With new avionics, Snowbirds’ CT-114 Tutor likely to keep performing until 2030

Avatar for Chris ThatcherBy Chris Thatcher | May 2, 2023

Estimated reading time 18 minutes, 50 seconds.

If you were viewing adsbexchange.com in late March, you might have spotted a CT-114 Tutor jet, tail number 032, flying around Trenton, Ontario, and as far east as Mirabel, Quebec.

That might seem normal to any flight tracking enthusiast monitoring civilian and military aircraft. But until just weeks before, identifying that plane on the website would have been impossible. Like many military aircraft, the Tutor was among numerous aircraft still using waivers to continue to fly without Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B).

The installation of ADS-B and other critical systems is part of a project called CT-114 Tutor Life Extension Beyond 2020 (TLE 2020+), to meet North American airspace regulatory requirements and keep the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fleet of 20 aerobatic performance aircraft at 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Snowbirds, performing until 2030.

The installation of several critical systems on the CF Snowbirds fleet of CT-114 Tutor aircraft will keep the aircraft performing until 2030. Mike Reyno Photo

In 2021, Public Services and Procurement Canada awarded contracts totalling about $30 million to L3Harris and IMP Aerospace & Defence to design, engineer, and install a new avionics suite for the iconic aircraft — which first entered service in 1963 and became an airshow staple in 1971 with 431 Squadron.

The project consists of five primary upgrades to improve aircrew situational awareness and safety, from the addition of ADS-B and an Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS), to cockpit voice and flight data recorders – which the Tutor had been exempted from carrying – as well as a dedicated Nav/Com unit and an integrated Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) system.

The most visible change is the addition of two Garmin GDU-1060 units, large multi-function electronic flight displays. The two glass screens, with a 60-40 split capability, replace analog flight instruments and “provide a huge amount of information,” said Maj Tom Kolesnik, the senior staff officer for the CT-114 Tutor at 2 Canadian Air Division (2 CAD) headquarters, Air Operations Training, at 17 Wing Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The primary screen features a large attitude indicator above a moving map display, with critical information displayed to the left. The Garmin GTN 625, a standalone GPS navigation unit that was installed on the CT-114 seven years ago, has been retained and placed in the center console, which now includes the new navigation communications unit directly below.

“It gives us a direct way to manage not only our VHF comms, but our navigation as well,” said Kolesnik, a 36-year veteran of the RCAF and now a reservist, who has instructed on the Tutor and U.S. Air Force jets and flown a number of RCAF airframes, including the CC-130 Hercules in Afghanistan.

“I can dial in a localizer, navigation aides like VHF Omni-directional Range (VOR), that kind of information,” he added. “I can access that information in other ways, but I’ve gained redundancy. That system is integrated with the rest of the systems for navigation and comms.”

With the GTN 625, the Tutor could fly GPS-guided navigation (RNAV, VNAV, and LPV), but the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) and Required Navigational Performance (RNP) capabilities have been improved and the aircraft can now fly various RNP approaches and airways. “Those are improvements that make a difference,” noted Kolesnik.  

A look at the avionics upgrade on the CT-114 Tutor prototype aircraft. CF Snowbirds Photo

Furthermore, with a moving map display, CT-114 pilots now have access to a Garmin database of North American maps with altitudes and known obstacles, all color-coded, allowing them to set vectors through and over difficult terrain such as mountains.

“It also means if you lose your engine,” Kolesnik said, “you can bring up all airports that you are within distance of the glide ratio of the Tutor.”

The master caution and warning annunciator lights remain, but the former analog annunciator panel of indicators for oil pressure, hydraulic pressure, and other system readings has been replaced by a digital strip of annunciators at the top of the EICAS that is color-coded and always displayed.

“When there is something out of limits or if it malfunctions, you will see the visual display on the annunciator and either get a master caution/master warning, and now an audio advisory – we have never had that,” he said.

The upgrade program is also introducing the integrated DME to augment navigation and provide accurate distance and timing information between the aircraft and a destination, as well as two large standby attitude indicators with their own long-life batteries.

