The RCAF Snowbirds Perform Throughout North America
Story and Photographs by Barry Griffiths
July 6, 2016
After viewing many of the graceful and intricate aerobatic performances of the RCAF Snowbirds over the years, I can appreciate why the Snowbirds aerobatic team, with its highly skilled and professional pilots and technicians, is an undeniable symbol for Canadian national pride. And, again, during the 2016 air show season, with their finely-honed aerial performances, the Snowbirds will be proudly flying the Canadian flag all across North America from coast-to-coast in both Canada and the USA.
Canada has always has a proud history of military aerobatic demonstration teams starting in 1929 with the Siskins Team flying Siskin IIA biplanes and in 1953 with the Golden Hawks and their seven gold-painted F-86 Sabre jets.
The seed for the Snowbirds was firmly planted in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, when ten CT-114 Tutors received the gold and blue paint scheme. They then performed all across Canada as the RCAF Golden Centennaires during that year. At the end of the 1967 celebrations they were disbanded, but had made such a positive impact that they later gave rise to the Snowbirds in 1971.
The Snowbirds, officially designated as the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron of the RCAF, are based in CFB Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and fly the Canadair CT-114 Tutor, a Canadian-built jet that was the primary pilot-training aircraft from 1963 until 2000.
This solidly-built jet trainer was built to withstand student pilot overstressing and mishandling and was therefore ideally suited to train Canada’s military pilots. It is the only aircraft the Snowbirds have flown and, with its side-by-side seating, it makes an excellent training platform for new Snowbirds. The advantage being that, during training sorties, the Snowbird instructor can observe and evaluate the control inputs of the fledgling Snowbird and assist in making any adjustments.
APD discussed the capabilities of the Tutor aircraft with Capt. Blake McNaughton, who flies Snowbird 10 and who is the Advance and Safety Pilot for the squadron. He was quite emphatic when he said, “The Tutor is a pilot’s aircraft! It’s very stable with push rods for control, very highly tuned and handles like a classic sports car from the sixties. It’s also rugged, tough and all-metal.”
The hallmark of any Snowbirds’ show performances is the tight formations that ebb and flow through the sky in a graceful ballet of meticulously controlled flight. Capt. McNaughton attributed this special style to some of the Tutor’s unique attributes, “The Tutor has a straight wing with a jet, which is fairly rare, so it has a very nice turning radius which allows us to keep the show very tight in front of the crowd. This means that our on-stage time in front of the audience is greater and, with nine airplanes, we always have something going on in front of the crowd. Whereas a different jet with more thrust and a delta wing has to have a much wider show. We are very proud of that fact.
The Tutor is perfect for what we do. It’s a great airplane that travels really well and is the perfect bird for our show. When you see those nine twinkling lights and the silhouette of the Big Diamond Combo coming at you, you know who they are ….. the Snowbirds!”
The Snowbirds flight team is an elite aerobatic unit with a total of 11 aircraft flown by nine show pilots and two advance and safety pilots. The commanding officer/team leader Major Yanick “Crank” Gregoire flew Snowbird 4 for the 2010 and 2011 show seasons and was appointed to his current position in August 2015. He is known as the “Boss” and always flies Snowbird 1.
Capt. McNaughton explained that to become a Snowbird is, “A dream come true for a lot of the pilots in the Canadian Forces. They have seen the magnificent show that the Snowbirds put on and to become a member of that elite unit is an amazing goal.”
According to Capt. McNaughton the selection process is quite extensive and he made the point that, “We are looking for well-rounded and experienced single-seat pilots who have had a certain amount of ejection seat time, have demonstrated a willingness to learn, a high learning curve, and the ability to self-assess when they are flying solo. There are also some social considerations as well. We want to know what the person is like, how they are going to be on the road and how they will interact with the public and the media. We are not just hiring pilots; we are hiring Snowbirds …… so it’s a full package we are looking for.”
Since it is critical to the team that a uniform level of proficiency is constantly maintained only half of the team is replaced each year. At the start of the selection exercise, the Snowbirds select two qualified candidates for each vacant slot and have them fly with all of the team members. During the intensive assessment period there are up to nine flying days with two or three sorties each day. On the last day the four winners, who have earned the privilege of representing the RCAF and Canada’s Armed Forces for a two-year tour of duty, are announced.
It’s interesting to compare the make-up of North American military pilots and their flying experience prior to joining an aerobatic team. Whereas the fast-jet USN Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds only employ fighter pilots for their teams, two Sea King helicopter pilots, one Hercules heavy transport pilot and five Hornet fighter pilots are currently flying for the 2016 RCAF Snowbirds. This wealth of multi-role, flying experiences contributes to the overall effectiveness and cohesion of this storied aerial display team.
