It was an unforgettable homecoming. On Canada Day 1999, 12 CF-18s roared over Parliament Hill in Ottawa, marking our return from combat—a moment that Hollywood’s best could not have rivaled. But the true story behind that flypast was an extraordinary coup, instigated by our combat unit and not from months of preplanning by officials in the Canadian Air Force. This proud moment exemplified how all returning servicemen and women should be honoured after serving Canada abroad.

In the spring of 1999, 25 years ago, the Canadian Armed Forces was engaged in combat as part of the NATO-led Operation Allied Force attempting to stop Serbian genocide of the minority population in the province of Kosovo. A NATO coalition conducted a 3-month bombing campaign over the Former Republic of Yugoslavia to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo and ultimately arrest their occupation of the province. Canada based a contingent of 6 CF-18 Hornets alongside United States Air Force fighter jets in Aviano Italy, as tensions with Serbia escalated.  When combat operations began in late March 1999, Canadian CF-18s were part of the 1st wave of attacks.  The oft-heard ‘Canada will never be part of a first strike’ notion was gone forever. As the NATO operations expanded, the Canadian fighter presence grew to 18 jets and required the support of the entire fighter force to sustain operations during the combat period. CF-18s conducted attacks, day and night, with the Canadian Air Force shouldering an unparalleled burden of the operations where 2% of the force flew 10% of the missions.  Back home in Canada, politicians refrained from acknowledging that Canadian fighter pilots were at war instead referring to the effort as simply “Operations” even though we were dropping thousands of pounds of laser guided bombs each day and night on enemy targets.

The level of effort to execute 60+ aircraft mass attacks into and over enemy Serbian territory took enormous planning and coordination. CF-18 pilots found themselves at the very front of the NATO effort commanding 1/2 of all the missions that we flew. While it took some time to see a weakening of the Serb capability, by early June, it was clear that combat operations were coming to an end. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, was running out of options and ready to negotiate a ceasefire with NATO. When combat operations had ended in late June, Canadian fighters had flown nearly 700 combat sorties and been at the very front of the NATO operation.  It was incredible validation of the professionalism and expertise of the Canadian fighter force.

After combat had ended, Aviano Air Base hosted visits by dignitaries such as U.S. President Clinton and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The PM was leading a ‘Team Canada’ European trip accompanied by Members of Parliament and business leaders to drum up economic opportunities in Europe.  The delegation detoured to visit Aviano Air Base and meet the Canadian Air Force contingent. Parallel to this visit, with combat over, we no longer needed all 18 CF-18 fighters and 12 of the jets had to return to their home bases in Bagotville, Quebec and Cold Lake, Alberta. My Operations Officer and longtime friend, Major Glen (Flaps) Phillips came to me with the suggestion that went something like… “You know Boss, we could pull off a flypast of 12 jets over Ottawa on Canada Day when we are taking all those jets home.” We did some quick brainstorming, and I was armed with a plan. I made a deal with Colonel Andre (Kermit) Viens, longtime fighter pilot and friend, who oversaw our Canadian operation, that if the Prime Minister agreed to this, Kermit would let me lead the flypast. And the rest was up to me.

Early on the day, the Minister of National Defence (MND) and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) arrived from Canada to help host the Prime Minister. Soon after, the military Airbus VIP transport plane landed with the Prime Minister, Madame Chrétien, his staff, Members of Parliament and their delegation.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Team Canada arrive at Aviano Air Base, Italy

I first proposed the idea to the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. “Do you think Canadians would like to see 12 CF-18s fly over Ottawa on Canada Day and celebrate these guys coming back from combat?”  We brainstormed and he liked the idea. Next, I spent time with Madame Chrétien, an extraordinary lady, who wanted to greet as many of the men and women who were part of the Canadian force during her visit. “Did you know that we could have 12 of these jets and pilots fly over Ottawa on Canada Day to recognize their heroic efforts in combat? Would Monsieur Chrétien think that this was a good idea?” And we got her buy-in. I was to show the Prime Minister around the CF-18 cockpit and had lots of 1-on-1 time with him. We talked surface-to-air missile threats, the complexity of amassing large forces of jets for each attack, aerial refueling, and I wondered aloud whether he thought that flying 12 CF-18s over Parliament Hill on Canada Day would be a good idea. Would Canadians like that? He believed they would.

Lt Col Flynn giving tour of CF-18 cockpit to PM Jean Chrétien

The PM was very gracious with his time and agreed to take group photos with everyone.  We presented mementos from our combat operation and said goodbye as he and his contingent returned to the Airbus and departed back to Canada. No one outside of our tight circle knew anything about the Hornet flypast plan. In the van driving from our hangars to the Airbus, with the Prime Minister, Minister of National Defense, Chief of Defence Staff and Colonel Andre (Kermit) Viens, the Prime Minister says to the CDS … “His buddy (that would be me while he is pointing to Kermit) says he can fly 12 of these jets over Ottawa on Canada Day.  I think that’s a great idea.” And that was it…done deal…except that the CDS had no notion of any of this nor did anyone else in the Air Force, at any level. Kermit later said that the CDS did not look pleased at being blindsided… chain of command?…What chain of command? “Go Big or Go Home”.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien posing with CF-18 pilots of Balkan Rats, June 1999

