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It has been 102 years since Canada’s most decorated fighter ace, LCol William Barker, VC, DSO, DFC, led a group of fellow First World War pilots in a display of formation and solo aerobatics over the Toronto waterfront, in celebration of the allied victory in the Great War. The date, Aug. 23, 1919.
Ten years later, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) formed its first official aerobatic team, the Siskins, to honor the 10th anniversary of the first nonstop trans-Atlantic crossing of an aeroplane in June 1919.
Since that time, dozens of airshow teams have graced Canadian skies to the delight of millions of spectators. But for the last 50 years, the guardians of this wonderful Canadian heritage, this tradition of excellence, have been Canada’s world-renowned Snowbirds.
It was on July 11, 1971, that the newly named Canadian Forces Snowbirds took to the air for their first airshow at their home base of CFB Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Following in the footsteps of such eminent predecessors as the Siskins, RCN Grey Ghosts, RCAF Golden Hawks, and Canadian Armed Forces Golden Centennaires, they were destined to become Canadian icons, admired by millions of fans across North America. The team adopted its name on June 25, following a “name the team” competition at the local elementary school.
Building a Legacy
As Canada’s aerial ambassadors, the Snowbirds have flown the Canadian flag from the far reaches of the North to the Gulf of Mexico for a total audience that now exceeds 153 million spectators. In preserving the proud traditions of their predecessors, the Snowbirds have become a highly visible and extremely popular symbol of national pride.
The Snowbirds story really begins where the Golden Centennaires left off in the fall of 1967, following the end of their extraordinary airshow season as Canada’s centennial year drew to a close. It was through the vision of their commander, W/C Owen Bartley “O.B.” Philp, that the dream of a permanent national aerobatic team once again took shape in the summer of 1969. Having realized his old Centennaire Tutors were on the base, painted white and red, he chose veteran fighter pilot Maj Glen Younghusband — the training and standards squadron commander at No. 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School — to form and lead a new unofficial airshow team in 1971. While the seven-plane team was not permitted to do aerobatics that first season, it provided the stepping stone to the expansion of nine jets in 1972, and the design of a new team logo that soon became known around the world. In 1973, the team was authorized for full formation aerobatics and adopted a flashy new paint scheme in 1974.
With each successive season, the Snowbirds expanded their popularity and reach across North America. The quest for permanence culminated in the awarding of squadron status as 431 (Air Demonstration) Sqn on April 1, 1978. That designation was a first for a Canadian airshow team. In October 1999, the squadron was honored to receive their “Queen’s Colours,” denoting 25 years of service as a bomber, fighter, and air demonstration squadron. They have worn the honor well.
Making the Team
Unlike most of the world’s premier aerobatic teams that employ only fighter pilots, Snowbird pilots come from diverse backgrounds. The common denominator among prospective candidates for the first 35 years or so was that they had all trained on the Canadair Tutor in achieving their Wings. However, in the ensuing years following the retirement of the Tutor as the Air Force’s basic jet trainer in 2000, a new approach would soon be taken to account for the fact that some of the candidates had never flown the Tutor before.
It is a credit to the RCAF and the Snowbirds that they have been able to adapt to these challenges and continue to field a highly professional and polished team each year. Regardless of background, every pilot selected to fly on the formation team has excellent flying skills, which they must demonstrate under significant pressure during the team’s annual tryout competition.
Every spring, tryouts are held at 15 Wing Moose Jaw for aspiring pilots. They are rigorous and measure not only a pilot’s formation flying skills, but his or her ability to learn quickly and, most importantly, demonstrate an ability to analyze and self-critique one’s performance in front of every other candidate. It can be a humbling experience; any candidate arriving with an ego will likely lack one after the first mission debriefing.
As a general rule, there are normally two candidates trying out for every available position in any given year. For those ultimately selected, decision day will be one of the most euphoric experiences; it marks the beginning of a unique adventure that fewer than 100 military pilots in the world get to share each year on a full-time basis.