“Again, a huge safety factor,” Kolesnik noted. “When you are doing aerobatics and getting pushed and pulled in different directions,” having one indicator high on the main screen and one lower down to account for when G-force pulls the head down can help the pilot “quickly see which way is up and down.”

The Tutor now includes a digital G-force meter that can provide “a readout of when you are approaching limits — not just the max of positive 7.33 G and negative 3.0 G, but the ones in the middle for rolling G [limits],” he added.

Though it might seem a small detail, the old wind-up clocks have been replaced with digital clocks on each side of the cockpit. Precise timing is everything to an aerobatics team, he noted, and meeting up late in mid-air with other formations like the Blue Angels or arriving over a packed football stadium several seconds after the national anthem has concluded can mar a performance.

The replacement of older analog avionics boxes and instruments with lighter wiring and smaller digital systems has resulted in an approximate 140-pound (64-kilogram) weight reduction to the nose of the aircraft. To maintain the center of gravity and the performance handling characteristics of the Tutor, an equivalent amount of ballast has been added to the nose.

CT-114 Tutors in Trenton, Ontario, in early 2023. CF Snowbirds Photo

The installment of cockpit voice and flight data recorders are as much a safety feature as a regulatory requirement, and ADS-B improves situational awareness with air traffic control and other aircraft. It’s also a form of collision avoidance, which the Tutor has never had. Moreover, it provides the ability to receive a digital approach clearance if voice communication ever fails.

While each system has increased aircrew safety, more significant is how aircraft performance and flight information are now integrated and presented. That comprehensive picture is further enhanced by Bluetooth connectivity with the RCAF’s relatively new Electronic Flight Bag, a tablet the 431 Squadron pilots are already using to plan routes, file flight plans, put up approach plates, and track weather patterns.

“Now, you have the ability to put in systems information, maps, and so forth,” Kolesnik said. “You can walk out with your flight plan, already filed, Bluetooth connected, and it will come up on the cockpit display. That is going to make for quicker start-up and taxi and is going to save fuel. It also means there is less chance of input error.”

Though the digital displays are a giant leap for the CT-114, they’ll be a relatively small step for the aircrew. The vast majority of Snowbird pilots “will be very familiar with the new technology and will kind of expect it,” Kolesnik observed. “There are ways to declutter on the display, but [the pilots] will already be used to filtering the information. They will quickly know what is most important.”

The CT-114 has long been a bit of a throwback for the aerobatic team pilots, who are drawn from across the RCAF’s aircraft fleets. The Tutor was retired as a training jet in 2000, and most pilots arrive at 431 Squadron having never flown the plane.

From prototype to operational capability

The life extension project’s first major milestone was proudly hailed by the RCAF, L3Harris, and IMP Aerospace in early March following the first flight of the prototype CT-114, tail number 032.

“[This flight] follows over two years of development, design, consultation, and partnership,” IMP said in a statement. “The reliability of the airframe coupled with its newly enhanced capabilities will ensure that the CT-114 Tutor will be flying for years to come.”

As the intellectual property holder for the Tutor, L3Harris was a natural choice for the design and engineering of the avionics upgrade, including system integration, production of the modification kits, and procurement of COTS systems. IMP, the sustainment provider to the Tutor fleet, became a logical selection for the installation.

“This goes hand-in-hand with how the fleet currently operates with their in-service support,” explained Maj Ron Louis, TLE 2020+ project manager for Tutor capital projects under the Director General Aerospace Equipment Program Management (DGAEPM) organization. “We were able to utilize the same contract to have [IMP] do the alignment of the modifications on not just the first airplane, but the remainder of the 19 that we plan on modifying.”

