Q&A: 11766 Colonel (retired) James Philip Doherty, OMM, CD, P.Eng. (Class of 1978)
Location of birth? Date? Where do you consider your home-town while growing up?
I am a baby-boomer born on 25 April 1956 in Montreal, the third of six children. In Grade 1, my father was hired as a sale executive at Coppley Clothing in Hamilton, and we moved to Burlington, Ontario, which I consider my home-town. Anyone familiar with TSN Sportscentre will recognize the product endorsement, “Commentator clothing provided by Coppley”. True to my roots, growing up in the fine clothing business recently inspired my new business venture, which I will mention later.
Name of high school where you graduated? Location – ?
I started high school at Cathedral Boys in Hamilton, but commuting from Burlington became excessive, particularly following extracurricular activities. One night I took the last bus from Hamilton and fell asleep on the way home. I finally awoke in Oakville and had to walk 9 kilometers home along Lakeshore Road in the dead of night. In those days, there were no cell phones to call home for a lift. As a result, we became resilient and self-reliant. I transferred to Nelson High School in Burlington where I completed my final three years graduating from Grade 13 (known as senior matriculation at the time).
When did you first conceive of the idea of applying for milcol?
My interest in military college began in sea cadets. From the youngest age, I always had great respect for the military. I owe this to my oldest uncle, Billy, who had been a lieutenant and a navigator on Lancaster bombers during World War II. His character was larger than life, and he was always regaling colourful stories, like carrying a metal seat plate onboard to protect his “vital organs” from flack damage. As one of 13 children, he was a hero and became legendary in the Doherty family. Uncle Billy instilled in me the image of courage and honour to serve one’s country and pride in wearing the uniform. In 1970, while helping my father volunteer at a Knights of Columbus Carnival in Burlington, I vividly remember meeting two very impressive sea cadets dressed smartly in uniform with white belt and gaiters. After talking to them, I knew immediately that I had to join, and the following Wednesday I enrolled at RCSCC Iron Duke in Burlington. I always felt proud to wear that naval uniform. Indeed, we were blessed with an extraordinary group of dedicated officers, most of whom had retired from naval service. While WWII now seems distant in history, growing up in the sixties was only 20 years post-war and most war veterans were just approaching middle age. A very dedicated Navy League Committee and our cadet officers transformed the interior of an old church into a simulated ship with all the accoutrements including a yard arm, a ship’s bell and a small petty officers’ mess, a bridge equipped with ship’s wheel and compass, and a lower deck with a shooting range, an armoury, classrooms, and the ever popular canteen. We had a marching band, a guard, and a couple of great buglers, all of whom added to the ambience, pomp and circumstance. An interesting claim to fame is that Canadian actor and comedian, Jim Carrey, was a cadet at RCSCC Iron Duke; he was being reprimanded constantly and kept us all in stitches with his hilarious impressions. At 15 years old, thanks to cadets, I flew on an airplane for the first time in my life, and it was a dream come true to sit in a jump seat in the back of a CC-130 Hercules flying from Trenton to Cornwallis for summer camp. The following year, I went on a six-week Physical and Recreational Training (P&RT) summer camp in Borden, at which I was recruited to a high box team that performed for 40,000 spectators at the 1972 Scottish World Festival at CNE Stadium in Toronto (incidentally another ex-cadet, Colonel Al Stephenson, CF-18 pilot, was also on that team). At age 17, I did a six-week Boatswain’s Course in Esquimalt that included sailing on the ocean and navigating in Navy YFPs through the fiords of Desolation Sound. In sea cadets, I fell in love with sailing that remains my passion to this day. Whenever I have the chance, I strongly endorse the cadet movement that remains in my opinion the best youth leadership organization in Canada. My experiences in sea cadets were by far the most memorable activities of my high school years. Most of my lifelong friends from that era are from cadets rather than school. My next step in life was a natural progression to military college.
What motivated you to apply and accept the offer to military college?
