Flying With The Canadian Forces Snowbirds

Flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - Cockpit Cam - AirshowStuff

I have always been a fan of the Canadian Snowbirds. When I was just getting into airshows, their spectacular bursts were unlike anything I had seen before. As I became more familiar with the industry, their large formation rolls where they pull over the top while pointing right at the crowd stuck out as even more unique. And when I eventually earned my pilot’s certificate and spent some time at formation clinics, I found myself astonished by the difficulty of their many different nine-plane formations.

Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuffCanadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff

To this day, the Snowbirds are my absolute favorite airshow performance to watch, and one of the very few that I make sure to see at least once a year. One could say I feel a special connection to the team; they feature prominently in my most powerful airshow memories, and just hearing some of the songs they’ve flown to will bring goosebumps to my arms in an instant.

All of this is to say: when Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer Lt. Michèle Tremblay contacted AirshowStuff last month to talk about a media ride, it was more than just a cool opportunity. The catch was that I would have to get from Michigan to the Oregon International Airshow in Hillsboro, Oregon. Thankfully, the logistics were straight forward and less than two weeks later, I was descending past Mt. Hood on my way into Portland.

Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff
The Canadian Forces Snowbirds, also known as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, have been Canada’s national display team since the 1970s. The team is based at CFB Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan, and travels across North America each year performing for millions of spectators. Their show season usually begins in May and runs through October. They make a number of visits to the US each year, usually in the spring and fall.

I actually beat the team to Hillsboro, and watched the #10 and #11 jets – the advance party – arrive in the Thursday afternoon sun. We got my quick medical check out of the way before the main group of nine jets arrived. The team’s support hauler, a specially-outfitted semi-trailer truck, was already in place. The truck brings all sorts of equipment for the team, including tools, spare parts, bicycles, a Gator four wheeler, and space for luggage that doesn’t fit into the relatively small CT-114 Tutor aircraft.

I knew that the team had performed on the East Coast (Virginia Beach, VA) the weekend before, and we heard how the Canadian Army driver had driven the truck all the way from there to the team’s home base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan for a short three hour stop to reload before finishing the cross country journey. I was thankful for my airline ticket just thinking about it.

Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff
The Snowbirds perform in nine Canadair CT-114 Tutor aircraft. The Canadian-designed and -built Tutor first flew in 1960 and served as the Royal Canadian Air Force’s primary jet trainer until 2000. Two other Tutors, flown by the team coordinators, travel with the team as spares. Because each aircraft is a two-seater, the team’s technicians fly from show to show along with the pilots. Although the age of the jets is a common point of discussion among airshow fans, the team plans to operate them until at least 2030.

The rest of the team arrived with a nine ship flyby, and after a quick debriefing I was told to report the next morning for ejection seat training(!) and other preparations.

The big day arrived, and the four media riders went straight into learning the complex steps required to strap in, and the even more complex steps required to eject or evacuate on the ground. We grabbed flight suits, and were fitted for helmets, oxygen masks, life preservers, and parachutes by the helpful (and patient) technicians.

Flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuffFlying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff

Once we were all set, we went straight to the briefing room to meet the rest of the team and go over the details of the flight. As a dedicated media opportunity, the team was forgoing their typical Friday practice and instead planned a transit flight just for us. We would take off and head north, then turn west and follow the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, OR. After a flyby there, we would turn south and fly along the coast before turning inland and returning to Hillsboro. Upon arriving back at the airfield the team would perform a site survey to familiarize themselves with the showline and then land.

Unfortunately, the FAA rep at the show incorrectly but adamantly stated that aerobatics could not be performed with passengers. The team grumbled but accepted it. The rest of the briefing covered the weather (clear skies, unlimited visibility), air traffic control, divert airports, and other such details that well-prepared pilots pay attention to. I would be flying with Snowbird #4, Maj. Stephen “Pup” Melanson in the First Line Astern position, right behind the “Boss”.

Outside, we were introduced to the aircraft technicians who would be helping us strap in. Cameras were readied, and soon it was time to mount up. All of our prepared gear was waiting for us, and my awesome (and again, patient) tech Cpl. Brandon Harvey made sure to catch all of the steps I missed. In my defense, when you’re covered in straps and handles that turn on oxygen or deploy a parachute, you tend to double check what you’re pulling!

Pup joined me in the small side-by-side cockpit, and talked me through the startup procedure once all of the pilots had checked in. The jets lined up on the runway in three groups of three, with #6 and #7 on our wings as the middle group. Pup explained the sequence as we rolled down the runway together and all nine aircraft worked to form up on our northbound leg.

Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff
Flying smaller aircraft allows the team to operate out of smaller airports than the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. This helps them reach many smaller cities and towns across Canada’s rural regions. The team frequently performs self-contained Wednesday evening shows in towns that don’t feature a full airshow. They strive to inspire the audience, share the many opportunities available to men and women in the Canadian military, and demonstrate the skill, professionalism, and teamwork behind their aviation excellence. During their trips to the US, the team acts as ambassadors for Canada and highlights the long friendship between the two countries.

The scenery was breathtaking. In the clear afternoon air, we could easily see Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Rainier in the distance while haze filled the valleys below us. The team went through a couple of formation changes as Pup explained the spacing and alignments. Although we didn’t really move around ourselves, the #4 position gave me a great view of the other aircraft moving around on both sides of us. The changes were far more sudden and crisp than other formation flights I’ve been on, but at the same time controlled and smooth. I wouldn’t expect any different from some of the world’s best!

With smoke on, we gave a big sweeping flyover to the citizens of Longview, WA as we turned west. Each aircraft dropped into trail as we descended toward the river, which for the Snowbirds means a follow-the-leader line of nine jets, each with the freedom to maneuver as needed. Pup, knowing I fly, handed me the controls and let me slalom behind the pack ahead of us as we wound down the river. The controls were responsive but not touchy. I felt right at home and I can understand why the aging jet is still perfect for formation displays. The coolest part of the entire flight was when I pulled us into a turn and blasted right through the smoke trail of #3, bobbling slightly as we crossed his wake.

Sadly, my part only lasted a few minutes before we were called to rejoin – a maneuver that included a few violent whips and the hardest G of the flight, probably around 4 or 5. That was the tame version, Pup explained to me; the rejoins during the scripted show are even quicker and tighter.

Flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - Cockpit Cam - AirshowStuffFlying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - Cockpit Cam - AirshowStuff

Back in formation, we did two flybys over Astoria, including a low pass down the runway there before proceeding south along the coast. This was another dose of beautiful scenery, with big bluffs and rocky islands as far down the shoreline as the eye could see. Boss put us into a big 360 degree turn right over Tillamook Rock so that the pilots on each side of the formation could take in the view while also staring at his jet.

We continued a little further south, with a couple more formation changes thrown in. The ocean fell behind us as we climbed up over the hills of the Tillamook State Forest – a bad place to eject, Pup pointed out to me. The team dropped back into trail, and descended into Hillsboro as a line of white dots against the evergreens. The site survey was a quick four passes over the airport, then Pup whipped us back into formation again for a final Big Diamond flyby. The team separated into three groups of three again, and set down smoothly on the runway. Our techs marshaled us into position, perfectly spaced and lined up. My Snowbirds flight had come to an end.

Flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuffFlying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds - AirshowStuff

I’m forever grateful to the team for the opportunity to join them and I give special thanks again to Lt. Michèle Tremblay, Maj. Stephen Melanson, and Cpl. Brandon Harvey for their help. If you missed it above, make sure you check out the video of my Snowbird flight!

– Ryan Sundheimer

The Snowbirds have wrapped up their 2018 season, but I highly encourage you to make plans for one of their shows once the 2019 schedule is released in early December. You will be able to find that right here on the AirshowStuff blog, or in our forums.

F-35 Lightning II Approved For Extra Flybys During 2018 Airshow Performances

posted in: Military | 0

USAF F-35 Lightning II

You’ll see a little bit more of the F-35 Lightning II this airshow season! We took a peek in the 2018 Air Combat Command support manual, and noticed that the F-35 Heritage Flight team is approved for a three-pass “mini-demo” at its performances this year!

NOTE: The F-35 profile will include three non-aerobatic solo passes, most likely before the first HF formation pass, for consistency between HF performances.

This is a bit of a let down for those who followed the rumors that the US Air Force’s F-35 would be upgraded to a full aerobatic demonstration after Lockheed Martin debuted an aerobatic profile at the Paris Airshow last year. However, it shows that the program is getting closer to a full-up demo.

In the mean time, we can look forward to an extra few passes from the jet at each airshow performance. There are no specifics on what the three flybys will be, but such mini-demos in the past have consisted of a photo pass, a high speed pass, and a slow speed/high alpha pass. The F-4 Phantoms flew this profile back when they were a part of the Heritage Flight, and both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon teams did the same prior to being reinstated to full aerobatic status. This year marks the A-10s first year back to an aerobatic profile.

