In 2012 I was volunteering with Canadian Museum of Flight at the Abbotsford International Airshow in Abbotsford, British Columbia. It's really the only time each year I get a chance to see aircraft like the CF-18 or jet formation teams like the Canadian Forces Snowbirds and Unites States Air Force Thunderbirds. There were a few CF-18's on site that year along with a compliment of USAF and USN aircraft but the real show stopper was the beautifully painted Demo bird (781) from 3 Wing in Bagotville, Quebec flown by (then) Captain Patrick "Paco" Gobeil.
Paco flew the CF-18 to perfection, lots of G in every turn, a perfect box loop and stunning photo passes that showed off the paint scheme on the fighter from every angle. The only unfortunate part of the weekend was his Saturday demo being cut short during a box loop when an apparent warning light indicated an over-stress on one of the wings. The demo was immediately stopped while he gained some altitude and assessed the situation out of harms way. After a safe landing his dedicated team went straight to work diagnosing the issue and carrying out repairs which went well into the evening. On Sunday 781 was back online and Paco and the CF-18 demo team were able to leave Abbotsford on a strong note with a stellar demo.
Beyond the masterful job at the controls there lies another quality with Patrick that you'd find instantly if you were fortunate enough to meet him at one of the teams many appearances. That quality is absolute, total class. As a Canadian I always feel a strong sense of pride when I think about how we're represented on this very big stage by the men and women of our Armed Forces. Paco is no exception, he's the example and a damn good one.
It was for that reason that I got to work on a photo project with some of the shots I'd collected at the show. I didn't know what I was going to do with it when it was done besides maybe print it, fame it and hang it up in my office. I had shared it on a Facebook page for CF-18 enthusiasts which led to a conversation with someone who apparently knew Paco and thought he'd really love to see it. That got me thinking about how I might send this framed print to him in Bagotville. It actually wasn't long after that I found out Paco had been named Lead Pilot for the Snowbirds starting in 2014.
I proceeded to have a conversation with Jim Reith, President of the Abbotsford Airshow and he indicated that Paco might be joining the team as it came through Abbotsford and maybe I could present the print to him then. I ran with the idea and even got Jim to frame it. Who knew the President of the Airshow also did custom framing? I didn't! As it would turn out, Paco would not be with the team when they came to town so I had to find another way to deliver the print. It was suggested I try asking the 2013 CF-18 demo pilot, Capt Patrick "Flocho" Pollen how to get it to him in Bagotville but before I could do that their Public Affairs Officer told me that Paco had already been sent to CFB Moose Jaw and the best person to ask would be Capt Thomas Edelson, PAO for the Snowbirds. I managed to get in touch with Capt Edelson while he was here with the team and he very kindly offered to meet me after the Sunday show and take the print back to Moose Jaw in the teams trailer so that Paco would be sure to get it....He also saved me a few bucks shipping it! Delivered!!
Fast forward another few weeks. I'm sitting at work and receive an email from (now) Major Patrick "Paco" Gobeil thanking me for the print and tells me that it's hung in his new home in Moose Jaw. He continued by saying he owed me a beer and I should come out to Comox during Snowbird Spring training to get it. How do you say no to that?! Now into April 2014 and another email from Paco asking me to let Capt Edelson know what days I'd be in Comox...getting excited now. April 23rd I took a ferry to the island and made the 1.5 hour drive from Duke Point terminal to Comox. I spent the first night doing an interview and artifact gathering for a display at the Museum and while eating dinner actually experienced a mild earthquake about 30 paces from the ocean! Thursday morning I got a call from Thomas regarding my visit to the base and we set a time for Friday morning. I spent Thursday afternoon around the base shooting the practice and trying not to get blown over in the heavy winds we were treated to. Despite the winds the team looked great in practice and it made for some decent photos.
Friday morning I woke up pretty early. I checked out of my hotel and headed for the base with a coffee in hand for Thomas. CFB Comox has to be one of the prettiest and most picturesque locations I've ever been to. Literally an aviation photographers delight at every angle. I met Thomas at the MP's shack and got signed in along with Erin Haluschak from the Comox Valley Record. We headed for the ramp just as the Snowbirds were departing in their usual 3 of 3 section take-off. I remember looking around and thinking to myself about how awesome it was to be basically be getting a front row seat to my own airshow! The incredible backdrop and beautiful formation maneuvers made for several great photos and for the first time I'd get to see the Snowbirds taxi towards me and line up with the awaiting techs on the ramp. I was given a lot of leeway on the ramp which was terrific and made several shots a lot easier to get. After they shutdown we walked over for more photos and I was able to get a team photo after their quick post flight meeting. Thanks to Capt Edelson I was able to get myself in a team photo as well, what a keepsake!
Paco invited us to join the team for the debriefing and as someone who's been trying to learn the in's and out's of formation flying over the last couple of years I can tell you it was thrilling! I've been wondering how they brief/debrief a nine plane formation that breaks up into groups. They sat around the table, went over safeties and then briefed the video of the flight from the smoke test to the shutdown...nothing was missed...not even a landing light that was left on, making for a good laugh around the room (sorry Paco).
After the debrief, Paco signed my copy of that same print I'd given him last year, then we walked out to his aircraft (114109) for a few photos. He gave me a tremendous quote to use for the Abbotsford Airshow's souvenir program, talked about what it was like being Snowbird lead and let me climb inside the cockpit for an up close look at the Tutor. I've been wanting to complete a restoration on our Museum's Tutor (114003) for some time now and getting a look at a complete and operational machine with a pristine cockpit was a huge help. It also showed me how much work I have left to do! As I was looking things over he picked up my camera and took a few photos for me, one of which is proudly displayed on my office wall.
We headed back to the hangar and I rejoined Captain Edelson for a while before heading back to the car to go find a spot to shoot the afternoon practice from. I caught an evening ferry back to the mainland but had already decided I wanted to try and get back for the May 6th acceptance show, which I did and I'm sure BC Ferries didn't mind me lining their pockets for a second time in just over a week.
I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone to know that the teams Acceptance Show was a success and they headed back home to CFB Moose Jaw the following day.
I started working on my photos immediately after returning home from each of the two trips over to the island. I liken it to a "kid at Christmas" after a day of shooting like that and maybe more so after being able to spend time on the ramp and in the briefing room.
I find it almost hard to believe that this story took two years to tell itself and actually happened! When I decided to frame and give that print to Paco it was done without expectation and nothing more than just wanting to thank a brilliant pilot and outstanding individual for representing us the way he did. It's not surprising at all to see him now flying lead with the Snowbirds. Selfishly, I know that as a Canadian we get two more years with him on that grand stage, with that massive responsibility and natural ability to fly all the while reminding everyone why the Canadian Forces Snowbirds are highly regarded as a premier demonstration team and the epitome of formation flying. Not a show goes by that I don't well up with pride when I see the nine lights coming toward me and that won't ever change.
I'd like to thank the Snowbirds for an incredible adventure and opportunity. Special thanks go to Capt Thomas Edelson for running point during my visit and especially for the offer to take that print back to Moose Jaw for me and deliver it to Paco last year.
Major Patrick Gobeil. For the thrill of a lifetime and an experience I won't soon forget but one I hope to have again sometime. I have a wall full of memories, a lot of stories to tell and photos to look at.
What goes around truly does comes around, whether you expect it or not.