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Obituary: Kenneth Lett, pilot who flew Spitfires at D-Day, supersonic jets in Cold War

Kenneth Lett, who has died at 100, was the guest of honour last July when the B.C. Aviation Museum in Sidney took possession of one of the last remaining CF-104 Starfighter jets

Kenneth Lett, who flew Spitfires during the D-Day landings and was in the cockpit of one of Canada’s first supersonic jet fighters ­during the Cold War, has died at the age of 100.

Lett, who flew from 1941 to 1989 and also ran one of the country’s most successful aviation businesses, died last week in Victoria.

Lett was the guest of honour last July when the B.C. Aviation Museum in Sidney took possession of one of the last remaining CF-104 Starfighter jets — the first aircraft to hit Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

He spent “thousands of hours” in the Starfighter and, as ­squadron leader, trained ­dozens of other pilots in the nuclear-capable jet during the Cold War.

“It’s wonderful and so good to see it again … it always was a beautiful airplane,” he told the Times Colonist last summer as he looked down the nose of the CF-104 Starfighter.

“It’s always been one of my favourite airplanes.”

Lett’s lifelong passion for aviation began as a teenage pilot in the Second World War. He was a member of RCAF 402-F ­Squadron, flying raids to disrupt Nazi ­Germany’s war logistics.

Lett said he “attacked ­anything that moved with a swastika — including trains and truck convoys.”

A highlight was participating in the D-Day landings at ­Normandy, where he flew sorties of “top cover” for the Allied forces coming ashore in France. He continued in that role for several weeks until the ­beachheads and surrounding areas were secured, and the Allies went on to liberate Paris and Holland.

Lett joined the post-war Royal Canadian Air Force and served in several capacities from squadron pilot to senior command and staff positions.

He was on the selection team that chose the CF-104 as the replacement for the F-86 Sabre in the early 1960s, and a natural choice to be the first commanding officer of 6 Strike Operational Training Unit at RCAF Station Cold Lake, Alta., the unit responsible for training military pilots on the new CF-104.

Dan Dempsey of Victoria, who was one of the last pilots to fly the Starfighter, in 1986, and went on to become a member of the Snowbirds aerobatics team, said Lett was a legend in Canadian aviation.

“Ken was an iconic figure for all that he did in the RCAF and for what he did later in terms of business and philanthropy,” said Dempsey.

“He was just a true gentleman in every sense of the word.”

Dempsey said Lett would often come to lunches and share stories and his vast knowledge with other pilots.

“You’ve never met a nicer guy, really, and he always had time for anyone,” said Dempsey. “He will be missed.”

Lett rose to the rank of major-general and retired from the RCAF as Deputy Chief of Staff Operations in NORAD in 1977.

Lett, who spent most of his life in Calgary but also lived in Victoria, acquired Executive Flight Centre with partner Dean Buckland after leaving the military. He served as president and later chairman, guiding the company until he turned 100.

Lett was awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for his contributions during the Second World War, and received the Aerospace Museum Lifetime Achievement Award. Last year, he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.

Lett was also a major contributor to the Air Force Museum in Calgary, where he supplied Sabre and Starfighter jets for display. The Cold War exhibit bears his name.

He also supported the Air Cadet League of Canada and an academic scholarship fund.

Lett is is survived by his partner of 11 years, Patricia Firth. He was predeceased by his wife of 65 years, Roma Lett.

A memorial service to celebrate Lett’s life will be held at the Uplands Gold Club at 2 p.m. on June 26.

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