The F-35 was added to the Heritage Flight program in 2016, and it has been limited to HF performances in the two seasons since. The aircraft typically takes off and immediately joins the formation, offering a solo flyby or two after the formation breaks apart. Most recently the F-35 has been performing a high speed pass and a pitch to land following the Heritage Flight. Along with the mini-demo, we could be looking at five solo flybys by the F-35.

Inside USAF Thunderbird Operations Over Colorado

posted in: Jet Teams | 1

USAF Thunderbirds Blue Out Pitch

The United States Air Force Thunderbirds recently wrapped up back-to-back weekends in the state of Colorado, where they performed at the Pikes Peak Regional Airshow on September 23rd and 24th and the Grand Junction Airshow on September 30th and October 1st. During this stretch, we were able to capture a special look at some of the logistics involved in the teams travels and their procedures to ensure a perfect performance.

Wednesday

The Thunderbirds begin each show week on Wednesday at their home, Nellis AFB. Typically, Thunderbird #7 or #8 departs to the next show site to meet with airshow organizers to ensure everything is set up for the teams arrival. This includes things like transportation, lodging, temporary flight restrictions, and ramp security. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew pack up their equipment and prepare it for transport.

Thunderbirds "One Team"

Thursday

On Thursday, roughly one hour ahead of the demonstration pilots, the enlisted personnel and support officers arrive via C-17 or C-130 (“Thunderbird 14”). Once on the ground, they begin preparing for the upcoming airshow. Support crews unload the communication and maintenance trailers, spare equipment, luggage of all members traveling, and even a spare Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engine.

Supervising Thunderbird 14's DepartureThunderbird 14 Support Aircraft Unloading

Following the unloading of equipment and crew, flight operations start with the overhead arrival of Thunderbirds 1-6. Once at the show site the demonstration pilots conduct a survey of the area. This provides them with an opportunity to see the show lines, the crowd lines, and find points of reference on the ground. It’s really just an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the area so that they can fly a safe and well-executed show.

Thunderbirds Arrival into the Colorado Springs Area
Photo Credit: Maj. Ryan “Neo” Bodenheimer TB2 (Left Wing)

After all aircraft, equipment, and personnel are on the ground the jets are thoroughly checked for maintenance complications by the support personal while the officers meet with members of the media for plane-side interviews to help promote the event. This is a great way for local news channels to get people interested in the airshow. While this is taking place, Thunderbird #7 or #8 are in a pre-flight briefing with a lucky member of the media who was pre-selected to go up for a media ride and represent their news station. The media ride takes place in one of the team’s two-seat F-16D’s, which also serve as backup jets for the performances. During the flight, the pilot demonstrates maneuvers from the show routine to the media representative in the back seat.

Thunderbird #7 Stare Down During Engine StartThunderbird 7 Media Flight Launch

Friday

Friday begins early in the morning, with most of the team participating in school visits, children’s hospital visits, and other such recruiting or community outreach opportunities. At the same time, aircraft specialists are at the airfield preparing the F-16’s for the afternoon practice demonstration. The Friday practice allows for the Thunderbirds to adjust for any complications or abnormalities they may have during the demonstration, whether it be timing, maneuvers, show lines, or narration. Once the afternoon rolls around it’s all hands on deck preparing for the practice show as if it were the real deal. In many ways it actually is the same, as the Thunderbirds and airshow organizers often invite distinguished guests and members of the media to the Friday show to hopefully give one last push to bring in the crowds on Saturday and Sunday.

Thundebirds Line Chief Overseeing Launch Procedures

Thunderbird #6 Site Survey LaunchThunderbird #8 "Speedy" Back In Action Providing Narration

The Friday practice in Grand Junction actually provided a unique opportunity to witness a Thunderbird mission that is rarely seen. During the performance, the demonstration pilots were shadowed by Thunderbird #7 Lt. Col Kevin “Lowen” Walsh flying a photo chase mission with a back seat photographer from the Thunderbirds Public Affairs Office. This is how the team gets amazing photos and videos of the diamond formation performing aerobatics, and it is not a common sight.

Thunderbird #7 Acting as Photo Chase following the DiamondPhoto Chase aircraft taxing out

Though the practice may have looked flawless to any member of the general public, a rigorous debrief begins immediately afterward where the officers review ground recordings, HUD tapes, and other on-board footage recorded during the show. This allows them to grade themselves on their overall performance and tells them what they can clean up, improve on, and make better for Saturday and Sunday.