At RCSCC Iron Duke, our officers were great role models and, although none of them were ex-cadets, they informed us about RMC and contacted the college to arrange a weekend tour for my older brother (who was in air cadets) and me. My father and mother drove us to Kingston one Saturday morning on a cold winter day, and an RMC cadet hosted us for a daylong guided tour including lunch in the cadet dining hall. I loved everything I saw and was hell bent to apply. I clearly remember the day that I returned from school, and my mother greeted me at the door saying that there was a letter for me. I was overcome with emotion when I read that I had been accepted. At the time, it was the proudest moment of my life.
Entry year to military college and where?
I was well prepared to start the recruit term at RMC, Kingston in August 1974. I would have preferred to start my college years at Royal Roads in Victoria since I had done sea cadet summer training in Esquimalt, but my interest in the football team at RMC swayed my decision. I enjoyed recruit term in 8 Squadron, Whiskey Flight where the excessive boot polishing, uniform upkeep, and endless drill came naturally. Moreover, I was in great shape after playing all summer with the Burlington Braves football team.
Grad year and where?
I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from RMC, Kingston in 1978.
Can you pinpoint a ‘few’ favourite memories from your milcol days?
RMC was definitely the right fit for me since I have always enjoyed a lifestyle with a good balance between academics, military, athletics, and social, including the arts. Naturally, all four were encouraged and rewarded as pillars of the RMC program. Now, celebrating 40 years since grad, I fondly recall how well “barrack room humour” would quickly lighten the mood and defuse any stressful situation; it became part of our survival instinct, just as “gallows humour” remains an effective coping mechanism for first responders and troops in battle. A constant truth is that laughter is the best medicine, and I would definitely say that we developed a thicker skin and were far less sensitive to criticism than many people are today. To this day, I have never grown tired of well-intentioned sarcastic banter, practical jokes and skylarks, delivered and received in the positive spirit that was intended. The truth is that we would only ever target the people that we liked the most for practical jokes, like exploding the famous envelop of shaving cream under the door. Meanwhile, skylarks such as stealing the Frigate Bell, spray painting the top of the arch, repelling from the roof of Sawyer Building to hang a banner, sneaking a sports car into the cadet dining hall and putting it up on the salad tables, painting the bronze statue Bruce, and icing the parade square before the weekly Director of Cadets parade instilled a spirit of adventure that required diligent planning and precise timing, where there was a certain element of danger and a high risk of getting caught. We became risk takers who benefitted from rewards for success or suffered (reasonable) consequences for failure – true lessons in life. For these reasons, skylarks were tolerated at the college, and they ended there. As always, the true test, which is second nature for RMC grads, is that “it’s not a joke unless everyone is laughing”.
My proudest moments at RMC were being light heavyweight champion in Recruit Boxing, wearing the crossed swords and crown (top in military proficiency) and the cross bats and crown (highest score on the PF test) several times during my first three years, winning the academic prize for Civil Engineering Surveying in second year, and being a league all-star football player in third year in the Ontario-Quebec College Football league.
What was your biggest challenge while at milcol?
As much as I enjoyed the four pillars of academics, military, athletics, and social, clearly my greatest challenge at RMC was finding the right balance and placing an appropriate emphasis on academics. Honestly, I went from an A student in my first term at RMC to a C student at graduation. As time passed, I became increasingly involved with the athletic and military aspects of College life to the detriment of my studies. I had the potential to do far better academically. Nonetheless, I live with no regret since genuinely my personal strengths and greatest accomplishments in life have resulted from strong leadership, team building, operational support, and program management.
