Welcome to “Path to Your Dreams,” the blog series about fascinating and inspirational stories for young pilots trying to figure out their career path. We have talked with an eclectic group of pilots from various walks of life in aviation, to learn about how they followed their dreams in aviation. Here’s another of the many stories!
The pilot: Rob “Scratch” Mitchell, movie producer, actor, and air show pilot based in Vancouver, British Columbia; retired Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter pilot and former team leader of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds Air Demonstration Squadron.
The dream: To tell the great stories of aviation.
The path: Scratch Mitchell likes to say that, as a third-generation fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, aviation is in his DNA. He grew up with stories of his grandfather flying Spitfires in Europe in World War II, and his father flew F-5s and T-33s, so he felt “propelled” to join the military. (We didn’t ask him whether the pun was intended.) Following in their footsteps, Scratch joined the RCAF, flew CF-18s as a fighter pilot and in air show demonstrations. Eventually, he became a member and then team leader of the Snowbirds, which he describes as the penultimate point of his military career. “Those 12 minutes that I’m in that jet, raging around, missing the ground by feet at 500 mph. There isn’t one cell in my body that isn’t engaged.” You would think that career would be exciting enough. But for Scratch, that’s when his love of aviation and passion for performing led him in whole new directions.
At 39 years old, Scratch was a Lieutenant Colonel in the RCAF, soon to be promoted to Colonel. He was selected as an exchange officer for post-graduate training in Australia, where he completed a master’s degree in Strategy and Management (and became a passionate surfer). Then he had what he calls a “crazy idea” for a TV show, and he partnered with someone in the film industry in Vancouver to create a program called Airshow for the Discovery Channel. After a few years of studying acting and filmmaking in parallel with his military service, he decided to retire from the RCAF and pursue a career in film.
Scratch branched out into new areas, from working as a film pilot making airline commercials and flying Lear jets to directing aerial flight sequences for Netflix movies. He says one of his proudest moments so far was working with Roland Emmerich for several months helping direct flying sequences for the movie Midway. He’s also developing his own shows. There’s a behind-the-scenes digital series about his experiences at air shows and making aerial film sequences. He says, “The most exciting part of an airshow pilot is really what goes on behind the show. People want to know what that’s like, to meet the people that fly. So, I try to bring the story to life, to bring the authenticity of aviation: the spirit, the sights, the feel, and the sensory experience.”
These days, Scratch is still performing in air shows. He’s flown an F-86 fighter jet for Vintage Wings of Canada, and he’s currently flying with the world-famous Patriots Jet Team out of California. In fact, he’s now flying a T-33 that his father quite likely flew in the RCAF, a plane that’s now in USAF livery, based in San Rafael, California, and he’s adapting the plane to have camera pods on the wings for filming. Another of his secret passions is searching the wilderness for abandoned aviation wrecks from the WWII era and the 1950s, when they were generally just left in the mountains. One of his future film projects is an aviation survival story about a crash in the Arctic in the1960s.
“As a filmmaker, I found my canvas in the sky, with the chance to show the reality of aviation to millions of people. Airshow flying and television are not that different. As much as I love the technical aspects of airplanes, I love the technical aspects of filmmaking. Fighter pilots are described as lone wolves, but you’re really a team. With the Snowbirds, flying 4 feet apart, that’s ultimate trust. In film, I’ve found that same sense of fulfillment and trust. In filming Midway, when an actor finally nailed the scene, with 180 people watching, and I would get the thumbs-up from the director, it’s an amazing feeling.”
Although only six of his 20 years in the RCAF were as an airshow pilot, Scratch says he always wanted to be a performer and storyteller. And he sees continuity between his two careers. “There are similarities between flying and moviemaking. Being Commander of the Snowbirds is being in entertainment. You deal with people and resources, and you have to come up with a creative twist on mission execution. Filmmaking has a different bureaucracy, different types of egos, a different language, but the same goals. And often the best fighter pilots were very right and left-brain balanced, able to tap into both sides at different times. A lot of them were skilled musicians or illustrators or had other creative skillsets. I love directing because it is the hybrid of the left and right brain, using intuition, creativity, art, and craft.”
Most memorable flight: “One of the most memorable was as a 25-yr-old fighter pilot on deployment in Turkey on a NATO exercise. I had to go alone on this mission, flying at 540 knots 200 feet above the ground, below radar coverage. To stay low to the top of a hill, I rolled over on my back. As I apexed the hill upside down, I looked down, and there was a shepherd with a herd of sheep. Our eyes met in this crazy juxtaposition of two worlds. I looked back 2,000 years, and he looked ahead to the future. And then in an instant it was gone.”
Flights on the bucket list: “As young fighter pilots, we always said the worst thing would be to become a helicopter pilot. Well, guess what I just signed up for? It’s such a departure from all the other kinds of flying I’ve done. Not as a career but as something to round out my flying skills and also useful for filming someday. There are a number of projects on my film bucket list. I feel like my opus will be this bush pilot survival story. I relate to this man who was so focused on career, and after surviving this crash, his priorities changed. And I’d love to get Ewan MacGregor to play the part.”
Advice for other dreamers: “Some people get into aviation for the wrong reasons; they have an idealized view. Think about what is it that really draws you to it, that engages you to your essence. Is it the wonder of watching an air show or because you can’t take your eyes off a 747 landing? Is it the adventure, travel, personal challenges, mastering the man-machine interface, or understanding your fears? Figure out what you want to get out of it first. It’s not inexpensive to learn to fly, so do your homework.”