Diamond Pass In Review

Saturday/Sunday

Saturday and Sunday begins, as we all know, with an early morning opening of the airshow gates, food, drinks, and hours family entertainment while the other airshow performers fly. During this time the Thunderbirds are preparing for their flight with a briefing, preflight checks, aircraft pushbacks, and communications checks. Everything funnels into the ability to provide the grand finale at the end of the day, thrilling thousands of excited fans.

Once the weekend is over the cycle resets. The team loads up to fly back to Nellis for a short bit of rest before starting again. It’s a constant fast-paced work environment that is often tasking on the team members and their families, but the rewards are extraordinary and every member of the team is always “happy to be here.”

Article and photos by Anthony Cornelius

Dedicated Crew Chief for Thunderbird #3 Launching Out His Pilot

Patrouille de France 2017 US Tour Hits West Coast With Incredible San Francisco Photo Shoot

posted in: Flyovers, Jet Teams | 0

Patrouille de France Over San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge

The 2017 US Tour of the Patrouille de France has hit the West Coast! The team performed for one time only at Mather Airport in Sacramento, CA in the morning, then headed for a photo shoot with San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge in the evening. Spectators stood in awe as the eight-ship formation followed their supporting A400M Atlas transport/photoship on multiple flybys around the Bay Area. Two other Alpha Jets trailed the formation for more photos. These magnificent images from this flight really speak for themselves!

Patrouille de France Over San FranciscoPatrouille de France Over San Francisco

The Patrouille has previously flown photo missions over New York City and the Statue of Liberty as well the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. They also performed at several East Coast airshows and even stopped to visit the US Navy Blue Angels at their home base of NAS Pensacola. Their trip through North America is quickly coming to an end though, and they will be heading East again soon for several military-focused events before proceeding up through Canada and back home to France at the beginning of May.

All photos courtesy Armée de l’air

Patrouille de France Over San FranciscoPatrouille de France Over San Francisco

RARE SIGHT: Blue Angels and Patrouille de France Fly Together

posted in: Jet Teams, Popular Posts | 1

Blue Angels and Patrouille de France Fly Together

The world’s two oldest military flight demonstration teams flew together Sunday night as the US Navy Blue Angels returned to Pensacola from Sun ‘n Fun with the Patrouille de France in tow to spend a few days with the team.

The eight Alpha Jets of the Patrouille teamed up with the Blue’s six F/A-18 Hornets at sunset, flying down the coastline and creating a fantastic photo opportunity for Blue Angel #7 to snap a few pictures, like the one above.

Check out this video posted by a boater off the coast of Pensacola!

The French team’s visit is part of a nationwide tour that takes them from coast to coast. The team just wrapped up the central Florida portion of the visit with airshow performances in Melbourne, FL and Lakeland, FL.

Below are some photos provided by the Blue Angels Association!

Blue Angels and Patrouille de France Fly TogetherBlue Angels and Patrouille de France Fly Together

Have a photo or video you took? Post it on our Facebook wall or our forums! We’d love to see it.

Nellis Air Force Base Concludes 17-2 Red Flag Aerial Combat Training Exercise

posted in: Military | 2

This past week, the year’s second Red Flag Exercise, known as Red Flag 17-2, came to a close after two intense weeks of training consisting of air to air, air to ground, aerial refueling, and overwatch missions. Missions were flown during the afternoons and evenings, resulting in two mass launches and two mass recoveries of aircraft each day, five days a week.

Red Flag happens four times a year, hosting the world’s elite fighter squadrons from the US Air Force, Navy, Marines, Air National Guard, NATO, and other allied nations. These groups gather to take part in ultra-realistic simulated aerial war games, which all take place at the Nevada Test and Training Range.

One participating aircraft type that really stood out from the crowd was the EA-6B Prowler operated by the US Marine Corps. This will be marked as the last Red Flag participation from any EA-6B squadron, as VMAQ-4 is set to deactivate. The squadron will be retiring its aging Prowler fleet this June, marking the end of an era for a distinguished airframe.