Once the selection process has been completed, the real work begins. Although most of the pilots who join the Snowbirds are already experienced military pilots with deep airmanship skills, keen situational awareness and extensive operational experience they don’t have the specialized training in the manoeuvers that the Snowbirds perform in their show. Capt. McNaughton noted that, “The team spends the off-season from October to April in our winter training program at CFB Moose Jaw. This is where we work on all of our manoeuvers over and over, in a building block format, and bring our skills up to the level where we can perform in front of a crowd safely and in a way that is awe-inspiring.”
During this training period, the Snowbirds will have designed three shows and perfected each formations they will use in them. There is the unrestricted high show, a modified high show where loops are not permitted because of clouds, and a low show where cloud conditions prevent them from performing higher manoeuvers.
At the start of the air show season in May, the Snowbirds will have participated in upwards of 120 practice sorties and will be on the road for a six month, whirlwind routine of practices, personal appearances and shows.
The thirty plus minutes’ performance that captivates audiences wherever the Snowbirds go is unique and differs dramatically from their US military aviator counterparts who fill their show with blinding high speed subsonic passes and full afterburner-inspired pull-ups and vertical climbs. Many of the Snowbirds’ crowd-pleasing manoeuvers are choreographed aerial ballets that involve a complex series of seven and nine-ship aerobatic formations and splits, interspaced with high speed passes by the two opposing solo pilots.
The Snowbirds now employ a special remote camera video feature called a “Tank Cam” that allows anyone to see the Snowbirds flying in formation from the pilots’ perspective. The small, external centerline fuel tank on the team lead’s aircraft was modified to hold three go-pro cameras that capture some remarkable images of the team flying in formation. You can view a stunning video of the Snowbirds formation-flying routines below:
The Double Diamond Combo is a signature Snowbirds’ formation and Capt. McNaughton was asked about the skills pilots needed to execute it. He outlined that, “The Double Diamond Roll is a seven ship formation that has a four foot / one-and-a half metre overlap. The skills required to fly the Double Diamond Combo are very similar to those skills required for all of our formations. You need to be very smooth and, when you make an error, you need to correct it in a smooth, timely fashion and not affect the rest of the formation or the people flying around you. You always have to be very precise which is why it is so demanding to be a Snowbird. During a show, it’s 45 minutes of intense focus and it is mentally and physically exhausting.”
He continued “The show is highly scripted so we know where to look to find guys at certain times. We develop the program so that we know what to expect, for example, with our re-joins from a big burst and a lot of the misses are pre-planned. When nine planes are funneling towards one piece of sky we have contracts where the pilots have agreed on who is going to miss who. We also have ways, outlined in our manuals, to swap any missed contracts, if needed by the developing situation. One of our folks in the Snowbirds is always on safety and, with the techniques we have developed, we are always trying to do things as safely as possible.”
He added, “You know that saying about flying an airplane: By practising and doing things over and over until things come naturally, our memory muscle are built up so that we have the ability to look elsewhere during a flight. Situational awareness comes from this constant practising. Ultimately the Boss is the one tasked with the most situational awareness and we are putting our faith in him. The leader of the Snowbirds, the Boss, is always a former Snowbird so he has already been flying in other positions in the formation. He is trained in the specific ways that we roll and loop. But because we are power limited, we have a lot of techniques to manage energy in the formations. The Boss has to be the one with the ultimate situational awareness and the team members put their trust in him to bring them safely through a performance …. And of course, make everyone look good.”
When asked about some of his most memorable experiences as a Snowbird, Capt McNaughton mentioned the Snowbirds aerobatics team’s flyover of Washington D.C. last May when the team, trailing white smoke, flew two nine-ship close formation passes at 1000 feet along the National Mall. He said that, “the Friendship Salute to highlight the relationship between Canada and the United States took a long time to organize but was an amazing experience and is one of the highlights of my time as a Snowbird.”
During this 2016 North American air show season the RCAF Snowbirds will commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). This was the joint air crew training program launched by Canada during the Second World War, and described by President Roosevelt as “The Aerodrome of Democracy”. By the end of the war there were 151 training schools across Canada and the program had graduated 131,533 pilots, observers, flight engineers, and other aircrew for the Canadian, Australian, British, and New Zealand air forces.
During 2016 the members of the Snowbirds team will be showcasing their aerial magic to huge audiences across Canada and the United States. The Snowbirds are genuine Canadian ambassadors for, having created their own legacy within Canada’s aviation heritage, they truly represent the skill, professionalism, and teamwork inherent in the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Canadian Armed Forces.