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Captain Jesse Haggart-Smith, callsign “Modem,” was selected as the 2022 CF-18 Demonstration Team pilot. He is currently a Unit Flight Safety Officer and two-ship lead with 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 4 Wing, Cold Lake, Alberta.
Born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Capt Haggart-Smith has logged nearly 1,000 hours in military jet aircraft, including over 600 hours in the CF-18. He has served on NORAD missions and deployed to Romania with Operation Reassurance as part of Canada’s contribution to NATO’s enhanced air policing mission.
In 2011, Capt Haggart-Smith was accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), where he followed his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, receiving his RCAF pilot’s wings in 2016.
Skies recently sat down with Capt Haggart-Smith for an exclusive Q&A about his career and current role.
Skies: How did you get into aviation and, specifically, the fighter pilot side?
Capt Haggart-Smith: I joined the Air Cadets when I was 12. I heard family stories about my grandfather in the Second World War, and I was interested in aviation, so I joined there and I managed to continue on an aviation path. I later got my glider license, and then was actually accepted into the military. I went to the Royal Military College of Canada at 16, where I then carried on with the aviation side of the Canadian Armed Forces. I managed to get through all my pilot training in Cold Lake (Alberta) and get myself into a fighter jet position, which is amazing — a dream come true.
Skies: What do you love about flying the CF-18 Hornet?
Capt Haggart-Smith: The Hornet is such a beautiful aircraft to fly. It’s intuitive, and it’s actually a very easy aircraft to fly because the mission set of the Hornet takes a lot of attention. So it should be both extremely capable and extremely user-friendly to fly so that you can focus your attention on the tactical mission.
Skies: How would you describe your demonstration?
Capt Haggart-Smith: We try to make it as dynamic as possible. We’re trying to show off the full envelope of the Hornet’s capability, and trying to keep it nice and compact — so that you can see all of that happening without a whole lot of dead time.
Skies: Are you flying the CF-18 to the fullest extent of its capabilities?
Capt Haggart-Smith: We definitely show off a huge portion of the aircraft’s envelope. I like to keep a little something for the safety factor. Safety is our number one priority. So all of the maneuvers are designed to make sure that in addition to being impressive, they are able to be executed in a safe manner and keep both me and the crowd safe at all times.
Skies: What is your most difficult maneuver? Favorite maneuver?
Capt Haggart-Smith: That’s a great question. In terms of difficulty, as you’re going through the season, each maneuver sometimes has a difficult element to it. Depending on the conditions of the day, it can vary a little bit. It’s tough to put your finger on one.
My favorite maneuver is definitely the square loop; coming in right through show center, going straight up, and then — the best part of it for me — going straight down, hurtling towards the ground at 90 degrees and then pulling up just in time to recover and carry on with the show. It’s an adrenaline rush.
Skies: What is your favorite part of your job?
Capt Haggart-Smith: That’s a tough one. You know, the flying is obviously amazing. But the people I work with are also fantastic. The other pilots, all of the support crew that make everything happen, all the technicians, they’re all consummate professionals. And a lot of them are really good friends of mine, as well. So being able to work and have that camaraderie is fantastic.
Skies: What types of obstacles have you had to overcome in your career?
Capt Haggart-Smith: Well, like anything else, there are highs and lows. There’s always going to be a challenge. Going through the training system is quite demanding, and you’re not going to have a good day every day. When that happens, it’s important to have resiliency, to get back on that horse and keep going.
One of the greatest things about our community here, and our ethos, is that we truly do view failure as an opportunity to learn. So going forward, it’s important to be transparent. You don’t have enough resources, ever, in aviation to make all the mistakes yourself. You have to learn from others. And that culture that allows for that is truly important.
Skies: What are you looking forward to most this airshow season?
Capt Haggart-Smith: I’ve been loving every show, but I do have to say, going to my hometown show in Abbotsford — the one that I went to as a kid and saw the pilot flying the show that I just did — that was surreal.
Interacting with the people, young and old, who come out to the shows and are passionate about aviation is also a great part about this job. A lot of them want to do this in their future. Being able to talk with them about the realities of it, and show that it is possible for them — that I was in their shoes not that long ago — it’s great fun and really rewarding.
I’m glad that we’re reaching a place now where we’re able to start having these in-person experiences.
Skies: What aircraft is/are on your bucket list to fly?
Capt Haggart-Smith: Oh, there are definitely multiple. The thing about being a pilot is you always want to fly something more, something new. There are so many amazing aircraft out there. Obviously, fifth-generation fighters are truly impressive. I got to see the F-22 recently (July 9), and I’ll be seeing the team again. And that’s a truly spectacular machine. There are a whole bunch of aircraft on my bucket list — everything from First World War-era aircraft, all the way to the future. I’d love to fly them all.
This interview has been edited for clarity.