Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 22 seconds.
Editor’s note: It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since we sent test pilot Rob Erdos to 15 Wing Moose Jaw to “try out” for the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. With the renowned aerial demonstration team making its way across the country right now during #OpInspiration, we thought it would be an ideal time to revisit one of our most popular stories! This is Part 1 in the two-part series, which originally appeared in the May/June 2012 edition of Skies, be sure to check back on Thursday, May 21 for Part 2. #SkiesThrowback
In February 2012, Skies‘ contributing editor and test pilot, Rob Erdos, had the opportunity to try out for the CF Snowbirds aerial demonstration team.
He spent a week flying with the iconic Canadian air show performers, documenting the pilot selection process first-hand, and learning that the Snowbird culture of discipline and professionalism offers valuable lessons to any aviator.
Part one: I thought I knew how to fly
The drive through the main gate at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Sask., was even more intimidating than the last time I did it. That last time was 25 years ago, when I arrived as a 23-year-old freshly commissioned officer, eager to embark upon my Air Force pilot training. This time, I was arriving to try out for the Snowbirds.
I was in no danger of actually being selected for the team. As a civilian, I’m not eligible, and at 48 years old, perhaps a bit long in the tooth. The seeds for my try-out were planted when I asked Snowbird acquaintances to explain how they screen and select applicants. Apparently, the process is one of those things better experienced than described, which led to an unprecedented invitation from the Snowbirds to take a crack at the try-outs myself. My answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes!” How could any red-blooded pilot refuse?
Why me? As a professional test pilot, I hoped that I had a few of the prerequisite skills to avoid hopelessly embarrassing myself during the try-out. I’m comfortable with aerobatics and reasonably proficient at simple formation flying, although I hasten to admit that I watch the Snowbirds perform at air shows with the same sense of awe as any pilot.
Millions of Canadians have thrilled to the sight of the Snowbirds’ precision formation aerobatics over the past 41 years. As a pilot, I have often wondered about the skills required to fly those routines. What kind of aviators can learn to fly formation aerobatics, and how do they learn it? I was curious about how the team selects pilots; and of course, I wondered if I could do it. A week spent flying with the Snowbirds answered many of those questions, and taught me things that I believe will be useful to any pilot, no matter what type of flying he or she does.
Reporting for duty
Arriving at the Snowbirds’ hangar on a mild winter morning, I was shown to a desk piled high with books and binders. Awaiting my attention were the Tutor Aircraft Operating Instructions (AOIs), the Snowbirds Standard Maneuvers Manual, Volumes 1 & 2, the Tutor checklist and a sundry stack of photocopied wisdom.
It was then that I made my first mistake. I had presumed that the focus of the try-out was an assessment of my hands-and-feet flying skills, but it quickly became apparent that I was not just going for a Tutor ride. Assigned as my mentor and smiling tormentor during the checkout was Captain Jean-Francois “JF” Dupont, until recently Snowbird #2. JF pointed to my stack of books and suggested that I get busy. But wait! I’m just a journalist! This is just for fun, right?!
I thought this was going to be easy. After all, it had been years since I last flew a Tutor, so maybe the other pilot would manage the aircraft’s systems and handle the radios, leaving me free to dazzle him with my flying skills. Nope. The try-outs are effectively a supervised solo, where from his or her first flight, the candidate starts the jet, manages the systems, must be prepared to handle any emergencies that arise, and is expected to fit seamlessly into the Squadron’s standard operating procedures. Not to make excuses, but applicants typically receive their reading assignment about a month before try-outs. I got mine upon arrival. Did I really need to learn all that stuff? JF’s friendly smile betrayed a hint of mischief as he asked, “You wouldn’t want to be treated any differently than the other candidates, would you?” Checkmate. I spent the evenings studying.
