"Look ahead for the nine twinkling lights, and listen to the Snowbirds check in from the cockpit," then the signature music begins.... an introduction that has to be the best on the airshow circuit today.
Since 1970, the Canadian Forces 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Snowbirds, have entertained over 120 million spectators throughout Canada, the United States and Mexico. During their 37 years, the team has flown the Canadair CT-114 Tutor, a basic jet trainer operated by the Canadian Forces until its retirement in 2000. The Snowbird show is a 30 minute aerial ballet flown with nine jets, the most aircraft of any of the North American military demonstration teams. Their show consist is a variety of different formations including nine and seven planes as well as the exciting head on solo passes, the show is a fast paced with many formation changes and with the action never far away from show center. The teams mission is to demonstrate the professionalism and teamwork of the Canadian Forces. They are also an effective recruiting tool encouraging young spectators to join the Canadian Forces.
The Snowbirds show changes from season to season. In November they start practicing at their home base of 15 Wing Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Moose Jaw for the upcoming season. Pilot's stay with the team for three years and after each season, the team holds tryout's for the three open position's that are left vacant by the outgoing pilot's. Once the new team is picked, practices concentrate first with small formations and as the new pilot's become more comfortable with the tight formations, more jets are added to the formation. As the team improves, the formations are flown tighter and at lower altitudes that leads to the building of the new show for the upcoming season. After five months of two or three practice flights a day, the team fly's west to Comox, British Columbia to refine and polish their show.
From April 9th-25th this year, the Snowbirds conducted their annual Spring Training at 19 Wing CFB Comox, located on Vancouver Island on Canada's west coast. The team used this training to test their deployment procedures that will be utilized every weekend from May to October during the airshow season. To refine their show, the team flew two show's a day, one at 10:30 over the base and the other at 14:30 over the Strait of Georgia. Located between mountains in the west and a large body of water in the east, Comox offers obscured horizon's that are not present in the prairie's of their home base in Saskatchewan. During the winter months, the Snowbirds use an old abadoned World War II training airfield located south of their home base. Known as Mossbank, this old airfield in now overgrown with weeds and the concrete runways are barely visible to the pilots in the air. Comox offers the team the ability to fly over an operational airfield that is more representitive of an actual airshow enviroment as well as the opportunity to practice the more challenging over the water show.
This year the Snowbirds welcome a new Commanding Officer and team lead, Major Robert Mitchell. An experienced fighter pilot with over 3700 hours on jets including the CF-5 Freedom Fighter, CF-18 Hornet and the CT-114 Tutor. Major Mitchell, also known on the team as "Boss", is no stranger to the airshow circuit. In 1999 he was the CF-18 Hornet demonstration pilot and completed his first tour with the Snowbirds during the 2000-2002 season's flying in the #7 position. He will remain as team leader unitl the end of the 2009 season.
Just as skilled as the pilot's that fly the airshow are the groundcrew that keep the jets airworthy. Without these skilled men and women, there is no Snowbird airshow. Consisting of only 10 technicians, their job is to make sure the nine jets and two spares (Snowbirds 10 and 11) are ready to perform before every show. The Snowbirds are the only military demonstration team that does not use a support aircraft or a gaggle of techs and ground crew. The tech's fly from show to show in the extra seat of the Tutor while the spare parts are loaded into an equipment trailer that follows the team from show to show. During the Spring Training, these magician's have the difficult job of making sure the 11 jets are ready for the two daily practice show's. If any glitches do arise, the tech's have only a few precious hours to troubleshoot the problem. They must rely on their own expertise and spare parts on hand, as many of the resources and support that are present at their home base during the winter months are not in Comox. This is the same scenario the groundcrew would have to deal with during the airshow season To transport all their spare parts, the Snowbirds use a large equipment trailer that follows the team from show to show. The tech's fly from show to show in the extra seat of the Tutor. During the Spring Training, these magician's have the difficult job of making sure the 11 jets are ready for the two daily practice show's. If any glitches do arise between shows, the tech's fix only have a few precious hours to troubleshoot the problem.
The technician's are lead by Crew Chief, Sergeant Marlene Shillingford, the first female in the Snowbirds history to hold this position. During her 20 years in the Canadian Forces she has worked on the C-130 Hercules and deployed in theatre during Operation Allied Force in Bosnia and Operation Apollo in Afganista. Her previous tour with the Snowbirds came during the 1993-94 season where she held the position of Snowbird 7A. The responsiblity of trying to keep these old jets ready to fly is not as difficult as you might think, she says " the Tutor is a robust and easy plane to maintain. If needed, we can change an engine within 4 hours while on the ramp." No major problems occured during there time at Comox and all the planes worked well. Sgt.Shillingford enthusiastically commented that, " I have the best job in the world and will probably stay for another 20 years!" The ground crew is proud of an amazing statistic, after 36 years of airshows the team has never cancelled a show due to maintenance problems!
For the 2007 airshow, the team has worked hard to create a fast paced show with little time between manoevers. With such favorites like the Downward Bomb Burst, Five Plane Line-Abreast, Heart and the Canada Burst, the show is sure to entertain and leave fans wanting more. Tight formations and smooth transitions from one formation to the next look flawless and effortless from the ground. Some old favorite manoevers have also made there way back into the show including the solo's Dirty Head-On Pass. This year the team will perform 59 shows at 39 different sites in Canada and the U.S. and entertaining thousands of airshow fans.
After the two week deployment to Comox, the Snowbirds flew back to Moose Jaw for their last test before heading out on the road. They will perform an "acceptance show" that will be viewed by the Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division. His job is to reassure that the new show is safe and within the airshow regulations.
A few days after a successful "acceptance show" , the team will start packing and depart for their first show of the season. During the 2007 season, a young boy or girl may see the Snowbirds for the first time and stand in awe as the nine twinkling lights head towards them, then the voices of the team check in quickly followed by the music,at that moment, an airshow fan and a possible future Snowbird has been born.
I would like to thank Snowbird PAO Lt(N) Petra Smith, Major Rob Mitchell and Sgt Marlene Shillingford in making this article possible.