Essex Memorial Spitfire in honour of Gerald “Jerry” Billing, legendary Spitfire pilot, a tribute to RCAF/RAF veterans from Essex and Windsor

Photos and story by Gord McNulty, CAHS Vice-President

1 Full scale replica Spitfire IX YOD ML135 401 Sqdn mounted in honour of Jerry Billing at Essex Photo taken Oct 3 2015 G McNulty

Jerry Billing 300In January, 2015, Canada lost an outstanding pilot, well known for exceptional air show performances in the Spitfire, with the death of Gerald “Jerry” Billing at a health care centre in South Woodslee, near Essex, ON, at age 93. The Essex Memorial Spitfire in honour of Jerry, a full-scale fibreglass replica of the Spitfire Mark IX that he flew over Normandy on D-Day, is a fitting tribute to Second World War air force veterans from the Essex and Windsor area.

2 Full scale replica Spitfire IX YOD ML135 401 Sqdn mounted in honour of Jerry Billing at Essex Photo taken Oct 3 2015 G McNulty

A committee of fundraisers received many donations for the memorial, which includes a black granite Honour Wall beside the replica with the names of about 1,500 air force veterans etched in stone. The replica is identical to the RCAF 401 Squadron Spitfire YO-D ML135, with D-Day invasion stripes, that Billing flew. Built in England by GB Replicas, the replica was shipped to Montreal, where the cargo container was put on a train to Brampton. Chrysler Canada generously delivered it from there by truck to Essex, where it was assembled in the old Essex Memorial Arena. The replica was dedicated in a ceremony at Heritage Gardens near the historic Essex Train Station before a large crowd in September, 2014. Billing was unable to attend the event, but he watched it live over Skype. A few days later he was able to see and enjoy it as paramedics took him to the site.

3 Essex Memorial Spitfire in honour of Jerry Billing Oct 3 2015 G McNulty

The idea for the project originated after a mural dedicated to Billing, painted on the wall of a Canadian Tire store in Essex, was destroyed when the building was torn down. Bob Swaddling, Spitfire historian and longtime friend of the Billing family, urged Essex Town Council to go a step beyond replacing the mural and put up a Spitfire replica instead. The fundraising committee sprang into action and the rest is history. The replica was originally estimated to cost about $200,000 but that was reduced to around $143,000 with people donating various services. In May, 2015, the Honour Wall was dedicated before another large crowd.

4 Essex Memorial Spitfire full scale replica of Spitfire IX YOD ML135 401 Sqdn flown by Jerry Billing over Normandy D Day Oct 3 2015 G McNulty

In October, my wife and I were in the nearby Leamington area, and we were impressed by the memorial. An approaching storm at the time ruled out a blue sky for optimum pictures, but at least it didn’t rain. Photos are attached, including images of the funeral home card for Jerry that was kindly mailed to me by his wife, Karen. I met Jerry while I was a reporter at the Windsor Star in the early ‘70s. He was also a friend of my father, Jack, and my younger brother, Jim, who also became a reporter at the Windsor Star after I joined the Hamilton Spectator.

Billing served with the RCAF and RAF for 25 years, flying more than 250 sorties during two tours of duty in the Second World War. He survived five months of intense air battles in the skies above Malta in the winter of 1942-43, flying Spitfires with #19 Squadron RAF. He was shot down twice by Bf-109s. In 1944 Jerry joined 401 Squadron RCAF, where he saw combat over France. He was downed by flak after D-Day and forced to crash-land in no-man’s land, where he was helped by a French family until he was picked up by the Americans.

In 1947 Billing became chief flying instructor at the Windsor Flying Club. He re-enlisted in the RCAF in 1948, based at Trenton as a pilot instructor. He flew the B-25 Mitchell, Lancaster, P-51 Mustang, Vampire, the T-33 Silver Star and the F-86 Sabre. In 1954, Jerry went to the UK as an exchange officer in a fighter development squadron. He returned to Canada in 1956, flying air shows in the Sabre and training Golden Hawk pilots. He left the RCAF in 1964 to become a test pilot for de Havilland Canada, where he delivered Caribou aircraft to Vietnam that were flown in covert CIA operations.

Billing began many graceful and precise performances in the Spitfire in the early 1970s, when he trained Don Plumb of Windsor to fly Don’s dual-seat Spitfire IX trainer, CF-RAF/TE308. Billing was then contacted by Bill Ross of Chicago to fly actor Cliff Robertson’s Spitfire IX, N921R/MK923. He thoroughly enjoyed performing in the Spit for 22 years. Billing amassed 52½ years on the Spitfire, and received a thank-you letter from the Queen in 1984, before retiring from flying the famous fighter in 1996 at age 75. He continued to fly an Aeronca Champ from a private strip that he had for more than 40 years. Billing was knighted by France and made an honorary French citizen.

Gerald Jerry Billing

A funeral for Jerry was held in Essex on 9 January, 2015. He is survived by his wife Karen, four sons and six grandchildren. In his book A Knave Among Knights In Their Spitfires, Jerry wrote about his passion for the Spitfire. In his words, “I would not give 20 minutes flying aerobatics in a Spitfire for 10,000 hours flying on an airliner.”

More information is available by Googling the Essex Memorial Spitfire Committee.