Snowbirds planes take part in the Toronto International Air Show in September 2008. (Robin Rowland/CBC)
Snowbirds: Canada's aerobatic flying team
Last Updated March 25, 2009
They are a familiar sight on Canada Day and a thrilling spectacle at air shows. But the Snowbirds, Canada's aerobatic flying team, have an uncertain future. The Snowbirds are faced with obsolete aircraft and a shrinking defence budget, not to mention persistent rumours that the entire squadron may be scrapped. And the demands to disband the Snowbirds intensify wherever there's an accident, especially a fatal one.
The history of the demonstration flying team begins in 1929. The Siskins performed demonstration flights for three years, using five Armstrong-Whitworth biplanes. The Golden Hawks were formed in 1959 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Silver Dart, the first powered flight in Canada, and the 35th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The team flew six F-86 Sabre jets before being disbanded in 1963.
The Snowbirds create an arrow shape as they fly over Toronto. (Robin Rowland/CBC)
In 1967, a new demonstration team was formed for Canada's centennial year. The Golden Centennaires used 18 repainted RCAF training jets - CT-114 Tutors, the same model today's Snowbirds use. The Centennaires disbanded after the 1967 season despite enormous public support for the team.
The commanding officer of the Centennaires, Col. O.B. Philp, established an unofficial formation flying team at CFB Moose Jaw in 1971. They were named the Snowbirds through a contest held at the base's elementary school and first flew under that name in July 1971.
In 1974, the Snowbirds were cleared to perform aerobatic displays and adopted their familiar red, white and blue colour scheme. In 1975, they became a separate unit, but were still not a permanent part of the Armed Forces. The following year, with their popularity soaring, the Snowbirds performed at bicentennial celebrations in the United States and at the Montreal Olympics.
In 1977, the Snowbirds became a permanent unit and were designated the 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron the following year.
The Snowbirds are often praised as a source of pride for Canadians and as ambassadors for the Canadian Forces. But the future of the squadron is by no means certain.
The Canadian Forces stopped using the Tutor jets for training purposes in 2000. The Snowbird squadron had to be expanded for the 2001 season to include a dedicated maintenance crew for the Tutors. But the Canadian Forces, with its aging fighter aircraft and helicopters, is faced with a 20 per cent cut to its budget. It says it's focusing on "core combat capabilities," and the Snowbirds are one of the squadrons facing elimination.
But the idea of disbanding the Snowbirds is so unpopular that, in 1999, a general designated to talk about the issue asked that his name and picture not be used in the media. At the time, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said that the Canadian Forces only announced that the popular Snowbirds would be cut because it knew there would be a public outcry.
Even if the Snowbirds survive the budget cuts, they'll still be flying obsolete aircraft for the next several years. In December 2002, Col. Dave Burt, the officer in charge of buying new aircraft for the Canadian Forces, said he's in no hurry to replace the Tutors and said they'll be able to fly safely until 2020. In March 2009, the Toronto Star wrote that senior defence officials had asked Defence Minister Peter MacKay to approve a plan to keep the Tutors in the air until that year.
In 2003, a military study recommended replacing the Snowbirds' Tutor jets with the British Aerospace Hawk T1. The Canadian Forces currently uses the Hawk as its advanced training jet at CFB Moose Jaw. The Red Arrows, the British demonstration flying team, also use the Hawk.
Aviation author and former Snowbird pilot Dan Dempsey said the Snowbirds are vital as an icon of the Canadian Forces, and the military should support their use of the Tutors until the government approves funding for new aircraft.
Others say the squadron should be scrapped, arguing the Snowbirds' $10-million budget could be better spent elsewhere in the Canadian Forces.
"It's a luxury, and I think the time has come to question [it] and possibly do without," said military lawyer and former colonel Michel Drapeau in 2004, following a crash that killed one pilot in Saskatchewan.
Oct. 9, 2008: A Snowbird jet carrying pilot Capt. Bryan (Mav) Mitchell and the photographer Sgt. Charles (Chuck) Senecal crashes in a farmer's field near 15 Wing Moose Jaw, an airbase in southwest Saskatchewan. Senecal was photographing three other planes flying in formation at the time of the crash.
May 18, 2007: Capt. Shawn McCaughey of Quebec is killed when his CT-114 Tutor jet crashed while he was practising for an air show at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in northern Montana. A military report later concludes that McCaughey's seatbelt came unfastened as he was steering his plane through a roll, causing him to fall out of his seat and lose control of the plane.August 24, 2005: Capt. Andrew Mackay ejects from his aircraft over Thunder Bay, Ont., after losing thrust. The jet crashes in a vacant field - Mackay is treated in hospital and released.
December 10, 2004: Two Snowbirds jets crash in mid-air during a practice near Mossbank, Sask. One pilot, Capt. Miles Selby, 31, was killed, and the other, Capt. Chuck Mallett, sustained minor injuries.
Photo gallery: Tribute to Capt. Selby
June 21, 2001: Two jets flying in a nine-jet formation collide over Lake Erie, sending one of the jets into the water. The pilot, Maj. Robert Painchaud, ejects from his aircraft and lands in Lake Erie without injury.
September 2000: On Labour Day weekend, two of the Snowbirds' Tutor jets sustain minor damage when the wing of one craft grazes the tail of another as they are on the way to the Canadian International Air Show in Toronto. The pilots are not injured and both planes land safely.
Dec. 10, 1998: Capt. Michael VandenBos, 29, dies following a mid-air collision with another Snowbird aircraft during a training flight near Moose Jaw, Sask.
1997: Two Snowbirds touch wingtips in mid-air in Glen Falls, N.Y. There are no injuries.
1994: Two pilots eject from their aircraft near Moose Jaw, sustaining minor injuries.
1992: Two pilots eject safely from their jets near Bagotville, Que.
1992: A crash near Moose Jaw is blamed on a failed engine bearing. There are no injuries.
1991: A Snowbird jet crashes during a routine training flight near Moose Jaw. The two pilots are not seriously injured.
1989: Capt. Shane Antaya, 26, is killed during an air show at the CNE in Toronto, when his plane crashed into Lake Ontario.
1978: Capt. Gordon de Jong, 32, is killed during an air show in Grande Prairie, Alta.
1972: Capt. Lloyd Waterer, 24, is killed during an air show in Trenton, Ont.
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