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 3 of 3)
When Walley showed up at the Blue Angels in September 2005, he had already been selected for the 2006 team. “You still have the existing year’s team at several airshows until the end of November,” he says. “You sit in the background, listen, learn, ask questions, and study. Once you find out what position you’ll fly, you shadow the individual you’re going to be filling in for. It’s a humbling process.” Come November, “the old guys leave and you jump into the mix.”
Arrival at Moose Jaw was different for new Snowbird opposing solo Mark LaVerdiere. Being a fighter pilot was almost a disadvantage: His squadron was a little short on pilots and was hesitant to release him from flying F/A-18s for a few years.
The Snowbirds select two candidates for each new position, so LaVerdiere had a competition to sweat through first. “You fly with all the team members and they assess you,” he says. “Nine flying days, two and three times a day.” Candidates must record their own errors each flight. “You focus on your own mistakes for two weeks,” he says. On the 10th day a winner is announced.
LaVerdiere is now a member of a squadron that consists of just 20 aircraft and 85 pilots and technicians. Unique to the Snowbirds, the technicians travel from show to show in the nine show aircraft, alongside the pilots. “It’s the most amazing thing to be able to travel in that role,” says Sergeant Marlene Shillingford, the Snowbird’s new crew chief. “Being in the same airplane, having all the formation around you, is a great advantage. We usually fly three aircraft at a time, 10 minutes apart—the coordinator flies in the first group so he’s there on the ground first at the airshow site.”
There’s no support airplane like the Blue Angels’ C-130 Hercules Fat Albert. Spares travel in a truck called the Mobile Support Vehicle. “We carry most of our parts and tools in the MSV, including two spare engines,” says Shillingford. She says her crew can change an engine in four hours.
And those parts, one might think, would be hard to find today. But “we’ve never been short an airplane for a show due to unserviceabilities or parts shortage,” Shillingford says. The lowest-time Snowbird Tutor has just 6,500 hours; it could yet go a long way. The squadron’s highest-time aircraft has logged well over 12,500.
The team will perform at eight U.S. sites this year. A U.S. Snowbird appearance guarantees huge crowds, who are as thrilled as the Canadians by the nine little jets, all in a row.