Colorado Air National Guard F-16 passing the moon during Red Flag 17-2EA-6B Prowler returns during Red Flag 17-2

The amount of time and effort that goes into creating these highly realistic combat environments is unprecedented. Even when the jets are not flying, the maintainers are hard at work on the line keeping the jets ready for the next sortie. While the maintainers and pilots do their tasks, the unsung warriors are the dozens of Red Flag mission organizers that help thoroughly brief and debrief hundreds of pilots from the 15 visiting fighter and support squadrons:

Royal Netherlands Air Force

  • F-16 Fighting Falcon

Spanje (Spanish Air Force)

  • ALA 111 – Eurofighter EF-2000
  • ALA 312 – KC-130H Hercules

Air National Guard

  • 100th FS – F-16 Fighting Falcon
  • 120th FS – F-16C Fighting Falcon

US Army

  • 149th AVN – UH-60 Blackhawk

US Air Force – Europe

  • 493d FS – F-15C/D Eagle

US Air Force

  • 16th ACCS – E-8C Joint STARS
  • 55th FS – F-16CJ Fighting Falcon
  • 79th RQS – HC-130 Hercules/HH-60 Blackhawk
  • 960th AACS – E-3 Sentry
  • 91st ARS – KC-135 Stratotanker

US Navy

  • HSC-21 – MH-60S Seahawk
  • VAW-117 – E-2C Hawkeye

US Marine Corps

  • VMAQ-4 – EA-6B Prowler

HC-130 Red Flag 17-2

Beyond the squadrons’ jet fuel-driven training, exercises also draw crowds of a different breed. Hundreds of aviation photographers travel to Nellis each Red Flag for the opportunity to photograph aircraft from squadrons they may never have the chance to see again. Squadrons such as the Spanish, Dutch, and the Lakenheath-based USAFE F-15C/Ds were on every photographer’s must-shoot list. Nothing provides a better opportunity for good photos than the almost always clear Vegas skies mixed with perfect late afternoon light.

Though 17-2 has come to a close, photographers should mark their calendars as Nellis AFB will be hosting two more Red Flag exercises during the 2017 calendar year; the first taking place mid-July (17-3), and the second in mid-August (17-4).

– Anthony Cornelius

Spanish Eurofighter at Red Flag 17-2

F-16C From the 140th wing returning to Nellis AFBColorado Air National Guard F-16s leading a pair of Shaw AFB F-16s

Red Flag 17-2 Night Launch Operations

Blue Angels Cancel Performance After Pilot Falls Ill

posted in: Airshows, Jet Teams | 0

Blue Angel #1 - Cmdr. Ryan Bernacchi

The US Navy Blue Angels were forced to cancel their Saturday afternoon performance at the California Capital Airshow today after Blue Angel #1, Commander Ryan Bernacchi, contracted a food-borne illness. Boss remains under the medical supervision of the team’s flight surgeon.

In a statement published on Facebook, the Blue Angels said:

Sacramento airshow fans. We regret to inform everyone that we will not be performing today. Boss Bernacchi fell under the weather and the decision was made not to fly and to make sure he focuses on his health so he is ready for tomorrow. The team is still planning on performing for all airshow fans tomorrow at the California Capital Airshow on Oct. 2.

While the Blue Angels can perform with less than six pilots if necessary due to illness or mechanical issue, the stand down of the #1 jet forces the entire team to stand down in the interest of safety.

We wish Commander Bernacchi the best and hope he feels better tomorrow!

First Flight Of B-29 Superfortress “Doc” Announced

posted in: Warbirds | 2
B-29 Superfortress "Doc" First Flight
Photo credit: Doc’s Friends

The eagerly anticipated first flight of the B-29 Superfortress “Doc” has been scheduled for Sunday, July 17th. The flight will mark a culmination of 16 years of restoration by volunteers in Wichita. The flight is expected to take place in the early morning, weather allowing, and viewing information will be announced for anyone in the area who wants to watch. The group leading the restoration recently obtained permission from the Department of Defense to use the military runway at McConnell AFB for the flight.

The planned timing does leave open the possibility for Doc to attend this year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh show at the end of the month. Hours of flight testing will need to be completed first, though. The world’s only other flyable B-29, “Fifi”, is already confirmed for AirVenture.

Photo Albums Uploaded: Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 and US Army Golden Knights Media Flight

posted in: Airshows, AirshowStuff, Event Recap | 0

Three new photo albums have gone up in our photo gallery! Check out a preview of each below and then be sure to follow the links to view the full albums.

Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Patrick Barron

View full photo album: Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Patrick Barron
Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 - Patrick Barron

Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Ryan Sundheimer

View full photo album: Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Ryan Sundheimer
Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 - Ryan Sundheimer

Golden Knights Media Flight – Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Patrick Barron

View full photo album: Golden Knights Media Flight – Vectren Dayton Airshow 2015 – Patrick Barron
US Army Golden Knights