My first impression when I cracked the books was near despair. There was a lot of material to be mastered. Squadron procedures are detailed in the Standard Maneuvers Manual, which is an epic doorstop in two volumes, totalling 492 pages. Volume 1 describes the basic handling of the Tutor jet in normal operations. Volume 2 is concisely distilled into 412 pages comprising the collected wisdom of over 40 years of Snowbird formation flying. The manual reads like a PhD thesis on formation aerobatics, and is fascinating for both its scope and depth. Prospective Snowbirds are counselled, for example, on how to hold the throttle and how to properly adjust their seat. Several pages are devoted to the arcane art of trimming the aircraft in formation. It was at once everything I ever wanted to know about formation flying and more than I could absorb.
Drinking from a firehose: Snowbird Groundschool
I was eager to fly, but our entire second day was scheduled for groundschool; the standard lecture package prepared for all candidates during try-outs. My instructor was the energetic and capable Brett “Laser” Glaeser, until recently Snowbird #9. As one of the Squadron’s Standards Officers, his job was to acquaint me with the plethora of procedures and protocols that define Snowbird flying. Laser described the Standards pilots’ role as the “White Force,” the good guys, with whom you can make mistakes and learn the ropes during the first two scheduled flights. Starting with the third flight, candidates begin to fly with current Snowbird team members and the formal evaluation process begins.
To my surprise, my long day of lectures with Laser did not centre on the technical aspects of handling the Tutor in formation. Those things I was expected to know. The bulk of the lectures addressed what the Snowbirds call “domestics;” the myriad matters of choreography that allow the team to operate nine airplanes in synchronous perfection. There were specific radio calls to learn, formation taxi spacing, and cockpit drills to be mastered and executed in unison with my formation members. Once briefed on normal procedures, we discussed emergencies that can arise in formation flying; some of which, such as an engine failure during formation takeoff, demand correct split second reactions by each formation member. There seemed to be a procedure for everything. It quickly became apparent that Snowbird flying was the airborne equivalent of military parade square drill, and that there was no room for individual variation.
Brief like you fly. Fly like you brief.
My familiarization flight was scheduled for the next morning. In the briefing room, the whiteboard displayed the Snowbirds’ approved format; a hieroglyphic pattern of icons and acronyms that apparently had something to do with our upcoming flight. As the “new guy,” I was responsible for briefing the weather, although the requirement to start with a joke caught me off guard. (“This fighter pilot walks into a bar…”)
Captain Brett “Oreo” Parker, Snowbird #5, was the formation Lead and directed the briefing. To start, each pilot was expected to detail in one sentence his personal objectives for the flight. (“Don’t look too stupid,” I thought, but I said something technical.) An emergency of the day was briefed, in my case a runaway elevator trim motor. I was expected to not just describe the correct actions, but to recite the wording in the AOIs verbatim. Next, we rehearsed the procedures in the event that the formation needed to abort a takeoff, such as would be necessitated by one of us suffering an engine failure or blown tire. I had read these procedures and thought I knew them. Upon Brett’s direction the room seemed to erupt in staccato voices: “BLUES ABORT!” “DROP RIGHT.” “2 CLEAR.” Everyone chimed in with their parts. Then I noticed all the eyes in the room staring at me. Oh, I have lines! “3 DROP RIGHT?” Then less hesitantly, “3 CLEAR. 3 SECURE.” I got the words right, but Oreo seemed less than satisfied, probably because had this been a real abort we would have travelled a few thousand feet down the runway during my hesitation. I made a mental note that reading the manual is not the same as being prepared to execute it instantly.
