|431 Air Demonstration Squadron|
|431e Escadron de démonstration aérienne (French)|
|Active||25 June 1971 – present (as Snowbirds)|
1 April 1978 – present (as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron)
|Branch||Royal Canadian Air Force|
|Role||Aerobatic flight demonstration team|
|Size||80 Canadian Forces personnel full time |
24 personnel in the show team
|Part of||15 Wing Moose Jaw|
|Garrison/HQ||CFB Moose Jaw |
Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada
|Motto(s)||Mohawk: The Hatiten Ronteriios, lit. 'Warriors of the air'|
|Colors||White and red|
|Commanding Officer||LCol Denis Bandet|
|Trainer||11 CT-114 Tutors|
The Snowbirds, officially known as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron (French: 431e Escadron de démonstration aérienne), are the military aerobatics or air show flight demonstration team of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The team is based at 15 Wing Moose Jaw near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The Snowbirds' official purpose is to "demonstrate the skill, professionalism, and teamwork of Canadian Forces personnel". The Snowbirds are the first Canadian air demonstration team to be designated as a squadron.
The show team flies 11 CT-114 Tutors: nine for aerobatic performances, including two solo aircraft, and two spares, flown by the team coordinators. Additionally, 13 are maintained in storage. Approximately 80 Canadian Forces personnel work with the squadron full-time; 24 personnel are in the show team that travels during the show season. The Snowbirds are the only major military aerobatics team that operates without a support aircraft.
Although 431 Air Demonstration Squadron was formed in 1978, its history truly began during the Second World War when, as part of the Commonwealth contribution to aircrew for the war in Europe, 431 (Iroquois) Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force was created under the control of RAF Bomber Command.
Number 431 Squadron formed on 11 November 1942, at RAF Burn (in North Yorkshire), flying Wellington B.X medium bombers with No. 4 Group RAF Bomber Command. The squadron moved to RAF Tholthorpe in mid-1943 as part of the move to bring all RCAF squadrons into one operational group – No. 6 Group RCAF – and converted to Halifax B.V four-engined heavy bombers. In December 1943 the squadron moved to RAF Croft where it was re-equipped with Halifax IIIs and later, Lancaster B.X aircraft. The squadron moved to RCAF Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, after the war, disbanding there on 5 September 1945.
No. 431 (Fighter) Squadron re-formed at RCAF Station Bagotville on 18 January 1954, using the new Canadair Sabre. The squadron was formed on a temporary basis until there were enough new CF-100s available to fulfill RCAF squadron needs. No. 431's duties included aerial combat training and displaying the capabilities of jet operations to the public at air shows, the largest being Operation Prairie Pacific: a 50-minute exhibition with aircraft from several squadrons that travelled to selected locations across western Canada. The team from No. 431 Squadron consisted of four Sabres and a solo aircraft. This was the first Sabre team to be authorized to perform formation aerobatics in Canada. The unit was disbanded on 1 October 1954.
In 1969, Colonel O.B. Philp, base commander of CFB Moose Jaw and former leader of the defunct Golden Centennaires aerobatic team, considered using several of the leftover Golden Centennaire CT-114 Tutor aircraft for another team. These Tutors were still fitted for aerobatic flying and, because of some minor corrosion, had been painted with white anti-corrosive paint. Philp, at this point, did not receive approval to form the new team; however, approval had been given for single Tutors to provide simple flypasts at local football games. To further the cause of an aerobatic team, Philp began informal enhanced formation practice for the instructors at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School with the aim of providing multi-aircraft flypasts at special events. In 1970, four-aircraft formations began providing flypasts at fairs and festivals, as well as Armed Forces Day at CFB Moose Jaw. In July 1970, a white Tutor was introduced to the formation for flypasts. Four white Tutors were finally flown together at the Abbotsford Air Show, followed by a flypast in Winnipeg. Known as the "2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School Formation Team", or informally as the "Tutor Whites", the team grew in size to seven aircraft in 1971 using eleven pilots, and gradually gained recognition. Formation flypasts were replaced with more complicated manoeuvres, and more aircraft were added as the team matured.
A contest to give the air demonstration team a formal name was held at Bushell Park Elementary School at CFB Moose Jaw, and resulted in the name "Snowbirds". The name reflected the aircraft's distinctive mostly-white paint scheme used at the time, connoted grace and beauty and was clearly linked to its Canadian origins. The name was formally adopted on 25 June 1971. The Snowbirds were officially authorized to be designated the "Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team" on 15 January 1975. The team was formed into its own squadron by reactivating 431 Squadron (renamed 431 Air Demonstration Squadron) on 1 April 1978.
Formations and manoeuvres are designed each season by the team, and must be approved by the Canadian Forces, Transport Canada and the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure safety guidelines are complied with. FAA approval is necessary since the team performs in the United States.
Three aerobatic shows are designed: a high show flown when weather is ideal, a low show and a flat show. The latter two are flown where some manoeuvres are not permitted because of cloud. A non-aerobatic show, or flypast, is also flown. Manoeuvres are arranged from those selected from the Standard Manoeuvre Manual. Some elements of the show are passed down from one season to the next. These include the Canada burst, heart, downward bomb burst, solo head on crosses, and their signature nine-abreast exit. Training occurs over several months. Once manoeuvres are mastered and the team is comfortable with the routine, the Snowbirds deploy to CFB Comox for specialized training. After approvals are obtained, an "acceptance show" is performed at Moose Jaw to allow representatives from the three approving agencies to see a live performance. The team will go on to perform shows throughout North America from May to October. The last show is performed at Moose Jaw.
