The Snowbirds – Canada’s Aerobatic Ambassadors

– by Kevin Patterson

demoteam-inlineThe heat on the tarmac at Hamilton International Airport was 105 degrees. It seemed like the earth was radiating as much heat as the sun. It had been a wonderful air show full of barrel roles, extreme stunts, vintage aircraft and precision aerobatics. For brief moments during each performance, I felt as if I was living vicariously the experience of each of the pilots. I had been looking forward to this show for 2 months. It was my first opportunity to see the Canadian Forces premier aerobatic team – the Snowbirds.

Two years previous, my friends and I had experienced the thrills and amazing feats of the US Air Force Thunderbirds. A growing desire was born then and there – to see Canada’s Snowbirds in flight. I had thought at first that the Snowbirds would be similar to the Thunderbirds, but as I looked more into it I found out the two teams took different approaches. With the speed and power of their four F-16 fighter jets, the Thunderbirds can fly higher and faster than the Canadair CT-114 Tutor jets the Snowbirds fly. The Snowbird performances are based more on finesse and precision flying. Now in the heat I stood along with my friend waiting for the nine Snowbird jets to taxi down the runway. The moment had finally arrived.

The Snowbirds now rocket down the runway and soon launch themselves into the air. Once airborne, the pilots fly in what’s called a Triple Vic formation (3 by 3) and soon vanish into a remote area of the sky beyond the airfield. I found out later that during this time an airborne visual inspection of each aircraft takes place. The team leader then calls for a “shake out”. Each plane performs a roll inverted, followed by a 5g climb (under these conditions each pilot experiences five times the normal pull of gravity) then a -2g dive. Once the final checks are performed its show time.

Meanwhile back on the ground, the show’s co-coordinators were feeding the audience background information, team statistics, details of show maneuvers and dedications.  They are the only 9 jet team in North America. Each season, they criss-cross the continent more than a half dozen times proudly representing all men and women in Canada’s military, who are serving both at home and deployed on missions overseas.

It all started in the rather humble surroundings of Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. In 1971, the original Snowbirds team was established by Colonel O.B. Philips, former commanding officer of the Golden Centennaires (Canadian Forces aerobatic flying team formed to commemorate Canada’s centennial year) and commander of Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw. The original team was made up of flying instructors from the Flight Training School. For seven years the team operated on a year-to-year basis before finally being established as a permanent unit in September 1977, their official designation became the Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team. On April 1st 1978, the Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team was then renamed 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron. Since then the team has performed for more than 80 million people in communities across North America.

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The team leader’s voice now blares over the loud speaker as he speaks to the crowd from the cockpit of Snowbird # 1. He introduces himself and his team, announces the show dedication and explains the changes that have been made for today’s show. Scarce few moments later, you can hear the roar of the jet engines as the Snowbirds appear over the crowd flying in their “Big Diamond” formation. For the next 30 minutes (1800 seconds), we are treated to an exciting show full of precision formation flying, with 7 Snowbirds in formation performing loops and rolls, while 2 solo pilots execute a number of high-speed close passes. There is not one dull moment in this performance. The danger of a mishap or collision seems very real. These pilots are flying their aircraft right to the edge of the envelope.

The distinctive red and white Canadair CT-114 Tutor (the aircraft flown by the Snowbirds), is ideally suited for this kind of show. Its high maneuverability and relatively slow speed, allow for tight formation flying and the aerobatic feats performed by the Snowbirds. It doesn’t have the speed power of the Thunderbirds F-16 or the Blue Angels F-18 but then again this show is all about finesse. The aging CT-114’s are well maintained on a “shoestring” budget. Because the aircraft is so old, parts are usually not available so the technicians often have to manufacture their own spare parts.

The performance which has been a smooth and seamless one now comes to an end. For us it’s a chance to meet the snowbird pilots. A chance to get an autograph or a picture standing with one of the pilots. For the pilots it’s a chance to meet the fans here at the air show. The pilots and technicians also make innumerable public appearances at hospitals, schools and charity events. Their training has included dealing with the dealing with the public and the media, which can sometimes be tougher than flying.

The event is over. For my friend and I, we begin the trek back to the car followed by a long “hot” ride home. For the pilots and crew, there is a long debreifing session of every aspect of the show then everything will be packed up for the journey to the next show’s location. It’s a long season that stretches from May to October.

The Snowbirds have often been praised as a source of pride for Canadians around the world and as ambassadors for the Canadian Forces. They are truly a Canadian Icon.

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2 thoughts on “The Snowbirds – Canada’s Aerobatic Ambassadors

  1. Kevin,
    Great article on the Snowbirds, thru out my 20 year career in the Canadian airforce, I refueled many a red and white Tutor A/C. I also have several friends who are or were Skyhawks, Canada’s acrobatic parachute team. Maybe a topic for another blog entry. I am really enjoying your blog so far, keep up the great work. I’ve have been around the world twice, posted in the North Pole (CFS Alert), served with NATO in Europe, spent time in the Middle East(Golan Heights) fought in Bosnia/Serbia, and Rwanda. You are absolutely right, there is no place like Canada.

    A blast from your past,

    Mike Guay

    • So great to hear from you Mike. Would love to do a story on the Skyhawks and some of the people and units of the Canadian Armed Forces. Hope we can sit down and chat someday, so much to catch up on.

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