I’m in the left seat of Snowbird No. 4’s aircraft as the team practices an arrowhead loop formation over a flat January landscape the color of faded wheat near its home base of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. On the pullup and during the float over the top, I keep an eye on Snowbird No. 8, Captain Mark LaVerdiere, the outer wing man, three airplanes away on my left. He maintains his position but there’s a bit more movement than I’m seeing from the aircraft to my immediate left. As we come down the back side, with the call “Power coming up” from the lead aircraft, I try to picture what it must be like keeping LaVerdiere’s outer wing position in a nine-aircraft line-abreast formation. Like the end of a crack-the-whip.
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I’m flying with Captain Dave Boudreau, who is the first line-astern position with Canada’s 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Snowbirds. It’s the first half of practice season, and the team hasn’t yet worked up to its nine-airplane formations. But when it does, airshow announcers could well alert the crowds with the Monty Python introduction: “And now for something completely different.”
The Snowbirds don’t even try to mimic their U.S. counterparts, the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, who fly top-of-the-line jet fighters. There are no high subsonic afterburner-blasting passes; Snowbird performances aren’t about blinding speed and chest-thumping military might. They’re designed, quite simply, to keep the crowds entranced with their formation routines.
The team is as distinctly Canadian as the “snowbirds,” the northern folk who flock to Florida and other warm points south each winter. “When I was a kid I had two goals,” says LaVerdiere. “One was to be an NHL hockey player and the other was to be a Snowbird pilot.” Most Canadians view the Snowbirds as a national icon, part of the country’s character. “When you talk to people after shows in Canada, you’d be surprised at how many don’t know we’re a military organization,” says Major Cory Blakely, Snowbird No. 3, inner left wing. “In a large way, they identify us as a truly Canadian thing.”
As the Snowbirds charge into their 37th season this year, their airplanes don’t look or even feel old. The primary jet trainers are built solid enough to withstand student overstressing and mishandling, and they’re extremely well maintained, spotless, and beloved.
Designed by Canadair in the late 1950s, the CT-114 Tutor first flew on January 13, 1960—well before the elders of today’s fighter community, the F-16s and F/A-18s, were even on a drawing board. Yet the Tutors may continue delighting the crowds until 2023, says the Bombardier company, which now owns Canadair. No longer operational as air force pilot trainers—they were replaced in 2000 by Raytheon CT-156 Harvard IIs and BAE Systems CT-155 Hawks—most of the 190 that were built are used to train maintenance teams. “It was an ideal [pilot] trainer because of the forgiving handling characteristics and excellent slow-speed qualities,” says Blakely, who trained in the Tutor and is now in his fourth year as a Snowbird. “It affords the ability to fly at higher speeds for transition to higher-performance aircraft, and it’s a very good aerobatic airplane.” He says the side-by-side seating allows a clearer explanation of instrument flying than front and back seating. “By the same token, it’s an excellent training aircraft for new Snowbird pilots,” he adds, “allowing the instructor Snowbird to make direct observation of the control inputs of the fledgling Snowbird.”
The Tutor can turn on the proverbial dime, and it needs only 4,000 feet of runway, so the team can perform at remote villages like Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, population 2,600. “The Tutor is perfect for formation flying—low power and a great roll rate,” says Blakely. “So we can keep it tight and right in front of the crowd. Unlike a fighter, we can get turned around pretty quick.” Which doesn’t go unnoticed by other teams.
“What’s impressive to me is seeing all those nine aircraft flying in a delta formation or flying in a line-abreast formation,” says Lieutenant Commander Anthony Walley, Blue Angel No. 2. “I mean, that is incredible. Since it’s a smaller aircraft, they can really get into some tight formations, and from the crowd’s perspective it looks like they’re right on top of each other.”
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.”