Monday, June 25, 2007
Snowbirds return to the skies
Canada's best, where they belong
St. Thomas, Ontario, June 2007 [Click all images to enlarge]
The Snowbirds are Canada's national precision flying team. The 431 Air Demonstration Squadron of the Canadian Armed Forces forms a crucial role in recruiting, and in representing Canada on the international stage. Like the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, the pilots who fly these aircraft and the ground crew who maintain them represent the best of the best, and are always an inspiration for anyone who sees them.
The Snowbirds flight at the St. Thomas air show was a special one for a sad reason: it marked only the second public flight since the team lost a pilot in a training accident in Montana in May. Capt. Shawn McCaughey's #2 aircraft departed suddenly from the formation and plowed into the ground. The 31-year-old native of Candiac, Quebec, just south of Montreal, was the sixth Snowbird pilot to die since 1972.
Our kids sat right behind the thin yellow rope facing the flight line and watched as the ground crew saw the nine aircraft off. At various points through the day, I tried to explain to them why our nation had such a team in the first place, and why it was important to have folks like this to inspire the rest of us. In the end, they simply needed to sit on the tarmac and watch these heroes go through their paces both on the ground and in the air. By that point in the afternoon, I didn't have to say a word: they just watched in awe.
I captured the top-most image during one of their many precision maneuvers. What sets the Snowbirds apart from other precision flying teams is their equipment. They do not fly front-line fighter aircraft that have gobs of power and the latest in digital fly-by-wire flight control systems. They fly the CT-114 Tutor (also known as the Canadair CL-41), a two-seat trainer aircraft whose performance is best characterized as modest.
These planes were designed and built before I was born, and their replacement has been a matter of hot debate - which tends to get hotter whenever there's an accident. Our traditionally cash-strapped military hasn't committed to replacing them anytime soon (see here for some late-breaking news that outlines how the Air Force was urged in 2003 to replace these planes ASAP, and has thus far done...nothing.) But when either disbanding the team or equipping them with less expensive propellor-driven aircraft was suggested, you could hear the opposition from one end of the country to the other.
So while the debate rages, young soldiers who any parent would want his/her children to emulate continue to fly these relics of a bygone era, and they continue to make them dance in the sky in ways that make the rest of of us not just enjoy the performance, but feel it down to the base of our spine every time they fly past. It's as much an emotional journey as it is a physical one, one I'm glad my children got to experience as they sat on the hot asphalt beside the yellow rope.
Your turn: Iconic members of society. Please discuss who you think merits the term, what makes him/her/them iconic, why we watch, and what we can learn in the process.