Pilots typically stay with the Snowbirds for a maximum of three years, and one third of the pilots are replaced each year. Replacing pilots this way allows experienced members to train the new team members, which ensures that the Snowbirds' routines are consistent.
The Snowbirds were the first aerobatic team in the world to use music in their show, and music is often used with live commentary from the performing pilots.
The Snowbirds fly at speeds between 100 knots (190 km/h) and 320 knots (590 km/h), with a separation between aircraft of 1.8 metres (5.9 ft) in many of the formations. When two aircraft perform head-on passes, they aim to be about 10 metres (33 ft) apart.
Due to crashes in October 2019 and May 2020, restrictions will be placed on shows beginning in 2021. To give pilots "more time to react", restrictions will be placed on altitude and speed, and there will be new rules about the minimum runway length permitted for Snowbird operations. Maintenance and inspections on the Tutors will also be increased.
Since the Snowbirds' first show in July 1971, there have been several incidents involving damage to airplanes, loss of airplanes, and loss of life. Below is a list of notable incidents only. There are other incidents, some involving loss of aircraft, that are not listed below.
|10 June 1972||CFB Trenton, Ontario||wingtip collision||1 fatality||plane crashed|
|14 July 1973||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||bird strike caused engine stall||back injuries||plane crashed|
|16 July 1977||Paine Field, Washington||collision during formation change||none||2 planes crashed|
|3 May 1978||Grande Prairie, Alberta||horizontal stabilizer failed||1 fatality||plane crashed|
|17 June 1986||Carmichael, Saskatchewan||midair collision||minor injuries||plane crashed|
|3 September 1989||Toronto, Ontario||midair collision||1 fatality||2 planes crashed|
|26 February 1991||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||crashed during flight||no serious injuries||plane crashed|
|14 August 1992||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||failed engine bearing||none||plane crashed|
|22 October 1992||Bagotville, Quebec||midair collision||none||2 planes crashed|
|21 March 1994||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||engine failure||minor injuries||plane crash|
|24 September 1995||Point Mugu, California||three planes collided with birds||none||planes damaged|
|7 June 1997||Glens Falls, New York||touched wings||none||planes damaged|
|10 December 1998||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||midair collision||1 fatality||plane crashed|
|27 February 1999||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||nose gear collapsed on landing||none||plane damage|
|4 September 2000||Toronto, Ontario||planes touched||none||plane damage|
|10 April 2001||Comox, British Columbia||nose & wing landing gear failed||none||plane damage|
|21 June 2001||near London, Ontario||midair collision||serious injuries||plane crashed|
|10 December 2004||Mossbank, Saskatchewan||midair collision||1 fatality||2 planes crashed|
|24 August 2005||near Thunder Bay, Ontario||engine failure||minor injuries||plane crashed|
|18 May 2007||near Great Falls, Montana||restraining strap malfunction||1 fatality||plane crashed|
|9 October 2008||near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||pilot error||2 fatalities||plane crashed|
|1 March 2011||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan||landed with gear up||none||plane damage|
|13 October 2019||Brooks, Georgia||engine fuel delivery system failure||minor injuries||plane crashed|
|17 May 2020||Kamloops, British Columbia||not yet known||1 fatality, 1 injured||plane crashed|
Snowbird aircraft have been involved in several accidents, resulting in the deaths of seven pilots and two passengers and the loss of several aircraft. One pilot, Captain Wes Mackay, was killed in a automobile accident after a performance in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1988. The RCAF commented: "... there is risk associated with formation flying. Flying by its very nature has an inherent element of risk. Eight Snowbird pilots have lost their lives in the performance of their duty. We remember them."
Due to the age of the Tutors (developed in the 1950s, first flown in 1960, and accepted by the RCAF in 1963), a 2003 Department of National Defence study recommended that the procurement process to replace the aircraft should begin immediately so the aircraft could be retired by 2010 because of obsolescence issues that would affect the aircraft’s viability. Some concerns include outdated ejection seats and antiquated avionics. There has also been criticism about the aircraft not being representative of a modern air force. A 2008 review recommended that the Tutors' life could be extended to 2020 because of cost concerns related to purchasing new aircraft. A 2015 report called "CT-114 Life Extension Beyond 2020", outlined planned upgrades to extend the life of the Tutor beyond 2020. These planned upgrades included replacing the ejection seats and wing components, and updating the brakes. A further initiative to extend the life of the aircraft from 2020 to 2030 has been implemented by the RCAF. An April 2018 RCAF document mentioned that until a decision is made on replacement, the Snowbird Tutors will receive modernized avionics to comply with regulations. The new avionics will permit the team to continue flying in North America and allow the Tutors to fly until 2030. Upgrading work will begin in 2022.
Notwithstanding any upgrades, the Government of Canada plans to replace the Tutors with new aircraft between 2026 and 2035, with a preliminary estimated cost of $500 million to $1.5 billion. Official sources were quoted: "The chosen platform must be configurable to the 431 (AD) Squadron standard, including a smoke system, luggage capability and a unique paint scheme. The platform must also be interchangeable with the training fleet to ensure the hard demands of show performances can be distributed throughout the aircraft fleet." The objective of the Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project is "to satisfy the operational requirement to provide the mandated Government of Canada aerobatic air demonstration capability to Canadian and North American audiences."
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