Getting reacquainted with the Tutor
Assigned as “instructor” for my three-plane Tutor familiarization flight was Captain Andy Mackay, call-sign “Droid.” From the moment I finished strapping into Tutor jet number 149, time seemed to accelerate. My suddenly geriatric brain was labouring to recall the checklist procedures that I learned and I was struggling to keep up: Check radios. Signal ground crew. Start engines. Check speedbrakes, flaps, remove ejection seat pins, lights…my unfamiliar fingers fumbled in the cockpit. Lead called “Canopies …Go” and two canopies were actuated in perfect synchronization. Mine was late. I looked over at Droid to see if he was smirking at me. I saw a dark visor and oxygen mask looking back at me, then noticed that Lead was taxiing past me. I hadn’t moved yet and I was already late! If there were a red “BRAIN OVERLOAD” light on the instrument panel it would have been flashing. Droid cued me when necessary. This was an “instructional” flight after all.
Lining up on Moose Jaw’s Runway 29-Right, I recall wryly thinking that the hard part was over. Now I could just fly the airplane. Lead rolled, and then precisely five seconds later it was our turn. We would takeoff solo and join formation airborne. The Tutor seemed vaguely familiar as the controls came alive in my hands. As we rolled down the runway, I indulged in a moment of nostalgia for the much younger version of me who had sat in that same cockpit 25 years before. At 260 knots, southern Saskatchewan passed quickly beneath us en route to the practice area.
As briefed, Droid and I split from the formation to give me exactly six quality minutes to reacquaint myself with the ol’ Tutor. I was keen to do some aerobatics. Just as I recalled, the Tutor was a delight to fly. The flight controls were just right; tight and responsive with good harmony. With a clean 7 ‘g’ airframe and generous power, the Tutor rewards a pilot with smooth, precise aerobatics. The Tutor is free from the nasty influences of engine torque and propeller effects, seeming to fly as if on rails. Any aerobatic pilot would enthuse about its handling, although flying in an ejection seat and wearing a helmet with an oxygen mask squished against your face never became completely comfortable. Compared to light civil aerobatic aircraft, perhaps the biggest difference was the speed. With a 280 KIAS entry speed, a loop can be over 2,000 feet tall and seemed to go on for a satisfyingly long time. I remembered the Tutor from my student flying days as a challenging and complex airplane. In retrospect, I was half right: it remained a challenging airplane, but somehow it had become quite a bit simpler after 25 years of experience. It was challenging only in the sense of its considerable performance and capability. I marvelled to recall that we first flew it with less than 30 hours total flying time.
Learning to follow the leader
I was just beginning to relax and feel at home again in the Tutor when it was time to rejoin formation and get to work. Our practice exercise was a single maneuver, called an “up-and-down.” It consisted of a formation pull-up, which transitioned into a rolling pull-up that would apex at 120 degrees of bank. From there, the maneuver would reverse into a rolling pull-out in the opposite direction. Pilots will recognize this as simply an aggressive wing-over maneuver. While Snowbird air shows consist of a dazzling variety of formation looping and rolling maneuvers, the team contends that these up-and-downs are as challenging as any maneuver, and constitute a pretty good test of a pilot’s formation flying abilities. It all seemed simple enough.
I started in a line-astern position, slightly below and about 10 feet behind Lead. His wings completely filled our windscreen. As planned, we did up-and-downs. At first it felt comfortable. Flying looking ahead at Lead was natural, and keeping our wings parallel to his presented no problems. The horizon moved alarmingly behind Lead, but in keeping with protocol I kept my eyes glued on him. The apex of the maneuvers was the hardest, when the jets were at maximum bank angle, and our airspeed was slowest. I found myself overcontrolling and making things rapidly worse. At that moment I heard Droid’s calm laconic voice on the intercom, “freeze and squeeze.” It made sense. He meant “freeze” the stick then “squeeze” in tiny corrections. It helped! I relaxed and my performance improved. I tended to drift aft at times and was left behind a bit in the pull-ups, but overall my performance wasn’t bad and I experienced a small surge of optimism.
We continued to maneuver. Snowbirds fly with the trim set for about 20 pounds of forward stick force, which I found hard work. My arm was getting tired. Something in my helmet was starting to smoulder. Just in time, Lead called us to widen to “wider than route” formation, and to debrief our performance on the radio. I knew that I was supposed to use the terminology that we had practiced, but my brain felt full, and I was honestly not sure how I had performed. I made noises on the radio, using all the wrong words. My earlier optimism began to tarnish.
