Each year, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds and Canadian Forces CF-18 Demo Team hold court in beautiful Comox, British Columbia for spring training. Comox offers an ideal climate for the early month of April and provides a location where they can work on their performances above ground and water. The teams fly up to two practices a day which means there's plenty of plane spotting and several airshows enjoyed from Air Force Beach for the locals in the Courtenay/Comox area throughout most of April.
The Snowbirds arrive early each morning, gathering in the ops room around a long table. Idle chatter goes immediately silent for time hack and with that, the morning pre-flight briefing begins. Weather conditions determine whether the team will practice the high show or the low show. Even on the seemingly nicest of days, weather can still be a detriment to the practice. The Boss, Major (Maj) Patrick Gobeil, leads the team through a verbal rehearsal of the entire flight. Each pilot sounds off in accordance with the maneuver as though in the cockpit. The lead solo takes over and runs rough the solo's performance with the opposing solo pilot before handing it back to the Boss. On this day, Snowbird 6, Captain (Capt) Maciej "Match" Hatta throws emergency scenarios to some of the pilots to help practice emergency procedures that hopefully aren't required during a show. These scenarios can range from loss of thrust on takeoff to loss of communication between the solos during the head-on passes.
|Snowbirds briefing the march-out||Discussing spacing for the sim-turns on the ramp|
As someone who has a deep interest in formation flying, I find the briefings just as entertaining as the flying. Before attending spring training for the first time last year, I had always wanted to know how you brief a flight that starts with nine aircraft, splits into groups of four and five with a pair of solos running around and then ends up regrouping before your eyes as a nine-ship once again. It takes incredible amounts of skill, coordination and discipline to make this look as seamless as they do. It's absolutely brilliant to witness and opens up a whole new level of appreciation for what they do.
The New Faces Around the Table
This year there are four new pilots, one new coordinator and Public Affairs Officer. Their time in Comox is as much about their training as new team members as it is about team bonding before they set out on a five month tour across North America. Each year, half the team is new and despite all the time spent training at home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, this is very much like a simulated road trip, flying two shows a day with various appearances and functions along the way.
New to the team this year are:
Snowbird #2 - Inner Right Wing: Capt Ave Pyne, from Victoria, BC
Snowbird #5 - Second Line Astern: Capt Matthew, Hart from Parksville, BC
Snowbird #7 - Outer Left Wing: Capt Steve Reed, from Nepean, ON
Snowbird #8 - Opposing Solo: Capt Shamus Allen, from Peterborough, ON
Snowbird #11 - Coordinator: Capt Regan Wickett, from Saskatoon, SK
Public Affairs Officer: Lt Patricia Brunelle, from Ottawa, ON
The team also travel to Comox with a number of aviation technicians and support staff that includes their two Standards Pilots, Capt Brent Handy and Capt Brett Parker. A complete team listing can be found on their official website.
|Morning walkout to the aircraft before practice||Snowbird #5 Second Line Astern - Capt Matthew Hart|
Celebrating 45 Years
The 2015 season marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Snowbirds. This anniversary is made all the more special by the fact that all forty-five years have been with the Canadair CT-114 Tutor. This means that no matter when a pilot has been a Snowbird, whether it was in 1973 or 2015, they've all flown the same jet and share that experience together. This year, the aircraft will have a special logo behind the canopy's to mark the milestone and they've also got a few tricks up their sleeve too. They've brought back a few maneuvers from their past that will most definitely impress those who haven't seen them before and create nostalgia in those who have. These maneuvers are, the Card Nine, the Double-Take and the five-four takeoff. The five-four takeoff involves the team launching in two groups of five and four aircraft versus the three groups of three that a lot of people are maybe more familiar with. There are conditions, both weather and runway that have to be met in order to perform the five-four takeoff, a maneuver that hasn't been performed as part of their show since the very early nineties.
