Born in India and educated in England, Canada and the USA, Peter Corley-Smith served as an RAF pilot with the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. After the war he became in turn a miner, surveyor, cartographer, commercial helicopter pilot and college instructor before becoming a history curator. Now retired and living in Victoria, his experiences include wartime flying in the RAF (SOE) and 20 years as a helicopter bush pilot across the Canadian North. He has been a college instructor and, more recently, a history curator at the Royal British Columbia Museum, where he is now a Research Associate.
Peter Corley-Smith has received wide recognition for his books on British Columbia’s aviation history. Titles include: 10,000 Hours: Reminiscences of a Helicopter Bush Pilot; Helicopters: The British Columbia Story (with Dave Parker); and Barnstorming to Bush Flying: British Columbia’s Aviation Pioneers 1910-1930, the first book in this series. In 1990 he received the Helicopter Industry Association’s Award of Excellence in Communications at its international convention in Dallas. Peter died in November 2002.
Lives Lived: Peter Corley-Smith
By Robert D. Turner
Peter Corley-Smith, pilot, miner, surveyor, English instructor, Museum Curator, historian and author, passed away in Victoria on November 17, 2002. His was a life well lived. Born in India in 1923 and educated in England, he had a life-long interest in flying. During the Second World War he joined the RAF and flew Sterlings on special missions for the Special Operations Executive, the SOE. These long and dangerous flights took him all over occupied Europe in support of the underground movements. His squadron was being retrained for bombing when the war ended.
After the war, he went mining in the Gold Coast of West Africa and then, after a time in England where he met the love of his life Nina, he moved to Northern Rhodesia for another spell of mining and surveying. They were married in 1951 and it was, to quote Peter, “the one unquestionably sensible thing I ever did.” In 1954 they moved to Canada where Peter hoped to get back into flying, being intrigued by the vastness of northern Canada. He took helicopter training, signed on with Spartan Air Services based in Ottawa and flew for a decade all over northern Canada. Then in 1959, now with two sons, Gerald and Graham, Peter and Nina moved to British Columbia. Later Peter began flying for Vancouver Island Helicopters, and it was a long and happy association. He liked the company, the work and in particular the people whom he respected and trusted. Peter recounted his bush flying years in his delightful autobiography 10,000 Hours, Reminiscences of a Helicopter Bush Pilot, first published in 1985.
Now in his early forties, Peter decided it was time to shift careers and enrolled at the University of Victoria where he studied each winter and flew in the summers. “The fun of sleeping in a wet sleeping bag,” he reflected, “was beginning to wear off.” In 1968 he graduated with an Honours BA in English and then went on to receive a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Montana in 1970. Shortly after, he began teaching English at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, continuing to fly in the summers. Peter’s wide and practical experience in aviation and mining helped persuade skeptical technology students of the value of communication skills and literature. “If a bush pilot can read novels and poetry, then maybe I can too….”
In 1974, Peter flew his last summer season for VIH and the next year began working for the B.C. Provincial Museum (now the Royal B.C. Museum) on the Museum Train, that was touring the province with exhibits each summer, while teaching in the winter at BCIT. Then he became full time Extension Officer and worked on traveling exhibits and a speaker’s tour program that he greatly enjoyed. He moved over the History Section and became a curator, not long before his “retirement” in 1988. Retirement, and his appointment as a Research Associate at the RBCM, meant more time for writing. While at the Royal B.C. Museum, and continuing after retirement, Peter lectured all over the province. He spoke to school children in dozens of remote communities such as Wells, Pink Mountain, Telegraph Creek, Kaslo, Atlin and Mcleese Lake as well as larger centres. He was anxious to tell youngsters about flying and the history of their communities. He assisted many museums and historic sites and was a long time supporter of the SS Moyie, the former CPR paddlewheeler and a National Historic Site at Kaslo. He was made a life member by the Kootenay Lake Historical Society.
Peter was a frequent contributor to Aviator, and as founder Jack Schofield points out, he was a great supporter of the magazine during its struggling years. Despite his years in the RAF, his real interest was civil aviation and the pioneers who flew in such challenging conditions in British Columbia and the north. Peter authored many articles and 10 books including 10,000 Hours, and the highly regarded, three-volume history of B.C. aviation and its pioneers: Barnstorming to Bushflying; Bushflying to Blind Flying; and Pilots to Presidents, all published by Sono Nis Press. He co-authored with Dave Parker two companion books on helicopter flying in B.C., Helicopters, the B.C. Story and Helicopters in the High Country. With Bruce McAllister he wrote Wings Over the Alaska Highway in 2001. His books are an impressive record, permeated by a sparkling and incisive wit, and provide a carefully researched, insightful illustrated history of aviation in British Columbia. He received the Helicopter Industry’s Communications Award in 1990. His other books are a two-volume history of the Royal British Columbia Museum and a history of the Victoria Golf Club.
Peter leaves his wife Nina and their two sons and families. Gerald is a helicopter pilot and Safety Officer with Highland Helicopters in Vancouver and Graham, who has a PhD in marine biology, is presently a researcher in Oregon. When word reached his friends on the historic sternwheeler Moyie at Kaslo, the flag was lowered to half-mast in tribute to Peter.
Robert D. Turner
Peter was my uncle, I met him as a small child, age 3, regret to say family then lost contact. His sister, my mother, died in 1986, in Cornwall, England, where she had lived since 1958.
Include your memories in Peter’s memorial.