When he was 18, Ian McLean couldn’t get out of London, Ont., fast enough. Throughout high school, he knew he wanted to fly aircraft—specifically, fighter jets. In his wildest dreams, McLean even thought that maybe someday he’d fly as part of Canada’s renowned military aerial demonstration team, the Snowbirds.
“I remember when I was a kid, watching the Snowbirds arriving for the London airshow and thinking that was a pretty cool job,” he recalled. McLean’s ticket out of his hometown was the Air Force. He signed up in 1980, going right into basic training and earning his wings in 1982. It was the same year, in fact, that the CF-18 Hornet came to Canada.
After a tour flying Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft in Edmonton, where he was a lead pilot at just 24 years of age, McLean made the move to CF-18 Hornet training in Cold Lake, Alta., in 1988.
“The Hornets were fairly new then,” he recalled. “Back then, we’d do six months on the (Canadair CF-116) F-5 and then six months on the F-18. My first tour on Hornets was at Bagotville.”
From there, McLean participated in the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, while he was a part of Wing Operations in Cold Lake.
Another tour in the CF-18 followed, before McLean applied and made it through the Snowbird selection process. He was thrilled to fly as Snowbird 7 for the 1998 and 1999 show seasons.
“That was an amazing job for a bunch of reasons,” said McLean. “First is the flying itself. It’s the purest hands and feet flying that I’ve done in my career. The proximity to the ground and to the other jets, and the travel all over North America made it a very cool job.”
He recalled how the Snowbirds strike a chord of patriotism in Canadians from coast to coast. “I remember flying over Parliament Hill on July 1, over the Grey Cup game, and around the CN Tower. It’s a lot more work than people think,” continued McLean. “But it was an awesome two years.”
After an overseas posting with the Royal Air Force in the U.K., McLean returned to Canada and 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron. In 2004, he applied and was selected to be the Snowbirds team lead for the 2005 and 2006 airshow seasons.
“It was a real highlight of my career,” McLean told Skies. “There were 85 to 90 people on the squadron. We did the 2,000th Snowbirds show at the Reno Air Races.”
Other memorable moments included flying formation around the CN Tower with a B-25 Mitchell bomber, “laying smoke” over downtown Vancouver, and flying with the Blue Angels.
When his tenure as team lead ended, McLean wasn’t sure there was anything left for him to do in the military, so he retired in 2007 after 27 years, with just over 6,000 hours flown.
Today, McLean lives with his family in the small town of St. Joseph, Ont., just north of Lake Huron summer hot spot, Grand Bend. In November 2013, he accepted a job as base manager of Onge’s London, Ont., facility. His current job with Ontario’s aeromedical services provider follows four-and-a-half years as president of Cardinal Couriers in Mississauga, Ont.
McLean said his military background has served him well. “There are a lot of things you get from the fighter pilot and Snowbird world that you can bring to other organizations as you move on in your career,” he said. In fact, McLean compares Ornge’s London base to a small Air Force squadron. “I’m responsible for the administration and logistical side of the base, and I’m responsible for all the people on the base. It’s a natural fit.”
With 11 pilots, 17 paramedics, and eight aircraft maintenance engineers on staff, the base is busy, sometimes answering three aeromedical calls every day.
McLean said that when he arrived, clouds still lingered from the recent scandal that exposed corruption within the former Ornge corporate management team. “The people on the front lines weren’t responsible for any of that, but unfortunately they became associated with it in the press,” said McLean. “My job is that of a facilitator and leader; to look forward, not backward. I gravitated back to things I know best, and in a military unit you have a morning team briefing. We implemented that and it really helped to increase communication between the groups. It’s been very successful; that morning briefing has been magic around here.”
These days, McLean doesn’t do a whole lot of flying himself. “I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and a Snowbirds guy, and I’ve ticked those boxes,” he reflected. “Nowadays, my focus is more on leadership and management, and being effective in those areas for the people on the front line.”
But although McLean can point to several similarities between the Air Force and Ornge, there is one fundamental difference: “In the Air Force, you spend so much time training, and you only go out the door two or three times for real. Here, it’s always real. There are people trapped in cars, farm accidents, and very sick patients that need to be transported. It’s very satisfying to go home and say that we saved lives today.”