Our next sequence was called “trail and rejoin,” wherein we performed sequenced breaks out of formation into a daisy chain, with each aircraft about 2,000 feet behind the next. The objective was to practice rejoining formation promptly. The Snowbirds really mean promptly. When directed to rejoin, Lead entered a gentle turn. Then the fun began. The technique was to snap the throttle fully open, and then to cut off Lead by doing a hard 2-3 ‘g’ turn toward a spot in the sky where he would be when we arrived. Within seconds Lead began to get abruptly larger in our window. The problem was that we had about a 120 knot speed advantage on him, and that we were crossing his flight path at about a 45-degree angle. I recalled with dismay that formation flying required us all to be pointed in the same direction and flying at the same speed. This might prove tricky. The solution required careful timing and calculated aggressiveness, wherein one waits until Lead is beginning to look very large in the window, and then simultaneously extend the speedbrakes, retard the throttle to idle, roll on your side and pull 3-4 ‘g’. With luck and timing, this would arrest my closure and bring me parallel with Lead. With less than perfect timing…well, let’s say that practice makes perfect. To better appreciate this technique, using Droid’s verbal prompts, I calibrated myself during the first few attempts to wait until the threshold of fear and then count to two.
We alternated between up-and-downs and rejoins, each time rejoining into a different formation position. After flying line astern I rejoined into echelon right, flying beside and slightly behind Lead. From that position the maneuvers seemed more difficult, as Lead would be alternately turning into me or away from me. I was flying with my head cocked to the side, my eyes glued to his airplane. Unaware that I was working so hard, the cockpit suddenly felt hot. I regretted wearing my winter flying jacket. Perhaps it was fatigue, but the last half of the flight was a struggle.
Landing – Snowbird style
I was not at all disappointed when Lead turned our formation back toward the base. Being Snowbirds, they don’t just land normally, but have to do it with distinct panache. It’s called the “Snowbird break.” With clearance from the tower, our formation flew down the runway at 300 feet with our air show smoke systems engaged. At the far end of the runway, Lead directed our formation into a climbing, decelerating turn onto the downwind leg. I admit to a moment of combined fatigue and intimidation when, with the ground rushing beneath us, I was slow to pull up and let Lead begin his turn into me. This seemed to wake Droid from his slumbers, because in a millisecond he took control, snapped us back into position, relinquished control and fell back asleep. I felt mild humiliation that he needed to intervene, but it was certainly better than the alternative.
The approach and landing were likewise done in formation. Lead directed us to extend our landing gear and flaps in unison, and I dutifully followed his turn onto final approach. It was a unique sensation to fly our standard formation references, with my eyes locked on his airplane, and to sense the runway appearing beneath our wings. As Lead touched down, I felt a gentle “thunk” and surmised that we, too, had landed.
As we taxied from the runway – in formation of course – I fought the wave of fatigue that was washing over me. There were still “domestics” to recall and execute. We would need to park, shut down our engines, and open our canopies in unison. There would be a post-flight debriefing, formal as ever, during which I would be invited to self-assess my performance. My colleagues would kindly fill in any errors that I neglected to mention.
So ended my brief refamiliarization with the Tutor and my introduction to Snowbird formation techniques. I was sobered. Just flying the jet seemed simple enough, but flying it in precise formation while recalling and executing the endless steps in the Snowbird choreography was indeed as much challenge as I could manage. I recalled that this flight was my “training” flight and that the next one would be my evaluation. Before then I would have a chance to review my performance, learn from my mistakes, and just maybe pass muster as a Snowbird.
In the next instalment, our test pilot will describe his Snowbirds try-out flight, complete with some humbling moments, and will distill from his experience some lessons that he will take away to all of his future flying.