by Laura Anderson,
North Shore News
KEN McClelland reaches into the bag beside him and pulls out one carving of a bird after another. From the angle of the head to the detail of every tiny feather, he has brought each wooden bird to vivid life. The carvings can take up to a year to complete.
“If you stop and let the carving rest, it’s better than doing it in one go,” says Ken. “Your eyes tell you when to quit. When you’re not carving, you’re doing a lot of thinking about it.”
Ken’s interests – woodcarving, birds and aviation, to name a few – started early. He learned to fish, sail and to identify birds by their calls at the family cottage in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario.
On Aug. 1, 1930, at the family home in Weston, Ont., Ken’s father roused him and his brother Jack from sleep. In their robes and slippers, the boys stepped out into a night filled with the rolling of distant drums. Overhead, an enormous cigar-shaped object cruised across the moonlit sky.
It was the British dirigible R100, visiting Canada on its maiden voyage. As the great airship sailed on and the thunder of the Rolls Royce engines faded, “that gorgeous big thing up there,” as Ken recalls, had sealed a young boy’s future.
His first woodworking efforts were, not surprisingly, airplanes – fashioned from scavenged orange crate wood with a fretsaw given by his father (still in use). Crude planes held aloft, Ken and his friends would race on their bicycles to the airfield to watch the Royal Canadian Air Force planes land.
Although he had never flown, Ken enlisted in the RCAF during the Second World War. On his first leave, a family friend and former First World War pilot introduced the trainee pilot to flight. In a Gypsy Moth biplane, they made for the Trethewy airport, then being converted to wartime housing.
“We made the last landing and take-off at that airport, on a runway that was now a dusty street, with houses under construction on either side, scattering workmen right and left,” he recalls.
Pilot training completed, Ken was transferred to the Royal Air Force Ferry Command and posted, with his bride and childhood sweetheart, Edith Aitchison, to Nassau. The southern Atlantic route, with refueling stops in Brazil, Ascension Island, Nigeria and Sudan, across to Khartoum and up the Nile to Cairo, would take four or five days of constant flying.
Ken delivered bombers to the European and African theatres of war and transported medical supplies to India. Aircraft and supplies delivered, the crew returned to base, passengers in unheated, uncomfortable Liberators, playing chess to pass the long, freezing hours aloft.
Towards the end of the war, Ken and Edith were transferred back to Canada, where he piloted acceptance flights of the de Havilland Mosquito bombers. He flew one “Mossie” on the southern Atlantic route, continuing north well off the West Coast of Europe to deliver the aircraft to Prestwick, Scotland.
“Ferry Command ran like clockwork – it had to. Each gear did a certain job, and one relied on the next. We were in our 20s, but the responsibilities we had. . . .,” says Ken. “After the war, the north and south Atlantic routes became the flight paths for commercial air travel.”
At war’s end, Ken hung up his pilot’s wings and went into the automotive industry. His family, including children Ken Jr. and Carol, settled in North Vancouver. Ken served as commodore with the West Vancouver Yacht Club, establishing two outstations for the club during his tenure.
After an especially swift sail under storm conditions, sailing was replaced by golf. As he remembers, Edith parred Cardiac Hill at Gleneagles, “but I never did,” he says.
Ken received his 20-year volunteer pin from the West Vancouver Seniors’ Activity Centre. He taught photography there until the arrival of the digital age. He then turned to teaching the art of working with wood, bird carving division.
The veteran pilot, having set aside his bird carvings for spring projects – mason bee huts, bird houses and brackets for this year’s crop of sweet peas – continues to experience the joy of flying, thanks to his computer’s virtual flight program.