in a wheelchair and living in a West Kelowna care home, the veteran pilot just celebrated his 98th birthday. He may have flown 42 sorties over Nazi-occupied France in an RCAF Mosquito, but his recent wish was an altogether new flying experience – his first-ever flight in a helicopter.
“I never even touched one,” he said before taking off from Kelowna Airport this week.”
George Cann, the chopper pilot who granted Sanderson’s wish, was practically pinching himself after flying him over Glenmore, downtown Kelowna and the mouth of Mission Creek. Not only is Sanderson the oldest passenger he’s had on board, he’s “the most amazing pilot” he’s ever flown with.
“Having flown the Mosquito in World War 2, it was the fastest airplane of its era. He flew an airplane that was the most advanced of its time and he did it under combat conditions,” said Cann, who owns and operates Okanagan Mountain Helicopters.
“The courage and the talent that it would take to survive all that and be here to tell the story today is stunning.”
While most of Sanderson’s contemporaries are long deceased, he remains a sharp-minded envoy from a time when Canadians were battling enemies on both sides of the country. He clearly recalls dodging anti-aircraft fire over a Nazi marshalling yard in the French interior when his twin-engine plane was struck.
“The beggars nailed us,” Sanderson said in 2017. “(We were) flying along, everything seemed to be good with no search lights, and all of a sudden ‘Boom!’ The whole aircraft and the instrument panel, everything, all lit up. It was just like daylight.
“They coned us perfectly.”
Miraculously, the plane was intact and not burning. But the blast knocked out the hydraulics, preventing Sanderson from dropping the bombs attached to each wing. Undaunted, he stuck to his flight plan as thousands of rounds whizzed past. He “opened up on them” with short bursts of machine-gun and cannon fire as he waved around the nose of the aircraft.
The ground-fire stopped. Sanderson continued his dive and dropped two bombs from the belly of the fuselage. An Allied pilot later reported seeing two holes in the main building of the marshalling yard.
“So we must have got it,” Sanderson said.
A Saskatchewan farm boy, he won’t admit to ever being frightened as he goaded the enemy from the air – only alarmed. His steady nerve, skill and bravery prompted France to appoint him Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour in 2016.
During his helicopter flight, word got around that a former Mosquito pilot was in the air. Barry Lapointe, founder of KF Aerospace, walked over to Sanderson once back in his wheelchair to say hello. “You flew Mossies. Good for you,” he said. “A friend of mine owns a Mosquito in Vancouver. The last one in Canada.”
Lapointe pointed to the hangar across the road and invited Sanderson to check out the 1944 Tempest Mark 2, a British fighter plane now under reconstruction as a showpiece for the KF Aerospace Centre for Excellence. Sanderson and his helpers Barb Pullan and Carla Norheim accepted the invitation and had a look.
As he waited for a taxi back to his care home, Sanderson said flying in the Robinson R44 was “a real pleasure.” He acknowledged the helicopter’s ability to hover is an asset, but still he prefers airplanes.
“We had to do tight circles if we wanted to come back and examine something,” he said. “I like the fixed wing. You can go from point A to point B in a hurry.”
Even so, he’s reluctant to cross out “helicopter ride” from his bucket list.
“I’d like to do it again,” he said smiling.