John Diefenbaker was the prime minister of Canada and Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States when Canada purchased the RCAF Snowbird jet that crashed in Kamloops, B.C., on Sunday morning.
The iconic aerobatic team’s public affairs officer, Capt. Jenn Casey, died in the accident. The pilot with her in the CT-114’s side-by-side cockpit, Capt. Richard MacDougall, suffered serious though non-life-threatening injuries.
The Snowbirds were nearing the end of a three-week, cross-Canada tour to honour the heroism of medical workers responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Having spent nearly two months in isolation, Ottawans — and me among them — were delighted on May 7 to see a formation of nine Snowbirds do a low-level flypast over Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River. Similarly inspiring shows took place over Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Ont., and many other places in Canada
The RCAF will lead a joint accident board with Transport Canada investigators. The groups will work together because the aircraft took off from a civilian airport and crashed in a residential area, not on military property.
With video evidence of the takeoff taken by a spectator at the airport and widely played on television and social media, the physical evidence strewn on the ground and testimony from the pilot, a clear picture of what exactly happened and why should emerge fairly quickly.
Col. Laurie Hawn, an RCAF pilot for 31 years with more than 7,000 hours flying time on the single-engine turbojet and many other aircraft, offered a brief description of what happened.
“The video showed two seats being ejected but only one chute and that one blossomed very late,” said the former CF-18 Hornet squadron commander and Tory MP from Alberta. “It looked like an engine failure due to a mechanical problem or a bird strike.
“You would ‘zoom’ in that case, which is what the pilot was doing, trading speed for altitude to get higher as quickly as possible to try to relight the engine, find a place to land or to punch out. Gaining altitude gives you options because the Tutor can glide like a bird.”
Of the young pilots who usually make a two- or three-year commitment when they join the Snowbirds, Hawn said, “They are from the top of the gene pool and they love doing what they do. You have to be very proficient to do formation flying. You have to trust the guys beside you, 100 per cent. They weed out folks who do not have that kind of trust from the other pilots.”
Replacing the CF-18s, which defend Canada and U.S. air space from Russian bombers and missile threats from Russia, China and North Korea, has been a notorious procurement fiasco that began 22 years ago during Jean Chretien’s tenure as prime minister.
Like much of the RCAF, the Snowbirds have been hobbled by a lack of human resources. The air force does not have nearly enough pilots to fly most of the aircraft in its fleet. Ironically, that serious problem may be solved by COVID-19 as many pilots who left the military to fly commercial jetliners have lost their jobs and may now seek to re-enlist.
But replenishing the severely depleted pilot pool would be a band-aid. The grimmest problem the RCAF faces is that several generations of political leaders have never given it the new aircraft that it badly needs. That includes the 57-year-old Snowbird that fell from the sky on Sunday in Kamloops.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.
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