I look down at the clock in the car — it reads 6:24 a.m. — and I can't remember the last time I've been on the highway this early. But as I come around the bend in Highway 427, and Pearson airport comes into view, my attention turns to what is about to happen.
The words of Colleen Swider, media relations co-ordinator for the Canadian International Air Show, resonate in my head: "Gentlemen, you can count yourself among the few lucky ones to fly with the Snowbirds."
I'm there early, because we need to go through about 45 minutes of training before we get in the airplane.
This isn't like hopping in a car. By the time you are strapped into your seat in the cockpit, you have donned about five layers of equipment. You need to know how to put it on, take it off, and most importantly use it, should anything happen.
First the flight suit goes on, then the life vest, followed by your parachute. Once these are all secured, you are attached to the ejection seat. It's a unique feeling to say the least, knowing that you are sitting on a live rocket. Should the pilot give you the "EJECT EJECT EJECT!" command, you pull the yellow and black levers beside your seat and in about half a second you'll be blasted into midair. Now that would make for an interesting column, but I'm glad I didn't have to take that "second" ride!
Finally helmet and oxygen mask are secured, and you are ready to go.
In the morning meeting, the passengers for this trip are introduced to the pilots. Today I'm flying with Major Doug "Dewey" Clements, in Snowbird No. 5. A veteran fighter pilot, he logged more than 2,800 hours on the F-18 before becoming a Snowbird.
I'm amazed at how humble he and the other pilots are. They are without a doubt the best of the best, but their egos are nowhere to be found. There's no Maverick and Ice Man drama, as you might expect if you've seen the movie Top Gun. Flying with the Snowbirds is very much a team effort, and as Dewey and I talk, he explains that working together is the only way for the pilots to do what they do safely.
Buckling into the red-and-white Tutor Jet, everything becomes a little more real. I've been around airplanes most of my life, so flying doesn't make me nervous, but I am definitely excited. I try to stay cool in front of the camera, but the little kid inside of me feels like I just woke up on Christmas morning. Today is a perfect day to go flying.
Everything the Snowbirds do is done with precision. It speaks to the culture of their business. Watches are synchronized, engines are started at exactly the same time and airplanes are taxied, taken-off and flown as though they were tethered.
As we take flight, the nine-plane formation comes together. We head over downtown Toronto then turn toward Hamilton, taking a minute to fly past the Hamilton Warplane Heritage Museum before making our way toward Niagara Falls.
I learn en route that a 10th plane that has been tailing us is taking pictures for the upcoming Snowbird calendar. Who knows, I may be in the centrefold next year!
The view from where I sit is fantastic. Snowbird No. 5 tails the formation, so I have a clear view of every other airplane in the team. En route they fly about 15 feet apart in loose formation. It's hard to believe that at more than 300 km/h, being bounced around by turbulence, this is easy for them.
As they tighten up for a fly past however, it gets really interesting. The Snowbirds fly only five or six feet away from each other. Now, this is challenging under any circumstances, let alone maintaining it while turning, rolling and climbing in front of thousands of onlookers.
Did I mention these guys are the best of the best?
From Niagara Falls we take a minute to fly past downtown Toronto once more before heading back to Pearson. Over the airport, the nine-plane formation breaks into groups of three, each landing as though they were one.
Pulling up on the ramp we find our spot and we wait. Once every pilot is ready to power down, the command is given, and in classic Snowbird form, every engine is shut down in unison.
I am now officially one of the few lucky ones to have flown with the Snowbirds.
Labour Day weekend, the Snowbirds performed one of their biggest shows, in Toronto. But as Dewey tells me, most Wednesday evenings they perform in other places around the country, usually in smaller towns.
"The energy in these towns is something special," he says. "They put so much time and effort into these one-day events. We, the Snowbirds are glad we can be part of it."
And that sticks with me. Though not many people will have the opportunity to fly with the Snowbirds, high in the sky they represent dreams, imaginations and possibilities for everyone in our country. They are humble, they drink Tim Hortons coffee, and they are always the last ones leave the autograph line at an air show. It doesn't get more Canadian than that, eh?
Nick Czernkovich is the CBC News: Toronto meteorologist.