Flying With the Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds

May 25, 2016  •  1 Comment

A first-timers account of the high-show

 

I’ve seen the Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds perform countless times and like so many others, wondered what it’s like to be on the other end of the show, strapped into one of those nine CT-114 Tutor jets. Over the years, as I became more involved with formation flying through great friendships with local warbird pilots, I began to see my appreciation and respect for this special skill really develop. I started to pay much closer attention to details like formation changes, spacing, rejoins and of course, the briefings. If you’ve ever watched the Snowbirds, you’ll notice that none of the aircraft ever really leave the area during the performance. This is why above everything else, I really wondered how a nine jet team was able to break off into various groups for the solos, three to seven plane formations and maneuvers before pulling them all back together at different times during the performance. In April of this year, I was able to see it first-hand and I wanted to try and give a first-timers account of the complete experience.

I was into an eight day visit to Comox, BC to photograph the team during their spring training deployment in April when I was presented with the incredible opportunity to go flying with them. I didn’t know exactly what day at first, or if it was going to even happen on this trip, but there were a few things I’d need to do before it could happen. 

 

The Medical – Making sure a passenger is fit enough to ride is a top requirement. Weight is a factor and not only from a heavy perspective, you can also be too light. The “nude” weight requirement is said to be between 130-209 lbs. I’m not sure if there’s a height requirement but I imagine if you’re shorter than Snowbird 2, Captain Ave Pyne then you’re good to go. The medical requirement covers a variety of things such as general health (blood pressure, etc), being deemed fit to fly in the jets under varying amounts of G and the ability to safely operate the Tutor’s ejection seat. I was signed off by a doctor at the 19 Wing base hospital but in some cases, the teams doctor may be present when the team is performing at a show where media flights are scheduled to occur.

The Seat Check – Inside the teams Mobile Support Vehicle (MSV) you’ll find a huge inventory of materials used to help maintain the jets while the team travels from show to show. You’ll also find a pair of Tutor seats that are sometimes just sitting outside the trailer. They aren’t spares for the aircraft; they’re training aids that are used to “check-out” passengers in the use of the seat and equipment that will be used during the flight. I met Corporal Jonathan Girard at the MSV on Wednesday morning and was fitted for a flight suit, parachute and since we’d be flying over the water, an LPSV (Life Preserver Survival Vest). Once suited up, I was shown how to latch myself and my chute into the seat with instructions on connecting the oxygen mask I’d be wearing.

Corporal Girard running a seat-check with a pair of passengers The second part of your training is the “toes to nose” checklist. Quickly start from your feet, moving up to check that pockets along your legs are closed so as not to get snagged when you eject. Then move to your mid-section on the way up to check that your chute buckle is set to “Lock” and finally, your helmet to check your mask and lower both your clear and tinted face shields. We then went over the different ways you may have to exit the aircraft in emergency situations, both in the air with the ejection seat and on the ground where you’ll need to quickly undo your harnesses, slip out of the chute from your seat and get out of the aircraft as soon as you can. There’s no graceful way to haul-ass out of a Tutor cockpit but I guess that’s partly where the fitness requirement comes into play. Lastly, Corporal Girard fitted me with a helmet, oxygen mask (I have a medium face, apparently) and gloves. Seat-check complete!

Snowbird #5 - Captain Matthew Hart I found out on Saturday evening over dinner that I’d be flying the next morning and requested the #5 jet with Second Line Astern (StemCat) pilot, Captain Matthew Hart. The weather was a bit of a concern at the time so there wasn’t word as to whether it’d be a low/flat show or the high show…or whether we’d be able to go at all. That night I got some welcome last minute words of encouragement and was told to try and get some sleep despite the excitement I was grappling with. I’m not sure how much sleep I got that night but I’m sure it wasn’t much, even for someone like me who’s generally up late and out of bed early every day.

Sunday – I woke up pretty early and packed up the car as I was heading home to Langley later that afternoon after shooting their autograph session at the Comox Air Force Museum. I grabbed breakfast on the way to the base and headed for the briefing. The team briefed a low show because of conditions out over the water but as I later found out, this can all change. The Boss, Major Yanick Grégoire suggested that I leave my heavy Nikon camera on the ground. This was not going to be a photo flight and with it being my first time in the jet it might be difficult to safely (and quickly) stash the Nikon or control it during certain maneuvers. I handed my camera to Public Affairs Officer, Major Indira Thackorie, took along a GoPro and a few quick pointers from TankCam video guru, Inner Left Wing, Snowbird 3, Captain Maciej Hatta and headed out to get strapped in. 

Master Corporal Egler helps me get situated in the jet - photo by Major Indira Thakore

I met Snowbird 5a, Master Corporal Russel Egler at the jet. He helped me on with my gear and getting me strapped into the aircraft. Once secure, he showed me a few key items to remember about the jet, including what to stay clear of, various switches and how to go to pure oxygen if I started feeling queasy. He handed me a sick-bag, affectionately referred to as a “Boarding Pass” and showed me a great place to keep it for quick access. After Captain Hart arrived, we went over a few things together in the cockpit before startup. Next thing I knew, the engine was running, comms were alive, the canopy came down, we shook hands and began the taxi! 

The Boss ran through a quick verbal simulation for an aborted takeoff procedure as we lined up for takeoff clearance. We then setup for a Triple-Vic takeoff (three groups of three, each in a V formation). Snowbird 5 leads the rear vic with Snowbirds 8 and 9, Lead Solo, Captain Shamus Allen and Opposing Solo, Captain Craig Sharp. Taxiing out for a runway 12 triple-vic departure The takeoff was a lot like the section takeoffs we do back home with the old “tail-dragger” Harvard/T-6’s but with a nose wheel, a good starting look down the runway and quicker acceleration delivered from the General Electric J85 turbojet engine.