The Snowbirds performing the Big Diamond formation. Mike Reyno Photo

Both companies worked with the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment (AETE) to complete three weeks of experimental test and evaluation flight testing in late March. The prototype aircraft was flown by Maj Maciej “Match” Hatta, an AETE test pilot and former CF-18 and Snowbird pilot. During the first five initial safety flights, the CT-114 chase plane was flown by 2 CAD’s Standards and Evaluation Team pilot, Maj Jean-Francois Dupont, also a former Snowbird and the Air Demonstration Team leader in 2020 and 2021.

With one aircraft through the prototype phase, the program now moves into Operational Test and Evaluation at 431 Squadron at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, supported by 434 Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron in Trenton. The lead pilot will likely be Dupont.

“Our next step is to focus on the transition from prototype aircraft to something 431 Squadron can fly, support, and maintain,” said Louis, an aerospace engineering officer, who joined DGAEPM in 2017 and worked on the integration of Australian F/A-18A/B Hornets into the RCAF fighter fleet. “We are going to be focused on training and getting people qualified on the upgraded Tutor aircraft.”

The Air Force has set a delivery schedule of at least one upgraded Tutor every four months. The aim is to have four in Moose Jaw by November 2023, at which point the RCAF can declare initial operating capability for the fleet, explained Maj Diane St-Pierre, TLE 2020+ project director with Director General Air & Space Force Development, an aerospace engineering officer who transitioned from the Regular to the Reserve Force in 2015.

“The schedule is still fluid,” she noted. “IMP is now working on the second aircraft and we think as they gain experience, we will gain a bit of time there.”

431 Squadron expects to have at least seven aircraft ready by next April’s pre-season training for the 2024 airshow schedule. All 20 Tutors should be completed by June of 2025.

While seven aircraft will not meet the full complement of 11 CT-114s flown by the demonstration team – nine during aerobatic performances and two as advance and safety platforms – the squadron has gone through an upgrade as recently as 2014-15, when GPS and electronic horizontal situational indicators were installed, and can manage the transition, said Kolesnik.

“As they brought them on board, they didn’t have enough for the entire team for the first season. Typically, when they transit, they fly in threes. So, they had Snowbird 1 fly an updated aircraft to lead Snowbirds 2 and 3, as well as Snowbirds 4 and 5, which lead 6 and 7, and 8 and 9, respectively. And they gave one to the coordinators. If we have seven aircraft, you can see how we can make that work.”

Familiarizing pilots and maintainers with the modified aircraft is expected to be a straightforward process. Pilots will be familiar with the glass cockpit and “maintainers will be coming in with experience from their trades training on glass cockpits and digital systems,” said Louis.

431 Squadron expects to have at least seven aircraft ready by next April’s pre-season training for the 2024 airshow schedule, and all 20 Tutors should be completed by June of 2025. Derek Heyes Photo

“The learning curve won’t be too steep because there is nothing drastically changing with the aircraft in terms of performance or structural modification. The focus will certainly be with the avionics technicians, getting them up to speed with the capabilities and how the systems are intertwined. But based on some of the early feedback from our avionics technicians at 431 Squadron, they are extremely excited . . . to be working with these more modern systems.”

If anything, maintenance will be somewhat simplified with the removal of all the analog gauges, he noted. “There won’t be a lot of changes to the current inspection cycles. We are planning on having a training program fleshed out for both pilots and technicians for early summer.”

“We expect the pilot transition training will not be significant, but it will take a number of flights,” Kolesnik added.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the RCAF will have to make a decision on a new jet for the Snowbirds if it wants to retain the highly visible and much-admired demonstration team. Already, companies are positioning training jets such as the Boeing–Saab T-7 Red Hawk and the Leonardo M-345 as options for the RCAF’s Future Fighter Lead-In Training project, which could also serve as a future Snowbird aircraft. Until then, the upgraded iconic CT-114 Tutor will allow the Snowbirds to continue to wow airshow audiences across North America.

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  1. What an embarrassment these planes are and a waste of money to keep them flying.

  2. As a retired private pilot and a land surveyor using the latest positioning equipment, I understand the functionality and value of these upgrades
    Thanks for the peek at the systems .

  3. Looks a lot different from when I first flew these aircraft in 1965!!

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