When the dust settled and the delegation had left, Flaps called back to Air Force Headquarters in Winnipeg.  “Hey, we’re going to be doing a 12-ship flypast over Ottawa on Canada Day…just a heads up.”  On the other end, the response was to the effect…” Well, we don’t know anything about this and that’s not going to happen…”. And Flaps’ retort was something like…” I’m just telling you what’s about to happen so you can be ready for it and don’t get blindsided”. For our part, we had to get the CF-18s back to Canada and started planning the routes and coordination to get home.  For a group who had just spent months working at the pace of combat operations, this wasn’t a tough job.  We flew from Italy to Iceland in 2 flights, spent a night and took off from Iceland, met a C-130 Hercules tanker out over the North Atlantic to air refuel and extend our legs so that we could reach Bagotville in one flight. By the time we landed in Bagotville, everyone was in full swing preparing for the flypast and allowed us two full days to plan and brief.  The plan was to depart Bagotville for Ottawa with 12 CF-18s plus an extra CF-18 as an airborne spare as well as having a T-33 jet with a photographer in the backseat to film it all. We planned to cruise to a point west of Ottawa, hold there until it was time to run-in for the flypast and then continue East over Parliament Hill, then up the Ottawa River where we would split into three 4-ships and return to land at the Ottawa airport.

I had inside knowledge that the final act of the official celebrations was a young choir of blind girls singing ‘Oh Canada’. I was told to absolutely not fly over early, risk scaring the girls with the roar of jets and having them cry on live national TV. The younger Hornet pilots had the brilliant idea to tie big Canadian flags to the speedbrakes of each jet so that when we landed, we would open the speedbrakes on the top of the jets and have the Canadian flags flying as we rolled out on the runway and taxied in to park.  Today, one of these flags, bearing all our signatures, is proudly displayed in 425 Squadron in Bagotville.

Well, as it turns out, after I left the Initial Point for the flypast run-in, I remembered that I couldn’t be early overhead Parliament Hill, so I slowed down a bit.  But tied close to me in a mass formation were 11 other jets.  Someone saw 240 knots airspeed at one point which is way too slow for a big formation.  Luckily I got back on time, sped up and recovered to bring us over Ottawa on the 1st of July 1999 to close the official Canada Day celebrations.  It was beyond brilliant.

I remember landing in Ottawa and loving the welcome that we all received, not just at the airport but throughout the rest of the Canada Day celebrations.  We took photos with all the pilots and then headed off for a series of events and autograph signings.  Much was special for me.  My brother met us at the airport.  Next, we went to the Canadian National Air and Space Museum in Rockcliffe to sign autographs.  Lucky for me, my mother and father were there to say hello. Coming home from combat to meet your brother and parents is pretty special. The next stop was at the Canadian War Museum where we signed more autographs and then ended at a reception in Hull.  That evening, we were all invited to the Canada Day events on Parliament Hill.  You couldn’t have asked for a better reception coming home.

Balkan Rats pilots posing at Ottawa airport following Canada Day flypast.

When we landed in Ottawa, I was pulled aside by Canadian Forces Security and Intelligence officials.  They wanted to detail the Serbian threat to our aircrew because we would be out with the public that day.  Threats from Serb activists had been a concern throughout the period of combat, but it was hard to take this seriously now. I explained to them that there were 100,000 Canadians who had been drinking beer all day long, had their faces painted red and white, and I was pretty sure we were safe with all of those folks celebrating around us.

The flypast was a brilliant and uniquely un-Canadian event, marking a perfect return from combat. We split the next day, most of the pilots flew their jets back to Bagotville, while some of us headed west to Cold Lake.  There I was reunited with my son Bret, then 5-years-old.  I have two photos mounted in my home of that day, one with Bret waving a Canadian flag as I taxied in to our squadron and another of him hugging me with a white rose in his hand to give to me as I climbed down the ladder. There is nothing more important than coming home to your family.

5-year-old Bret Flynn welcoming home his Dad, Lt Col Billie Flynn, from combat

I left Cold Lake the next day to fly back to Italy to end my tour and hand over command of the operation. Even today, the flypast remains an extraordinary coup that we pulled off.  No official would have ever sanctioned a flypast like we orchestrated.  All of it would have been too bold and extravagant for the Canadian Air Force.  Yet our guys did it all on their own.

Combat operations are not so mystical anymore with the experiences of years of war in Afghanistan, and fighter combat operations over Libya and Syria.  But 25 years ago, we were still a peacetime military. The lasting impact, changes triggered by Operation Allied Force, helped drive the needed refocus of the Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces overall.

Hollywood does ‘make believe’.  We did the real thing.  Canada Day in 1999 was a great day to be a Canadian fighter pilot. I wish every Canada Day we would honour the dedication and sacrifices of our brave men and women in uniform who safeguard the freedoms we enjoy every day.

12 CF-18 Flypast over Parliament Hill, 1 July 1999