What some people may not see at a show happens between takeoff and the teams opening formation. You’ll most certainly hear Snowbird 10, Captain Blake McNaughton  or 11, Captain Regan Wickett refer to the shakeout and warmup as the team leaves the area after takeoff. Warming up refers to working through a few maneuvers in the full nine-plane formation. The shakeout is done independently with a lot of distance as each pilot puts their aircraft and body through a quick transition from positive five G to negative two G. I’d felt a little over three positive G on several occasions but had never felt negative G before this flight. Getting stuffed into the seat before being quickly torn out is an eye opener for a first-timer but it felt amazing and certainly amps up your adrenaline while you quickly pan around to see where you’re pointing. It was then that I heard the Boss call for the High Show. See? Things changed. I might have missed it somewhere earlier but this was a pleasant surprise for me.

The Show – Running in toward the crowded beach ahead made me think instantly of how this has looked so many times through my camera down on the ground. Hearing the Snowbirds “check-in” (more on that later), waiting for the right range, check the spacing, good smoke and an incredible backdrop…*click* There are so many things to take away from this day. I actually began clapping when I heard "CONNN-TAAAACT!!" come across the radio during the solo's Co-360. There are simply too many things to outline from this flight but if I had to pick a few standouts they’d go like this.

Kilt to double-diamond setup, tightening over water The multiple formation changes that occur not only in level flight, but the ones that take place during a looping maneuver are spectacular. It’s spatial awareness at its best as they’re shifting around to different positions while performing a maneuver that puts them on their backs.

The rejoins are amazing and in my opinion, severely under-appreciated by the average spectator. I’ve always admired the way the team gets back in formation so quickly after a split maneuver. I’m sure those big speed brakes help when you’re pulling up to the formation but in all honesty, it’s just super impressive to watch how quick they form up and slot into their positions. I watched the team coast overhead and settle in front of us while the First Line Astern pilot, Snowbird 4, Captain Philippe Roy slid in from the left, right between us and the lead. As that’s happening, Outer Right Wing, Snowbird 6, Capt Greg Hume-Powell and Left Outer Wing,
Snowbird 7, Major Steven Reed close in on either side of us. It’s just incredible to see up close and forces the level of appreciation for this skill to skyrocket.

The Canada Burst – Looks gentle enough and always gets a huge cheer from the crowd. On the way in as the team prepared for the climb, Capt Hart says to me, “we’re going in for the Canada Burst…just so you know…a lot of people come out of this feeling not too well…” Up we go, little bit of G as we transition upward, this is pretty cool, right? As the Boss calls for the split we almost immediately begin to push over the top which brings on about 2.5 negative G. I actually felt some liquid dripping back into my face from my mask and Canada Burst followed by a great rejoin definitely understood the purpose of that lovely little negative G strap that comes up between your legs and latches in to your waist belts. It’s funny how it really doesn’t look as though it could be anything less than gentle because of how graceful they make it look. No sir, not that gentle! But fun!

Yes, the “Boarding Pass” – As we approached the beach for the nine-ship Line Abreast I heard the Boss addressing the crowd and I thought, “hey, I made it! All the aeros are done and I kept it in, feeling pretty good too…” Before I could pat myself on the back like an idiot, I realized that since the flying had settled, so had my body and it quickly let me know exactly where “it” was sitting and “it” wasn’t comfortable. Caution is the greater part of valor, right? I grabbed the bag and punched my ticket before we landed. No shame there. Or so they told me. They could have been lying.

To summarize, if I can, this flight was a lot of things. It was a thrilling experience, a chance to learn and greater appreciate the part of this whole "machine" I hadn’t seen. It fulfilled a childhood fantasy the very second I heard the Snowbird check-in from inside the cockpit and turned into something I’m not sure I was ever able to dream about until it happened in April of 2016.

Feeling great with the best view in the house! I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Major Yanick Grégoire, Captain Matthew Hart, Master Corporal Russ Egler and the entire Canadian Armed Forces Snowbirds team for the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s not something I’ll ever take lightly and I hope this write-up has done at least some justice to what I was given. My sincere thanks to Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer for taking my camera to the beach and capturing some great photos from my flight!

In closing; Inspiration doesn’t have an age limit or a shelf-life. A forty year old man turned into a young boy in a big crowd, staring at the nine twinkling lights, full of dreams and aspirations. I think that’s the most impressive part of the job they do... and they do it very well. 

 

 

 

 


PHOTOS taken from my GoPro, my Nikon and
the #TankCam, courtesy the Department of National Defense and Snowbird 3

 

Form the famous #TankCam! Courtesy of the Department of National Defense and Snowbird 3

 

Failed attempt to capture the 4-Way Cross but still a cool look at Snowbird 8 Top-side down! Reflections in the visor
Heading out! Photo by Major Indira Thackorie formation tightening as we head over the water 9-ship LA over over the water! Photo by Major Indira Thackorie

#TankCam footage!

 

THE COMPLETE VIDEO


Comments

John Desramaux(non-registered)
Great article that really captured the "behind the scenes" aspect of having an opportunity to fly with the best of the best. Well done Mike and congratulations on this opportunity. I'm sure 431 Squadron does just let anyone to fly with them for a "real" show. Hope to meet you at a show in the future.
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