A turning point for me and my most valuable lesson learned at RMC occurred in my final year. Entering fourth year as an all-star football player, one of four captains on the team, and having been appointed Cadet Wing Sports Officer (CWSO), I had trained intensively all summer to finish off at RMC with my best year ever and hopefully to help win our football league championship. Unfortunately, after just a week of practice, I suffered a serious shoulder separation, which required emergency surgery, and I was instantly out for the season. It was a devastating hit, psychologically more than physically, that dashed my hopes for the season and the year. Now I know that I reacted badly by not opening my eyes to other possibilities, and re-directing my energy, my ability, and my available time to academics. I could have benefitted from the circumstances and been a phoenix rising from the ashes. Instead, I chose to remain with the team to assist with coaching the defensive backs. The lesson learned that paralympians demonstrate so well, is to concentrate relentlessly on one’s abilities rather than disabilities. In recent years, this important lesson sustained me through a storm of life threatening complications following major surgery. Some of the lessons from RMC are less obvious than others. We live and we learn.
Are there any former staff that have left a lifelong impression? Who? Why?
There were many extraordinary and memorable role models at RMC, but the one person who stands out most for me is General John de Chastelain, CC CMM CD CH, who, at age 40 was a Brigadier General and our new commandant in 1977. Over a lifetime the details of an encounter may fade, but you will never forget how you felt at the time. For me this occurred in Currie Hall when BGen de Chastelain summoned the fourth year class for an address to set the tone for the coming year before the rest of the cadet wing returned. We were captivated by his poise and his eloquent lecture as he thoughtfully paced the stage (without notes) for nearly an hour explaining the responsibilities of command and our obligations as leaders. I left feeling uplifted, truly inspired and highly motivated to lead by example. These were foundational lessons in life and in command, not simply advice for the coming year. To top things off, General de Chastelain then ran the recruit obstacle course with the Cadet Wing Headquarters, which started an admirable tradition to prove that it was safe for the recruits and as a deliberate demonstration of leadership by example. Unbelievably, he actually broke his ankle on the first obstacle but carried on to complete the course. The following day, he appeared on parade wearing a cast. Needless to say, he left a powerful impression.
I must also credit an outstanding group of professors in the Mechanical Engineering Department. Dr. Craig Moffat, Dr. Pierre Bussières, Dr. Bob Ferguson, and Dr. John Pike were all brilliant professors and “teachers” which is the highest compliment that a student can pay. To leave a lecture hall understanding the material because of the way that it was taught is a great gift, compared with suffering the frustration of listening to incomprehensible lectures and having to learn the material (or not) on your own afterward.
I must also add a final credit to the drill staff who entertained us regularly with hilarious remarks that broke the monotony of endless hours of mindless drill, as I like to say. While we loved Sergeant Major Cox for his famous exclamation “Jack it up!”, Warrant Office Hood was brilliant with his snide remarks, and would castigate us saying such things as, “You’re heavy and slow, as if you were a bloody Clydesdale, with hooves this big” (as he thrust his arms wide open). Understanding that the e-Veritas readership extends beyond ex-cadets, I dare not repeat how another drill instructor would (euphemistically speaking) encourage good posture. It would horrify the politically correct, but you had to be there; it was comical, and of course we have talked about it ever since. There was also the famous drill sergeant who pointed his pace stick into someone’s abdomen and barked “Officer Cadet, there is s*#@ on the end of this stick!” Nervously glancing down, the cadet fired back, “Not this end, Drill Sergeant.”
If you spent time in the CAF following grad – what was your military occupation(s)? Where did you serve? How many years?
My military occupation was Aerospace Engineering (AERE) and we undertook all of our summer training at CFB Borden, a few years before they introduced summer contact training. It was ridiculous to teach aircraft maintenance procedures and how to fill out servicing forms in the stale environment of a sweltering classroom in Borden. It was a recipe for getting into trouble, which we did regularly. Giving well-deserved credit, the AERE occupation awakened to the benefit of summer contact training in the real environment of operational flying units shortly thereafter.
