The Moose Jaw Nine
What the Canadian Snowbirds have that the Navy's Blue Angels don't.
- By Graham Chandler
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
Ken Lin (www.aviography.com)
(Page 2 of 3)
With the smaller, more nimble airplanes, Walley says, Snowbird pilots can take advantage of the tighter turn radius. “You can do a lot more of your transitions and formation changes in front of the crowd,” he says. “For whatever reason, we’ve always done our formation changes behind the crowd. I think one of the reasons now is that the F-18 just doesn’t have as tight a turn radius as the Tutor.”
The slow speed and tight formations of the nine Tutors give the Snowbirds a different combination of options. The team used to do nine-airplane formation takeoffs and landings, but Blakely says these difficult maneuvers have been shelved, “based on a ‘risk versus reward’ analysis. The takeoff-and-landing runway is not always aligned with or visible to the crowd, so exposing the aircrew to elevated risk was deemed unnecessary.”
Still, the team likes to open and close with nine-airplane maneuvers. “It can be difficult to get the nine-plane together once it’s apart,” Blakely explains. “The opener [segment] will typically be about 12 minutes long and will usually involve two or three loops or rolls in the nine-plane formation. In between those rolls, there’s a presentation of either a bottom side pass [presenting the aircraft underside to the show line] or a top side pass as we go by in some different formation, like a nine-plane line-abreast. The closer is somewhat shorter, and again involves two or three loops.”
The nine-airplane line-abreast looks straightforward, but “any time you add more aircraft on anyone’s wing on a line-abreast maneuver, you’re increasing the difficulty,” says Blue Angel Walley. “More so for the the guys on the outside, because you have to look through the movement of the guys on the inside, and still try and maintain your position on the [lead aircraft] best you can.”
The Tutor lacks the high thrust-to-weight ratios of the U.S. teams’ aircraft. The Canadian team compensates with creative flying techniques. “We’re always power-critical,” says Blakely. “So we tailor our profiles to those thrust limitations. On a hot day in a high-density altitude, we really earn our money staying in formation, particularly the guys on the outside and the second line-astern.” (The higher the terrain and the hotter the temperature, the thinner the air, which results in a decrease in aircraft performance.) He explains how they take advantage of a visual illusion. “Our line-astern guys are stacked underneath the boss, so the second guy is a good 20 feet outside the turn radius of the inner plane when they pull up into a loop. On a high and hot day, he’ll probably not have enough power to maintain his position all the way around a standard loop.” Blakely explains that those pilots will slide their aircraft forward until the nose of one overlaps the tail of the other. “We call this vertical stacking,” he says. “That geometric difference allows them to have enough power to stay all the way around and be basically all overlapped on the back side of the loop.” Another Tutor restriction is credited with creating one of the Snowbirds’ unique maneuvers, the Double Take. It came about as a direct result of an engine limitation. The aircraft can be flown inverted for a maximum of 20 seconds before G forces hamper fuel flow. (Current U.S. fighters can manage for 30 to 60 seconds.) Starting in a four-airplane diamond formation, the lead and the first line-astern are right side up, and the inner pilots roll upside down. As they fly past the crowd, the entire formation rolls through 180 degrees so that the inner pilots are right side up. A simple non-rolling flyby would take longer than 20 seconds; rolling through 180 degrees allows them to beat the restriction.
“It’s one of my favorites,” says Blakely, “but also the most difficult. First, flying upside down means reversing the controls—if you want to turn left, you move the stick right, and vice versa—and it really takes quite a while to train your brain for that process. The second thing is when we roll around, you have to actually push 2 negative G. Now you’re maintaining formation with reversed controls as the world is spinning around at minus 2 Gs.”
Snowbird pilots use heavy nose-down trim when performing difficult maneuvers, especially when in turbulence. Holding back pressure on the stick stabilizes the right arm, enabling a pilot to maneuver using only pressure instead of large movements. The Blue Angels don’t have that luxury. LaVerdiere, who flew Hornets, says, “With the F-18 you can’t—the computer will constantly override you trying to do that, so my hat’s off to them.”
Unlike U.S. military team performers, who are fighter pilots, the Snowbirds hail from all walks of military flying. Two of the current team flew Sea King helicopters. Boudreau flew Aurora maritime patrol aircraft, a version of the Lockheed P-3 Orion. Still, the average Snowbird pilot is 36, close to his U.S. counterpart’s age.