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.

Kyle Franklin Flies It Like He Stole It, Collects Bill Barber Award At EAA AirVenture 2017

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Kyle Franklin Awarded Bill Barber Award for Showmanship

Second generation airshow pilot Kyle Franklin was awarded the Bill Barber Award for Showmanship during an annual ceremony on Tuesday evening of EAA AirVenture 2017 in Oshkosh, WI.

The Bill Barber Award for Showmanship began in 1986, and is awarded to air show performers or teams that have demonstrated great skill and showmanship. World Airshow News magazine and the friends and family of the late Bill Barber present the award annually.

Kyle is now in his 20th year of performing in airshows. He got his start in the industry by wingwalking on his late father’s Waco biplane at age 17 – the youngest ever. He’s also known for being the first jet biplane wingwalker, creating his popular pirate-themed act “Pirated Skies,” and performing the motorcycle to airplane transfer act.

Today, Franklin flies his popular “Dracula” biplane performances and Super Cub comedy act at airshows across the nation. He performed his “stolen” Cub act twice during the week at AirVenture, and took one of our cameras along for a harrowing ride on Tuesday. Thanks to Chris Desmond for the help with the footage!

We also filmed Kyle’s act from the ground, where you can really see how much skill he has as he throws the aircraft all over the sky (and sometimes the ground) while remaining in complete control.

While accepting the award, Kyle remembered those who he grew up with in the airshow industry, including his parents and his late wife Amanda Franklin, and thanked them for their help in getting him to where he is today.

Kyle joins his father, Jimmy Franklin who was awarded with the award in 1989. Kyle and Jimmy are the second father and son to receive the Bill Barber Award. Bobby Younkin (2004) and his son Matt (2012) were the first.

Congrats Kyle!

Video Highlight: Arsenal of Democracy On-Board Video Takes You In The Cockpit During DC The Flyover

The Arsenal of Democracy flyover in Washington DC a little over a week ago was a huge success, and we have seen many spectacular images and videos from it. Hopefully you were able to see it in person or on the live stream, but if not you can catch CSPAN’s recorded footage online. What’s even more exciting is you can now take a seat in one of the more than 50 warbirds that participated! Check out the video below, provided by our partner JL Aero. The camera was mounted in the rear seat of a TBM Avenger in the flyby, and shows the taxi out, takeoff, formation flight en route, the flight down the mall, and landing. The most interesting moment may be the wingman’s in flight emergency captured by the camera, which you can read more about in the video’s description.

RideAlong! in the CAF National Capitol Squadron’s TBM Avenger torpedo bomber as it joins another TBM and the world’s only flying SB2C Helldiver dive bomber in the “Leyte Gulf” formation during the Arsenal of Democracy flyover in Washington DC. The AOD flyover was organized to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, recognized on May 8th. More than 50 rare WWII warbirds from around the country gathered at airports in Manassas and Culpeper in the days leading up to the event. On the day of the flyover, aircraft took off and joined into 15 different formations, each representing a critical battle during the war. The aircraft flew down the Potomac River, down the National Mall, and then returned to the airports. Spectators on the ground were treated to a ceremony marking the significance of the day, and narration describing each formation as it passed overhead.
At 5:35, you will see the other TBM Avenger “Leyte 3” suddenly break from the formation. The pilot declared an in flight emergency due to a broken hydraulic fitting in the engine area. The atomized fluid looked like smoke and the pilot thought the aircraft was on fire. He turned immediately towards Reagan National Airport (visible in the background) and landed safely there.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJgTYs6OvaY

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