The Moose Jaw Nine

What the Canadian Snowbirds have that the Navy’s Blue Angels don’t.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds fly in formation in front of a passing storm in 2015. (Anita Thomas)
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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.

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.”

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