‘Andy’ Carswell, a WWII flying ace who twice escaped from a German PoW camp, has died at Sunnybrook Veteran’s Centre age 98

‘Andy’ Carswell, a WWII flying ace who twice escaped from a German PoW camp, has died at Sunnybrook Veteran’s Centre age 98
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Andrew Gordon “Andy” Carswell, a WWII flying ace who twice escaped captivity from a German PoW camp, and went on to inspire generations of Canadian pilots, has died at the age of 98.

Carswell died peacefully in his sleep Sunday night at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, his son John told the Star.

While he was hailed as a hero for his WWII flying prowess — and for routinely saving the lives of several people during his post-war stint as a search and rescue pilot — his father never let his flying exploits go to his head, John said. Those exploits earned him an Air Force Cross for Bravery from Queen Elizabeth II in 1958.

“He was a uniformed officer in the Air Force, a great pilot, and to me, he was really something. But he was not a man of any artifice. He was a man of the people,” said John, whose father often laughed as he recalled one visit to an Air Force officers mess.

In the lofty environment, the hoi poloi typically didn’t talk to officers much, John Carswell said. Heads turned when a cook walked out of the kitchen and casually said “Hey Andy, we going flying tomorrow?”

His father smiled, nodded and said yes.

“He taught me that everybody mattered,” said John Carswell.

Andy Carswell, was born May 29, 1923 in California to Canadian parents who moved back to Toronto’s Balmy Beach neighbourhood when he was still young.

Like many members of his generation, he unhesitatingly joined up to fight in WWII, enlisting with the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he became a Lancaster bomber pilot at the age of 19.

He was shot down over Silesia — in current-day Poland — in 1943, and spent most of the rest of the war as a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB. Twice, he escaped from the camp, only to be recaptured by German forces.

“I felt it was my duty to escape,” he told the Star in a 2005 interview. “The Germans were putting up signs that said: ‘Notice to Prisoners: Escaping is no Longer a Sport.’ And they told us they’d shoot us,” Andy Carswell said.

After the war, he briefly became a flight instructor at a private airline, then rejoined the RCAF in 1948. While with the RCAF, he joined their search and rescue operation, and several times made headlines for saving lives, including a risky rescue of five sailors who had been hanging on for dear life after capsizing off the Vancouver Island coast.

“Wrecked B.C. Seamen Safe; all five on island,” read the front page headline in the Vancouver Province.

That rescue, with a float plane, was particularly risky, his son John recounted. Float planes are typically not landed in open seas because of the risk of capsizing from waves.

“The plane was bobbing around, but he managed to take off, anyway, with all of the sailors on board. That’s something that not a lot of people could have done,” said John, who himself went on to a career in the Air Force, and today runs Canso Investment Counsel Ltd.

Eventually, Andy Carswell moved on to work at Transport Canada, in their air safety division. While being a civil servant might have seemed less exciting than being a bomber pilot or flying search and rescue missions, it was in that role that Andy Carswell had what was perhaps his longest-lasting impact on Canadian aviation.

As a regional safety inspector for Transport Canada, he was asked to head up a team to look into air safety after several deadly crashes in Northern Ontario. The provincial government at the time had threatened to regulate aviation if nothing was done.

Carswell turned in his report. His gobsmacked boss, fearing political blowback, chided him.

“Andy, you can’t just say there’s no air safety in Northern Ontario,” his boss yelled.

Carswell stood his ground, and the report was eventually published. It led to the , which found that Transport Canada managed its air safety division ineffectively, and recommended more independence for safety inspectors.

“Professionally, if you asked him, that report was probably the thing he was most proud of. If he thought something was wrong, he wanted it done right,” said John Carswell. “He spoke up when he saw something was wrong, and sometimes that hurt his career.”

Andy Carswell is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 74 years, four children, 10 grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
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