Administrative and Groundcrew Teams
Integral to every premier demo team is a support team that works behind the scenes to ensure the success of the mission. In that regard, the Snowbirds have been very well served. Throughout its history, the team has been blessed by a cadre of civilian and military personnel who provide secretarial and logistics support in planning a complex airshow schedule. Hundreds of technicians have now worked on the team’s Tutors over the past 50 years.
For the first 28 years of operation, only 10 technicians were handpicked to fly with the team from show to show, as all the heavy maintenance was handled by the CFB Moose Jaw base maintenance organization. That changed with the aforementioned retirement of the Tutor, which necessitated the stand-up of a much expanded and self-contained maintenance team. Today, it comprises approximately 70 technicians of all ranks. These groundcrew technicians are the unsung heroes of the Snowbirds’ success, ensuring the jets are safe to fly for both their pilots and the millions of spectators who have watched them perform over five decades.
A Team of Firsts
As Snowbird history has unfolded over the years, there have been several significant achievements — both nationally and internationally. In May 1975 during its northern tour, the team became the first (and only) Canadian team to fly a midnight show “in the land of the midnight sun.” In this case, it was Inuvik, Northwest Territories.
Special recognition came in December 1987, when the International Council of Air Shows, based in the United States, honored the Snowbirds with the Art Scholl Memorial Showmanship Award — the first military aerobatic team to receive that distinction. Another first for the Snowbirds occurred in 1988, when the team flew the five colors of the Olympic rings to open the Winter Games in Calgary.
National recognition came in 1994, early in the team’s 24th season, when Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame awarded the Snowbirds with the Belt of Orion Award for Excellence. This was followed in 1999 when the Air Force Association of Canada presented the team with the prestigious “Golden Hawk Award” during its annual convention.
On the personnel side, there have been several notable “firsts” for the Snowbirds with respect to women serving on the squadron. Lt Heather Campbell became the first female to join the team as the squadron’s executive officer for 1981-1982. Captain Leslie Whan was the first of several superb admin and logistics officers from 1982-1986. More history was made in 1993 when Cpl Marlene Shillingford was selected as the first female airframe technician on the team, flying in SB 7. She made history again in 2007 when she returned as the team’s crew chief as a sergeant.
In the fall of 2000, Capt Maryse Carmichael won a flying tryout to become the first female pilot in the world selected to fly on a national military aerobatic team, flying SB 3 in 2001 and SB 2 in 2002. The following year, Capt Stéphanie Walker became the squadron’s first female public affairs officer from 2003-2005 inclusive, flying in SB 11 from showsite to showsite each season to coordinate the myriad public relations activities the team participates in every year. In 2007, Capt Megan Moore joined the squadron as the first female squadron aircraft maintenance engineering officer, completing two years in that important role. (She returned to the same job from 2017 to 2019, this time as Maj Megan Latta.)
Early in 2010 — following an organizational change in the squadron that separated the roles of commanding officer and team leader — LCol Carmichael returned to the Snowbirds to command the squadron for the next three years.
These women paved the way, but many more have proudly served on the squadron in various capacities.
In late January 2020, as the Snowbirds were preparing for what would have been their 50th airshow season, the warning signs of a new virus began to appear. It would be declared a global pandemic six weeks later. As Covid-19 began to spread rapidly around the world, it soon became apparent that the 2020 airshow season would be lost. The team had to cancel its annual spring training in Comox. Shortly after, airshows also cancelled events.
With fear, confusion, and uncertainty gripping the nation as medical facilities became overwhelmed, the federal government turned to the Snowbirds in late April to plan a motivational cross-country tour of flypasts to salute health care workers and the resiliency of Canadians. Under the command of LCol Mike French, the team rapidly developed a plan that would do just that, starting in the Maritimes and working their way across the nation to the West Coast. Team leader Maj Jean-François Dupont departed Moose Jaw with 11 Snowbird jets on May 1 to start what would become known as Operation Inspiration. And that is exactly what it was.
Arriving in CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia, on May 2, the team began their extensive tour of flypasts the next day. With maximum flexibility being necessary due to weather, the team would announce their plans on social media 24 hours in advance, complete with a map of their routing with prospective timings. It was a plan that worked extremely well.
