Second World War pilot, businessman Ken Lett gives $2.4 million to Mount Royal University Aviation program

June 29, 2021

A Second World War veteran who flew Spitfires in combat, survived the harrowing invasion of Normandy, served in the Cold War and then found success in the aviation support industry, Ken Lett has lived a life dedicated to the skies. Now, at 97, he is giving back to a new generation of pilots with a $2.5 million donation to the Mount Royal University Aviation Diploma program.

Ken Lett receiving his wings from Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1942.

“We are so grateful to Ken for this gift. It is testament to his generosity, but also to the strength of the program and its important role in the future economy of Alberta,” says Dr. Elizabeth Evans, PhD, interim provost and vice-president academic at MRU.

Mount Royal’s two-year Aviation Diploma is one of Canada’s elite Aviation Accreditation Board International programs, integrating academic preparation with flight simulator training for a Commercial Pilot Licence with multi-engine and instrument ratings.The program marked its 50th anniversary in 2020.

“Aviation has been my life, I just love flying,” Lett says. “My heart is full of joy when I think of helping young people have careers in aviation.”

Terry Kellam, AVP Development; Pat Stirling (Ken Lett’s partner); Ken Lett and Paul Rossmann, Vice-President, University Advancement.

Lett’s donation to MRU will be used for scholarships and bursaries with a focus on the participation of underrepresented groups, including Indigenous Peoples and women. It will also go towards aircraft, maintenance, technology, MRU’s flight simulator and other infrastructure.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and the aviation sector takes flight, Mount Royal University aviation students will continue to be in high demand,” says Deanna Wiebe, chair of the aviation department at MRU. “The Mount Royal Aviation Diploma stands out as it offers students the opportunity to graduate with both the academic qualifications and the in-flight training needed for careers in the aviation industry. This gift will help us reach even higher and let more students achieve their dreams.”

Born July 13, 1923, in the farming community of Carp, Ont., Lett spent his youth at school, playing hockey, attending community socials and visiting the Byward Market in Ottawa every Saturday with his mother to sell chickens and eggs.

When the Second World War broke out, at age 18, swept up in the sense of duty of the time and inspired like many young Canadian men by the exploits of First World War hero pilot Billy Bishop, Lett, alongside his brother, enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and earned his wings with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Growing up on the farm, he says, was good motivation for joining up and becoming a pilot.

“I was glad I didn’t have to milk anymore cows,” Lett recalls. He says “an old bush pilot” teaching his class some difficult maneuvers was the turning point for him and launched him on his path. “Once I got through that, I knew flying was for me and I never looked back.”

Overseas, Lett flew a Spitfire with the 402 Squadron on Channel patrols and as the Allied front advanced through Normandy, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany, he was in the thick of the action.

In 1978, Lett came to Calgary and joined the aviation industry. He and partners focused on refuelling operations and related services through Executive Flight Centre Fuel Services, finding great success as Western Canada’s oil industry boomed. That business side of flight is important to Lett, who applauds MRU’s desire to grow the current program towards a four-year degree with expanded curriculum around business and managerial training for broader career pathways for graduates.

“I’m glad MRU is expanding the aviation curriculum to include more business management training,” Lett says.  “In my opinion, this will provide great value to the students in their careers so they can go beyond being pilots if they wish. The aviation sector’s greatest deficiency is in people who can manage, at all levels. Every airline, every airport, every aviation services operation needs good business leaders who understand flying.”

MRU grads are sought after in the airline industry and prior to the pandemic there was a 100 per cent employment rate for students who enter the second year of the program.

Alissa Stirling was employed as a flight attendant for Air Canada. She’ll start her second year of the MRU Aviation Diploma In the fall and is grateful to Lett for the donation that is so focused on students.

“I would like to sincerely thank Ken from all of the students. His generosity greatly contributes to the future careers of all of us lucky enough to be enrolled in the program.”