Kate to visit Calgary where her grandfather was a top gun instructor

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CALGARY - A former wingman remembers Peter Middleton as a fearless young man who, at the age of 22, was already a top gun flying officer.

Middleton was based at Calgary's No. 37 Service Flight Training School, where he trained hundreds of urgently needed Royal Air Force pilots during the Second World War.

Now, nearly 60 years later, his granddaughter Kate and her husband Prince William will visit the city that Middleton called home for 2 1/2 years.

The Duchess of Cambridge may even tread some of the same ground when the royal plane lands in Calgary on Thursday. The No. 37 school was on land now owned by the airport authority.

"Very simply there was a group of eight instructors in that section and Peter was our flight commander," said Les Grieg, who served under Middleton at the school in 1943 and 1944. "We were all just a bunch of young guys ... whose whole life was flying. We just all got along."

Several members of Britain’s air force were stationed in Canada as instructors or students as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. There were 18 flight schools in Alberta alone.

Calgary is a much different city today than it was then. It's home to more than a million people and its shiny steel-and-glass downtown skyscrapers house the business brains behind Canada's energy industry.Those multi-storey towers wouldn't have soared over the landscape in Middleton's day and the population was only 98,000.

"I can remember everything," said Grieg, now 88.

He recalls that an average day for instructors began when they were awakened in their private quarters and brought tea by a batman, a soldier assigned to take care of their needs. That was followed by breakfast and hours of flying.

"Our life was quite unique."

Interaction with the community was limited. Life was spent mainly at the base. The two days off that instructors had every couple of weeks were usually spent in the bar at the upscale Palliser Hotel, which has accommodated several royal visitors over the years, including the Queen and Prince Charles.

"We'd head down to the Palliser Hotel and so the whole floor was just our pilots and there was no such thing as ice," said Grieg. "We weren't heavy drinkers. We'd just drink a few beers.

"There were maybe about 30 officers there total. We were all very happy. We all loved our flying career."

Not much of the old school remains. The Aero Space Museum of Calgary is housed in the only building that is left.

Museum archivist Rodney Lowe said Middleton was the best of the best.

"Only the best pilots went on to train," he said. "Whoever graduated in the top two or three per cent of the class was asked to become an instructor because they were that good. When you say 'best of the best' that sounds so cliched, but that in essence is what it was."

Brenda Blair, the museum's operations manager, said students at the flight training school were trained as either fighter pilots or bomber pilots.

The connection between the former school and the Duchess of Cambridge is inspiring, she added.

"You cannot have a 'now' or a 'future' without a past ... we now have a wonderful young lady, who one day could be Queen...."

Middleton died last November, just a few days before William and Kate announced their engagement.

Grieg plans to make his way to Calgary from his home in Vancouver to see the duchess when she makes her visit.

He regrets that he didn't keep in contact with his comrades after the war, but he does think about the young pilots that he, Middleton and the other instructors turned out.

"You had them for three months. You gave them your all and they were very close to you. A lot of them got killed, of course, because the mortality rate in those days was very high.

"They are a blur."

Geographic location: Calgary

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