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Book gives Canadian WWI air heroes their due

masters of the air
Roger Gunn in his home library of hundreds of world war related books. Photo supplied

For the few Canadians who know anything about our First World War heroes, one name stands out – flying ace Billy Bishop. But an Edmonton aviation buff and writer wants the country to know of the exploits of three other Canadian heroes, and he has spent years researching their stories.

Masters of the Air (Dundurn Publishing, $24.95) is the culmination of seven years of self-financed research by retired Edmontonian Roger Gunn. A long-time human resources professional who taught at the business school at NAIT, Gunn’s love of aviation industry goes back to his childhood.

“I was fascinated in aviation in the world wars, and I started to read books about it at that tender age,” says Gunn, now 67. “I’ve loved history ever since, particularly aviation history.”

Masters of the Air is his second book with a WWI aviation theme. The first, Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight, a biography of Canada’s second highest scoring ace of WWI, came out in 2013.

Masters of the Air profiles three Canadian pilots – Alan McLeod from Manitoba, Andrew McKeever from Ontario, and Donald MacLaren, originally from Calgary. But with hundreds of Canadian pilots to choose from, why these three?

“They were, in fact, masters of the air,” he explains. “They were excellent pilots and three distinctly different pilots”

McLeod, he explains, flew reconnaissance planes, and was just 19 when he won the Victoria Cross for bravery, saving the life of his observer when their plane was shot down in 1918.

McLeod also has “the gift of the gab”, writing dozens of letters home, all of which were saved in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. They include his first-person account of the events that led to his Victoria Cross. (A letter he wrote from his hospital bed begins with “Well this is a great old war.”)

McKeever, meanwhile, shot down more enemy aircraft in a “two-seater” than any other British empire pilot. He became a major in the Royal Air Force, and was instrumental in establishing the Canadian Air Force. And MacLaren flew the single-seat Sopwith Camel, shot down 54 enemy planes and balloons, fourth amongst allied pilots.

Typically for Canada, these heroes are nearly unknown outside of aviation circles. And that is one of the reasons why Gunn wrote his book.

“Books have been written about Billy Bishop … but not much about McLeod, McKeever and MacLaren. I want Canadians to know more about these chaps and know more about their lives, and Canadian heroes from the past.

“These tremendous pilots risked their lives every day.”

They haven’t been completely forgotten, however; MacLaren and McLeod are in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, with less well-known McKeever “who needs to be promoted more” on the outside of the hall.

Masters of the Air is a research-intensive labour of love for Gunn, taking about seven years to research and write. His primary sources were the National Archives in Kew, just outside of London, where he and his wife Diane spent many hours sifting through records. At home, they scoured records from the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa, the defence department in Ottawa, and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

He could only find one living relative, a nephew of McLeod. Owing to privacy legislation, he could not speak to any other living relatives. He admits is was “frustrating” to run into this “brick wall”.

“Hopefully the families will find out about the book.”

But for much of his research he had to go no further than his own home and his vast library of 400 or so books on the First World War.

Gunn doesn’t expect to cash in on Masters of the Air. The book was “100 per cent financed by me,” he says.

“I’m not doing this for profit. I’ve been in the hole from the start.”

But he’s OK with that, because it’s been “a fascinating journey”.