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In October of 2015, 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, known as the Snowbirds, ended their 45th air show season. But what happens after the last show of the year is flown? After taking a well deserved leave from work, the team starts back up again in late October, early November, bringing new and old pilots together, to start work on the 2016 season. Along with new wingmen, the Snowbirds have a new "Boss", as Major Yanick Gregoire enters his first year as team lead. Previously, he flew as Snowbird 4, during the 2010/2011 show seasons. Joining Gregoire are Snowbird 3, Captain Paul Faulkner, Snowbird 6, Captain Gregory Hume-Powell, Snowbird 9, Captain Craig Sharp and Snowbird 10, Captain Blake McNaughton.
Often, putting together a Snowbird show is referred to as a building block process. Indeed, walk before you run is the name of the game. Early training missions are flown as a dual trip, where senior pilots will fly with new pilots, who fly on the opposite side of the formation from them. During these dual trips, the senior pilots will fly their side of the formation, showing the newer pilots how to position themselves for each formation, as well as showing them how to transition from one formation to the next, starting out in level flight and steep turns. Then the aircraft swap sides and the new pilots fly the same profiles, while the senior pilots watch and critique. Once the newer pilots become proficient, a solo trip will usually occur, involving all nine aircraft. Then, the next phase of training, goes back to a dual trip, followed by another solo trip. Repetition is key to ensuring that each movement becomes second nature. As well as in-flight debriefs between training points, referred to as "series", ensure that any mistakes that are made, are identified by each pilot. These training flights continue, twice a day, during the week, until the full show comes together.
It was a great opportunity to see the team, so early on in the 2016 season. The learning curve was very apparent in the brief and debrief, as was the building block process, which was explained to me. What was also apparent, was the true professionalism of everyone. Any mistakes caught in the flight, were discussed in the debrief, with guarantees that they would be worked on and fixed for the next flight. It might be hard for most people to be totally honest and upfront about mistakes that they make, but for the Snowbirds, it is essential. The pilots will also grade themselves on different training points that they hoped to accomplish during the flight. Points they felt they did not meet, again, are worked on for the next flight. Even after being cleared off from the debrief, a fair amount of discussion breaks out amongst the pilots, helping each other identify problem points and how to fix them. By the time the briefing room clears, all of the jets have been serviced and put back into the hangar, ending the training day.
Unlike the US Air Force Thunderbirds or US Navy Blue Angels, winter training for the Snowbirds actually means "winter training". January through March can offer excellent, smooth, flying weather, but it can also throw seemingly endless days of cloud, snow and frigid temperatures at the prairie of Saskatchewan. Days where no jets can fly, doesn't mean a lot of downtime. Maintenance work continues, daily, on the Squadron's fleet of Tutor jets. In addition, safety briefings are usually carried out by the teams technicians while the pilots will take part in briefs and "chair-fly" what they had planned that day. Early January is usually a very busy time for the entire Squadron. From PR material to show site visits by Snowbirds 10 and 11, the team coordinators, to full, nine plane shows, it's a well paced race to the eventual finish line; the Squadron's annual deployment to Comox, BC.
In Comox, the team gets used to operating as they would, during the show season and the show pilots get used to flying over open water. Two full shows are flown every day, for approximately two and a half weeks, culminating in one of the most important performances of the season, the approval show. This show is the make or break point for the team. Here, top brass from 1 Canadian Air Division, in Winnipeg, along with officials from Transport Canada and the FAA, observe the full show, looking for anything that might pose a safety hazard to not only the pilots in the air, but spectators on the ground. Once officials are happy with the show that the team has put together, the Commanding Officer of the RCAF will sign off on the show, giving the team clearance to perform in public. After Comox, the team returns to Moose Jaw, where they perform a season opener, which is usually a closed show, intended for Snowbird family members, alumni and personnel at 15 Wing. Finally, the team is ready for another summer, on the road.
I would like to thank the Commanding Officer, LCol. Brad Wintrup, for helping me organize this visit to 431 Air Demonstration Squadron. I would also like to thank the Boss, Maj. Yanick Gregoire and the rest of the 2016 Snowbirds, for inviting me to sit in on their briefs and finally, Deputy Crew Chief, MCpl. Russ Egler, for letting me set up in servicing for the afternoon (and opening up the kit shop).