The "TankCam" - A Social Media Superstar
Whether you spend time on social media or just read the news online from time to time, chances are you've seen video from the other comeback of the 45th anniversary season. The "TankCam" isn't entirely new but the way that it delivers its jaw dropping footage is. Modern sport camera technology has made its way into the modified smoke tank in the form of three GoPro cameras on a specially designed platform behind a plexiglass lens. The tank is usually carried on the lead aircraft so it can look back with it's super wide angle and capture the other eight aircraft along with a lot of their surroundings during the flight. In a recent photo chase we took part in during my visit, the tank was mounted to the tenth Tutor so it could lead all nine aircraft and the CF-18 demo jet. The videos you see are masterfully put together by Snowbird #6, Capt Maciej "Match" Hatta. The combined footage from the three cameras makes for some seriously large files but its worth it, both as a very valuable training aid for the team and a stunning visual perspective for the fans who want to see what it's like to be along for the ride of a lifetime. Check out the "Snowbirds Tankorama" video below, linked from the Match Productions YouTube channel.
|TankCam on Snowbird #1|
The Photo Chase
Wednesday, April 22nd was the day selected to do the photo chase with the Snowbirds and CF-18 Demo Team. After the morning briefing, we'd depart CFB Comox on a CC-115 Buffalo from 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron and meet the teams in the air. The chase included a few approaches by the Snowbirds before they briefly left to join up with the CF-18, in formation, and come back towards us. Flying out over the incredible scenery of Campbell River, Desolation Sound and Mout Washington provided the ultimate backdrop for our photos. Afterwards, the Snowbirds departed the area to put their tankcam to use and we were joined by the Hornet for a good amount of time with which to capture some outstanding photographs. Capt Deni "Cheech" Beaulieu did a great job of showing off the aircraft at different angles, in "dirty" configuration and even pulled up alongside and rolled it over before throwing it into a bank as he pulled away from us and headed back to Comox. The flight concluded with an exciting SAR simulation in the Buffalo as we sat back and enjoyed a "valley run". The crew pulled the power way back, dropped the flaps full, lowered the gear for drag and began a pretty rapid decent down into a valley. Having always wanted to fly in a "Buff", I found myself in awe at the performance of the big yellow aircraft. The flight was capped off by a very quick stop on the runway back at CFB Comox, another trademark of the CC-115. Big thanks to 442 Squadron and both of the teams for inviting us to participate in this unbelievable photo shoot. It's something I know I'll never forget.
|Capt Denis "Cheech" Beaulieu in the Battle of Britain demo jet||Snowbirds 1, 4 & 5 banking away from the photoship|
Until Next Time
The teams performed their Acceptance Shows on April 28th and passed with flying colours. There wasn't much time to rest at home before each team had to fly their first show, the Snowbirds at home for their opener in Moose Jaw and the CF-18 demo team, in Chino, CA.
I'd like to thank both the Canadian Force Snowbirds and the Canadian Forces CF-18 Demo Team for allowing me the up-close access for the week that was in Comox, BC. Especially to the Public Affairs Officers, Lieutenant Patricia Brunelle (Snowbirds) and Lieutenant Matthew Strong (CF-18 Demo Team) for making sure this all went as smoothly as it did. I'm sure with everything that happens in the day-to-day it feels a little like herding kittens.
On a personal note, I'd like to offer special thanks to the Snowbirds. I came away from this trip feeling as though I experienced something only a Snowbird could, and with that, a gap in my life feels as though it's started to close. I enjoyed getting to know each of you a little more this year from last and made a couple of new friends in the process. The Snowbirds "Public Relations gene" is a real thing and it's no surprise that you are as highly regarded as you so often are.
|The 2015 Canadian Forces Snowbirds||Canadian Forces Snowbirds Technicians|
So with that begins a long season of flying to and performing at shows across North America, representing Canada, the Canadian Forces and making a grateful nation very proud in the process. I look forward to seeing you on the road and here at my home show in Abbotsford, BC.
Happy 45th Anniversary, Snowbirds!