I loved my career as an AERE officer, which began in 1979, after seemingly endless AERE training. I was posted to CFB Edmonton as the Aircraft Maintenance Officer on 440 Transport and Rescue Squadron. I was the youngest member of the squadron paired with a wonderful Master Warrant Officer, Phil Trofimuk, who sadly passed away in 2010. The unique bond between a fledgling young lieutenant and the senior technician on a flying squadron became a sacred trust that would make you or break you, and I regard that learning and working relationship as a powerful model for other organizations to emulate. Equally powerful was the enormous, but not overwhelming, responsibility entrusted to new junior officers, which was a tremendous opportunity to learn quickly with the safety net of a capable senior NCO who could keep you out of trouble or give you enough rope to hang yourself, depending on how well you gained his respect. It was a great test for a neophyte officer and the best way to learn fast.
While many postings followed, including post-grad studies in turbo-machinery design at RMC, I regard my greatest career accomplishment as leading the maintenance organization of 416/439 Composite Squadron – the Desert Cats – in Qatar during the Gulf War in 1990-91.
While posted to Germany on 439 Tiger Squadron (Fangs of Death), this was by far the most intense assignment of my lifetime being responsible for 261 technicians, 26 CF-18s, and a massive field of munitions supporting round the clock combat operations for months during Operation Desert Storm.
I am now old enough to boast that we did extraordinarily well with a Herculean effort, meticulous planning, and great creativity to deal with countless unknowns and rapidly changing roles and requirements. Despite all odds and by the grace of God, we dodged a few Scud missile attacks, and overcame all obstacles to achieve consistent 95% aircraft serviceability and 100% mission success (measured by serviceable aircraft launched on time with the right configuration and weapons load to meet every launch scheduled). I gained a profound appreciation for the power of a positive attitude, strength of spirit, and sense of humour during those intense operations when 261 technicians were all suffering varying degrees of combat fatigue. I endured several near sleepless nights prior to my deployment while struggling over the question, “Is this cause worth dying for?” when I had a wife and three small children depending on me. I became eternally grateful to my esteemed fellow AERE officers, Jacques Comtois and Dave Millar who put me completely at ease by short-sheeting my bed on the night of my arrival in Qatar. “You bastards!”, I yelled from my hut, and then giggled my way to sleep with a light hearted but powerful reminder that I was with my brethren in whom I could entrust my life.
I am also proud to be have been appointed the youngest Air Force Attaché to the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (CDLS) London, where my family and I spent two extraordinary years living on Kensington High Street just a few blocks from Kensington Palace and Hyde Park. I could write a full chapter on that experience since it was a role that suited me well.
I was also greatly privileged to command the pre-eminent 1 Air Maintenance Squadron at 4 Wing in Cold Lake. A further demonstration of the balance in life was my custom painted 1AMS 1976 Ford pickup that I purchased for $1,000 and then suitably modified – I called it “The Blue Max” based on 1 AMS’s German heritage.
On the morning of Billie Flynn’s change of command at 441 Tactical Fight Squadron, we had a drag race on Runway 04 with The Blue Max pitted against Billie’s 441 Checker Squadron Ford Bronco, and I won – the only thing that I will ever win against the indomitable Billie Flynn, now F-35 Lightning Experimental Test Pilot.
My Air Force career culminated with my appointment by the Governor General as an Officer of the Order of Military Merit (OMM), and promotion to Colonel as Director of Aerospace Equipment Program Management (DAEPM) Fighters and Trainers responsible for the CF-18 fleet, the Snowbirds, and UAVs.
What follow-up civilian career (if any) did you have following your military time?
