After grounding earlier this summer due to an issue involving their ejection seats, many Canadians will be upset to see the RCAF’s Snowbirds make the news again for less than ideal reasons.
Last Tuesday afternoon one of the team’s aircraft, a CT-114 Tutor, reportedly had a power failure on take-off from Fort St-John, BC and had to make an emergency landing. Thankfully the pilot, who was the sole occupant, was able to skillfully land the aircraft at the airport without injury. The aircraft however did sustain some damage as a result.
As the flight safety investigation into the incident begins and shows are cancelled as the team is grounded, it will leave many Canadians wondering if it is time to retire or re-equip the Snowbirds. With two technical related issues in as many months and just over two years since a bird strike brought down one of their aircraft resulting in the death of Capt. Jenn Casey, they couldn’t be blamed for thinking it.
The Snowbirds, also known as 431 Air Demonstration (AD) Squadron, are based out of 15 Wing, just south of Moose Jaw, Sk. They fly a modified CT-114 Tutor and skillfully perform highly technical and daring aerobatic maneuvers for the amusement of crowds across Canada and the USA. They are the current iteration of a long and proud line of RCAF air demonstration teams going as far back as 1923, when the “Siskins” comprised of three Armstrong Whitworth Biplanes, wowed early Canadian aviation enthusiasts.
However, the major difference between the Snowbirds and Canadian air demonstration teams of the past, is the age of their aircraft. Previously, most pilots would at least share the same generation with the aircraft they piloted, currently they do not.
The Snowbirds CT-114 Tutor first rolled off the production line in 1960 and was adopted as a trainer by the RCAF later that year. It was retired from that capacity in 2000 after 40 years of service but stayed on as an aerobatic aircraft. Now at 62 years old, they have the dubious distinction of having the oldest platform for an aerobatics team in the whole world…in all of history.
As the RCAF looks to the future with the pending acquisition of the F35 Lightning II, a fighter jet suited to the 21st century, it’s reasonable to ask what is gained by maintaining and parading about an antique aircraft from the middle of the last century. Is it a beneficial and cost-effective recruiting tool? Are there statistics to demonstrate this? Is it simply for the benefit of Canadians? Or like outdated dress regulations are they a cultural relic in desperate need of modernization?
There is no doubt that Snowbirds put on an impressive show, but the average spectator has no appreciation for the countless hours of stress and training it takes to produce it. Is it really worth it when you factor in the obvious risks of close formation flying, the age of the aircraft, the inability to eject safely from a ground position or less than several hundred feet, an increasing amount of near misses, and a recent fatality?
The Snowbirds are, and will always be a Canadian icon, but in terms of recruiting value and relevance in a world of 5th gen fighters, Top Gun: Maverick, and Miles Teller's moustache, their best days are far behind them, or if you’re an optimist, yet to come in some new iteration.
Canadians are right to ask the CAF and RCAF to either reinvent them for the 21st century or retire them gracefully before a tragedy forces them to.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.