Major Walter “Wally” Watson Peters: Canada’s first Black jet fighter pilot

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“Obstacles are the stepping stones on the pathways to achievements. Lofty goals are the key to success.”

For Major Walter “Wally” Peters, these words served as a reminder that hurdles are not insurmountable. Peters faced many hurdles, persecution, and racism in his 76 years, including throughout his career in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

Born on January 22, 1937, Peters grew up in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He was a gifted athlete and earned an athletic scholarship to Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB. His presence on the university campus proved to be controversial, and some of his classmates would refuse to room with him in residence because he was Black. He graduated in 1959.

A black-and-white image depicts an aerial view of an RCAF base. It shows the buildings as well as the airstrip of the base surrounded by farmland.

RCAF Centralia – Training facility for pilots from all NATO countries in the 1950s and 1960s

In 1961, at the of age 24 — the upper end of the age limit for pilot recruitment at the time — Peters came across a recruitment flyer and joined the RCAF. He was sent to RCAF Station Centralia, a base near Exeter in southern Ontario, to start his flight training. His first solo flight was in a de Havilland Canada Chipmunk – a two-seat, single-engine aircraft and the primary trainer aircraft for the RCAF after the Second World War.

When Peters completed his training and earned his wings in 1963, he made history by becoming the first Canadian-born Black jet fighter pilot. Despite graduating with the highest flying marks and the highest level of flying proficiency — as well as holding the highest combined overall proficiency in flying and officer development — his graduation ceremony was tainted by racist comments made by the guest presenter.

As Peters later recalled in a video made by Veterans Affairs, “The Calgary lawyer said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Well I was, I’m on the course that graduates tomorrow.’ He said, ‘As what?’ And I said, ‘As a pilot.’ He said, ‘In my day, you would never had got past rear gunner.’”

Peters became a flying instructor, posted to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Moose Jaw. While there, Peters and Colonel Owen Bartley Philp, the base commander, established the first official aerobatic flying team of the RCAF, the Golden Centennaires. They only flew in 1967; they started and ended at Expo 67, and flew for 184 days between May and October. During that time, they flew in 100 public demonstrations in Canada and eight in the U.S. with the Canadair CT-114 Tutor; those planes would later be used by the well-known Snowbirds aerobatic team.

Peters’ next posting was at CFB Trenton. He requested the posting in order to fly the Lockheed CC-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

In 1975, during the final days of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford announced Operation Babylift: a $2-million plan to evacuate 2,000 orphans to homes in the U.S. However, the mission would widen to Europe, Australia, and Canada. Two flights came to Canada, one landed in Montreal and another in Toronto. Peters participated in Operation Babylift and New Life in the U.S., as well as the “orphan flights” to Canada.

Peters also participated in a few other unique missions. He was one of the many Canadian Hercules pilots involved in Operation Morning Light. This was a Canada-US mission that built an airstrip in northern Canada that was central to the effort to recover radioactive debris from Cosmos 954, a nuclear-powered satellite launched by the Soviet Union that unexpectedly re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on January 24, 1978. In the Northwest Territories, starting from Great Slave Lake, the search area extended northeast towards Baker Lake. Although the satellite probably weighed several tonnes, only 65 kg of material was recovered. All but one of the recovered pieces were radioactive, with some being extremely radioactive.  For months, American and Canadian aircrafts flew over the search area trying to detect radiation; the recovery program lasted until mid-October.

In 1977, the Parliament of Canada passed the Canadian Human Rights Act. Following this, the Canadian Armed Forces reviewed their policies. In the early 80s, CFB Trenton’s base commander at the time, Colonel Russell, was concerned about issues of discrimination and human rights violations on the base. In his search to find someone to investigate the issues, he reviewed Peters’ file and decided that he would be the best candidate for the job, as Peters was a staunch advocate for human rights and equality for all. Russell convinced headquarters to approve Peters’ appointment as the first Human Rights Officer for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Peters’ illustrious career continued when he was asked to join the Snowbirds’ team in 1981, and to serve as the Deputy Commanding Officer (DCO). A DCO is part of the command team, and doesn’t usually fly with the aircrew team. But he did and stayed with the Snowbirds for two years. The Snowbirds were going through some difficult times; there were a few accidents and the average age of the contingent of pilots was getting lower and lower and this was a concern. Peters’ mission was to bring some maturity to the team. He did just that, and while he was there, the Snowbirds managed to have an accident-free season.

In 1983, Peters put his considerable experience to work at the United Nations (UN), as the air advisor to the UN Secretary General and Security Council. He offered advice on the best tactical movement of troops by air. During his tenure, the Soviet Union intercepted and shot down Korean Airline flight 007 on September 1, 1983. Because of his background in air defense command and intercepts, Peters was asked to explain to the Security Council what may have happened. After listening to the tapes, it was obvious to Peters there may have been errors committed by the Soviet Union. With his experience as a jet pilot, he was able to advise the Security Council about the confused environment in the Soviet cockpit, how much time they would have had to make decisions, and what may have been going through the minds of the pilots.

While Peters retired from the military with a rank of Major in 1984, he continued to work in the field of aviation. He played a role in the establishment of the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, and worked for Transport Canada to create and implement aviation safety programs, as well as being the Director General of Systems Safety from 1996 until his retirement in 1998.

Peters had a soaring list of accomplishments and contributions to aviation during his career, both in the military and as a civilian. On February 24, 2013, Peters passed away in Ottawa at the age of 76 after suffering a stroke.

Five years after his death, a road at the Halifax Airport was renamed Walter Peters Drive, in his honour.

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Nicolas Nadeau

As a graduate of the Applied Museum Studies Program at Algonquin College, Nicolas Nadeau did his required field placement at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.  Under the supervision of the curator, Erin Gregory, Nicolas conducted research on Canadians who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Cold War.