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Distinguished pilot Col. O.B. Philp was the father of the Snowbirds’ aerobatic team

Col. Owen Bartley (O.B.) Philp served in the Second World War and then went on to have a distinguished career in the Royal Canadian Air Force, including founding the Snowbirds aerobatic team

The highlight of Col. Owen Bartley (O.B.) Philp’s career was the creation of the Snowbirds aerobatic team, a feat he accomplished with the same determination he displayed during his career and afterward.

Philp was known and loved throughout Canada and beyond during his 31 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The formation of the Snowbirds — officially known as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron — epitomized the skill, professionalism and teamwork demonstrated throughout the Canadian Forces.

Philp was diagnosed with cancer in January 1995, and on April 15, 1995, he died peacefully. The Snowbirds made a special trip to Victoria, British Columbia to salute their founder with a final flypast over Manor Farm.

He was honoured again in 1999 when he was posthumously inducted into the International Council of Air Shows Hall of Fame. In 2000 the NTO pilot flying training complex at Canadian Forces Base 15 Wing Moose Jaw was dedicated in his name, while in 2011 he was named to the Saskatchewan Aviation Hall of Fame.

Philp was later inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame in 2015. His induction citation referenced his time flying in the Second World War, as a test pilot and squadron commander, the leader of the Golden Centennaires aerobatic team, the leader of an operational training unit at Cold Lake, Alta., and as base commander of 15 Wing where he established the Snowbirds.

The early years

Owen Bartley Philp was born on Dec. 25, 1923, in Vancouver, the only child of Jessie and Bartley Philp. Father Bart flew for Canada as a pilot with the Royal Air Force in the First World War and was a ferry pilot for the RCAF during the Second World War.

Owen enlisted with the RCAF during the Second World War on Nov. 25, 1942, at Winnipeg. The moniker of “O.B.” stayed with him for life after he joined the air force.

Philp earned his pilot’s wings flying Tiger Moths at No. 15 Elementary Flying Training School in Regina. At No. 12 Service Flying Training School in Brandon, Man., he flew twin-engine Anson and Cessna aircraft.

In 1944 he was posted overseas, flying with 88 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. With the rank of flying officer, Philp joined transport command on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and at age 20 flew paratroopers during the invasion of Normandy.

During 1944-45 he flew Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft in India and Burma with the RCAF’s 436 Squadron. For service during those operational tours, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

A career continues

Following the Second World War, Philp continued with the RCAF and served with 121 Search and Rescue Unit at Sea Island, B.C., and later flew with 112 Composite Flight at Rivers, Man. Then in 1948, he organized the Canadian army’s first glider pilot school. He married Maeve Armour of Vancouver in May 1949 and they later had two sons and a daughter: Brent, Kimberly and Blair.

In 1951, he attended the Empire Test Pilots School at Farnborough, England and subsequently became a senior test pilot with the RCAF central experimental and proving establishment in Ottawa from 1952-56.

Upon graduation from the RCAF Staff College in 1957, he became a member of the Accident Investigation Bureau, Directorate of Flight Safety, at air force headquarters in Ottawa until 1961. After training on the CF-104 Starfighter jet at Cold Lake, Alta., he took command of RCAF 434 (Bluenose) Squadron at No. 3 Wing in Zweibrücken, West Germany, part of Canada’s air division in NATO.

Returning to Canada, Philp was chosen to organize and administer Canada’s centennial aerobatic team, the Golden Centennaires. The team featured eight Tutor jet trainers, a CF-104 Starfighter, CF-101 Voodoo, two Avro 504K biplanes, the Red Knight T-33 trainer jet and two support T-33s. The team completed 100 displays in Canada and another 12 in the United States in commemoration of Canada’s centennial in 1967.

The origins of the Snowbirds

In 1968 he commanded the original CF-5 Operational Training Unit at Cold Lake, Alta., and also conducted pilot training for the CF-104 program. In September 1969 he was promoted to colonel and posted to CFB Moose Jaw as base commander.

He found that the Tutor aircraft used by the Golden Centennaires were stored on the base and might be used to form an aerobatic team. Philp then guided an unofficial group of pilots at the base in perfecting manoeuvres, eventually becoming the world-famous Snowbirds, 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, based at 15 Wing in Moose Jaw.

Helping with air shows

In 1971 the Saskatchewan Airshow at CFB Moose Jaw was organized in conjunction with homecoming celebrations. At that time, the event was considered the largest one-day air show in North America.

Due to this endeavour, Philp received the marketing achievement award from the Marketing Executive Association of Saskatchewan in recognition of “the successful completion of a masterpiece of promotion, logistics, sales and marketing.”

Philp was posted to air force headquarters in Ottawa in August 1973 but retired on Nov. 27, 1973 after 31 years of military service.

His logbooks showed he had flown 8,246 hours in 79 different military aircraft. With his wife and family he settled down to country living on his 20-acre property known as Manor Farm, situated within sight of the Victoria International Airport.  

An experienced consultant

Philp soon became an aviation consultant for private and government sectors. He was engaged by EXPO 86 in September 1983 to formalize an aviation concept for the exposition and later became aviation administrator for the corporation. In December 1984 he was awarded the Sword of Excellence by the International Council of Air Shows in recognition of being “The Father of the Snowbirds.”

In 1990 he was contracted by the government-sponsored Rendezvous ’92 group to create a feasibility study and propose appropriate air events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Northwest Staging Route. That corridor was used extensively during the Second World War to ferry American-made aircraft through the northern states, Alberta and Alaska, before eventually arriving in Russia.

Encouraged by then-Snowbird team leader Maj. Dan Dempsey, Philp and Bill Johnson, who was the team’s photographer for 10 years, wrote Snowbirds — From the Beginning, which was published in October 1990 to coincide with the Snowbirds’ 20th anniversary. The limited-edition book covered the development of the team and many of the authors’ experiences in air shows.

Through his extensive network of former air force friends and acquaintances, Philp organized and directed the Victoria air shows of 1989 and 1991, featuring the Snowbirds as headliners. Two years later, in January 1993, he was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of “his outstanding contribution to the military aviation history of Canada.”

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