With chances of promotion to General at 1 in 9 for the AERE occupation, in 2005, after 31 years supporting fighter pilots and CF-18 operations, I applied to be Director of the Canadian Astronaut Office and was hired by Marc Garneau, then President of the Canadian Space Agency. It was truly an honour to work for Marc with six of the most extraordinary Canadian astronauts. Naturally, ex-cadets have closely followed the exploits of the world renowned Chris Hadfield, whose entire career is filled with superlatives, too numerous to mention. The greatest pride to Canada was for Chris to be have been entrusted the responsibility of being Commander of the International Space Station (ISS) during the latter half of his ISS Expedition 34/35. During my tenure, our new Governor General and Commander-in-Chief, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette was our Canadian Chief Astronaut. Julie is one the most impressive, talented, intelligent, and determined people that I have ever met – I suspect that, like General de Chastelain, she could still run the Recruit Obstacle Course and likely embarrass a few people with less mettle! Julie went on to complete her second spaceflight, STS-127, logging more than 25 total days in space.
I had the great privilege to greet Steve MacLean as he stepped down from Space Shuttle Atlantis with the crew of STS-115 following their return from space, the first ISS Assembly mission following the Columbia accident. I followed Dr. Dafydd Williams, through the final stages of his training for STS-118 as he perfected his Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) skills in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) and again as a commanded a NASA undersea mission with fellow astronauts in the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO). Dafydd is a brilliant visionary who was the first non-American to hold a senior management position within NASA where he was appointed Director of the Space and Life Sciences directorate at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). On his second Shuttle mission, STS-118, he performed a record three space walks. I also visited Dr. Bob Thirsk at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia where he was training to be flight engineer on the Russian Soyuz in preparation for ISS Expedition 20/21 – Bob is now Chancellor of the University of Calgary. Finally, I had the privilege to work with Bjarni Trygvasson who, following his retirement, flew the replica of Alexander Graham Bell’s Silver Dart in 2009, from the ice on Baddeck Bay, Cape Breton. Bjarni still lectures at the University of Western Ontario.
As that corps of six astronauts retired, I became the Program Lead for Planetary Missions and Space Astronomy. Currently, I am the Program Lead for a portfolio of projects to explore potential Post-ISS Human Spaceflight Canadian contributions including a robotic arm to operate on NASA’s Deep Space Gateway, a relative navigation system for spacecraft rendezvous and docking, deep space telecommunications, lunar surface robotic and manned rovers, and a medical monitoring and diagnostic capability. It is awesome to be working on the next stages of human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit into deep space that will lead to a permanent human presence in space and eventual colonization of the Moon and Mars.
In line with my family tradition of fine men’s apparel, and as an outlet for my creative and artistic side, I started a small enterprise called MeteArt that is fine jewellery made from meteorites after scientific testing to verify their provenance. At 4.6 billion years old, they are the oldest matter you will ever touch. The king of Canadian men’s wear, Harry Rosen, attended my launch at !Xam Diamonds on Bay Street in Toronto in November 2016. If you would like to know more, visit the MeteArt website and please contact me directly at [email protected] for special consideration.
How have you stayed connected with your class over the years?
I have remained well connected with my classmates through our Class of 78 Facebook page. Truly my best lifelong friendships were made at RMC. I have previously assumed the role of class secretary, and I very much enjoy returning every five years for our scheduled reunions – another great RMC tradition. We will be celebrating our 40-year Reunion in September 2018, and there is more interest than ever from classmates to attend the weekend event.
How much are you aware of how things are at RMC these days?
I am out of touch with the overall running of the college, but very impressed and encouraged with what appears in e-Veritas, which is an outstanding publication and an effective way to communicate with alumni.
What do you like the most of what you hear and / or see at the college these days?
Against a backdrop of mounting concern that basic leadership skills are waning in our society, our Military Colleges play a foundational role that is growing in significance to develop outstanding Canadian leaders for tomorrow. Within my direct sphere, there is a leadership success story tied to every member of the Class of 1978 covering all walks of life. While our most celebrated classmate is Larry Stevenson, of Chapters fame, appointed Chairman of the Board at SNC-Lavalin while continuing his role as Managing Director of Clearspring Capital Partners (formerly Callisto Capital), our successes have bridged both industry and academia. Concerning the latter, our esteemed classmate, Professor Derrick Bouchard, is currently the Dean of Engineering at RMC.