The officer responsible for getting the word out to the Canadian public was the squadron’s public affairs officer, Capt Jennifer Casey, who had been intimately involved with the tour planning from the outset. As hundreds of thousands of Canadians who had watched the Snowbirds soar over their cities and towns know, Capt Jenn Casey lost her life on May 17. The Tutor aircraft she was flying in suffered a low-level bird ingestion right after takeoff, leading to an unsuccessful ejection. It was a devastating blow for the team that had done so much to bring joy to Canadians. The very people whom the Snowbirds had sought to inspire now had to embrace the team in its grief after the loss of a much-loved team member. And embrace they did, by the millions. Heartfelt tributes to Jenn poured in from across Canada and the United States.
2021 Show Season
In the fall of 2020, the Snowbirds began their journey back to the airshow circuit under the command of LCol Denis Bandet, who had led the team as Snowbird 1 for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. With Maj Dupont returning to lead the team in the air, the squadron was fortunate to have five former pilots rejoin to assist in the rebuilding process. It was clear from Comox training in May that the team had choreographed another fine show for their 50th anniversary season, which they dedicated to the memory of Jenn Casey.
To honor their history and immediate predecessors, the Golden Centennaires, the 2021 Snowbirds introduced a modified paint scheme featuring a gold stripe down the length of the fuselage, and gold numbers on the tails. Also featured on the tail was a 50th anniversary logo, an adaptation of the original logo first worn in 1972.
After completing spring training, the first order of business was to finish Op Inspiration. They did so in style, saluting West Coast frontline workers by overflying hospitals large and small. While there were still unfortunate show cancellations due to pandemic restrictions, several major shows did go ahead in traditional locations such as Abbotsford, London, Toronto, and Ottawa-Gatineau, each doing an excellent job of adhering to local health protocols. Once again, thousands of Canadians were able to see the team in action.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the 50th anniversary season was the enthusiasm displayed for the team by Canadians young and old. Heartwarming social media posts flooded in, with accolades for every show and flypast the team flew. The only thing missing, for which the team is famous, was the ability to meet with Canadians and sign autographs.
The Snowbirds’ last display of the season was a private one flown at their home base in Moose Jaw on Oct. 15 to thank their families, technicians, support personnel, and the members of 15 Wing for their enduring support. As usual, it was a bittersweet performance for those destined to leave the squadron for a new posting. But as all former Snowbirds will attest, the bond they form with their teammates in this most unique and gratifying profession will last a lifetime.
Back to the Future
As happens at the end of every season, the torch is passed from the outgoing team to a new, fledgling team that will soon spread its wings. On Oct. 15, 2021, in a tradition dating back to 1973, Maj Dupont handed his Snowbird 1 helmet to his successor, veteran Snowbird Maj Brett Parker. As the 27th team leader, Parker will now lead four incumbent and four brand new Snowbird pilots into the rigorous six-month training regime that will start in November. Current plans are to complete upgrades to the team’s 19 Tutors to extend their lifespan to 2030. Among other plans, this will include a new avionics suite (glass cockpit); prototype aircraft will arrive for analysis this winter.
The team’s fervent desire as they prepare for the 51st airshow campaign is a full schedule devoid of Covid restrictions that will allow them to once again interact face-to-face with North American audiences. With squadron members representing all 10 provinces, the Snowbirds continue to be proud ambassadors for all members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and the nation at large. And although the team has already flown shows in more than 460 different locations, there will be no shortage of new requests for those wishing to welcome Canada’s aerial ambassadors.
All those who have contributed to this incredible legacy can be justifiably proud of the Snowbird team’s accomplishments. And from somewhere on high, you have to know that “O.B.” is smiling, 50 years after it all began.
Dan Dempsey is a former solo pilot and commanding officer/team leader of the Snowbirds. He was also a demo pilot with the Centennial Heritage Flight, flying Vintage Wings of Canada’s “Hawk One” F-86 Sabre in the colours of the RCAF Golden Hawks from 2009-2012. His widely acclaimed book, “A Tradition of Excellence – Canada’s Airshow Team Heritage,” chronicles the proud history of Canada’s airshow teams – from the Siskins to the Snowbirds. (www.CanadasAirshowHeritage.com)