For as famous as the Blue Angels and the USAF are, they’re not the only daredevils dominating the skies above North America, as the RCAF and Snowbirds are a ‘force’ to be reckoned with as well.
What are the RCAF Snowbirds, you ask? They’re Canada’s aerobatics team, and they have a great history of aerobatic excellence in the Great White North.
For other aerobatics teams see:
1. Before the Snowbirds
If you’re wondering “When did the RCAF Snowbirds start?” there’s actually a long story of Canadian aerobatics before their inception.
While the Snowbirds may be the big aerobatic team in Canada today, there’s a rich history in the Great White North of stunt aerial crews teamed with the RCAF that dates back decades before their formation, beginning in 1929 with the Siskins.
Founded at Camp Borden, Ontario and named after actual “snowbirds” in Siskins, the team flew three Armstrong Whitworth Siskin biplanes for over 100 air shows. However, as with so much else, they were brought to a premature end by the Great Depression and were forced to disband in 1932.
The RCAF went on to perform courageously during the Battle of Britain, with the Siskins’ former leader, E.A. McNab, leading a squadron and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in the aerial campaign against the Luftwaffe, the first RCAF pilot to do so.
After the war, Canada saw a new aerobatics team hit the scene, the Blue Devils. The team, made up of members of No. 410 Squadron, flew de Havilland Vampire jets from 1949 to 1951 and were helmed by WWII flying ace Lt. Don C. Laubman.
However, this team was also short-lived.
One of its members, Squadron Leader Bob Kipp, was killed due to a training accident on July 25, 1949, and the team was disbanded in September 1950 as the Vampire was phased out in favor of the emerging F-86 Sabre.
A brief reunion ended after a final show in Detroit on August 19, 1951 at the Michigan Air Fair.
The longest-lived of the Snowbirds’ predecessors were the Golden Hawks. Formed in 1959, they were meant to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the formation of the RCAF as well as the 50th “Golden” anniversary of the first flight in Canada on February 23, 1909 in the AEA Silver Dart.
They were planned as a six-plane team who would perform for that year only in the Canadair Sabre 5. However, they were so popular that the squad expanded to eight pilots and were reformed in 1960 and continued to perform until they were disbanded in 1964 after 317 shows.
The legacy of the Golden Hawks is one of the best-preserved among the pre-Snowbirds RCAF aerobatics teams. Golden Hawks are on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope, and several other aviation museums.
Continuing the “golden” history of Canadian aeronautics and aerobatics were the Golden Centennaires. Formed in 1967, they were meant to honor Canada’s centenary year, with the eight-man team using at various times the Avro 504, CF-104 Starfighter, and CF-101 Voodoo.
The team performed in 103 air shows across Canada, including at Expo 67 in Montreal (remember the Montreal Expos?), where they performed in the opening and closing ceremonies. In addition, they performed seven shows in the United States and two in the Bahamas.
2. History of the Snowbirds
The Golden Centennaires have the most direct link to the Snowbirds among their predecessors, since the aircraft used by them were later reused when the Snowbirds hit the scene (and skies) in 1971. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that they were officially known as No. 431 Air Demonstration Squadron.
Nicknamed the Iroquois Squadron, the unit features a crest with the face of an Iroquois’ head with “The Hatiten Ronteriios” (“Warriors of the Air”). The crest also contains wheat as a tribute to the team’s home in the farming-rich province of Saskatchewan.
No. 431 Squadron was inaugurated on November 11, 1942 and saw action throughout WWII with the team commandeering Wellington bombers with the RCAF’s No. 4 Group.
Wondering “What aircraft do the RCAF Snowbirds fly?”
In 1943, the team began using Halifax four-engine heavy bombers, and was later equipped with Halifax IIIs and finally Lancasters. After serving with distinction in the war, the squadron was disbanded before being reformed in 1954, when they became the first team of Sabres to fly in aerobatic formations.
In 1969, Colonel O.B. Philp, the former leader of the Golden Centennaires, used some of the white CT-114 Tutor planes from the old squad to form another team. The following year, a four-aircraft team began doing flypasts and formations at different fairs and festivals and performed on Armed Forces Day.
The year of 1971 saw the team grow to seven planes and 11 pilots. In addition to the formations and flypasts, the team trained in doing more complicated stunts and maneuvers.
The team gained its name from a naming contest at Bushell Park Elementary School located in CFB Moose Jaw, with Snowbirds winning out.
The name was officially adopted on June 25, 1971 and the team was officially authorized as the Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team on January 15, 1975.
The Snowbirds officially became its own squadron and the team as they’re known today was formalized on April 1, 1978 with the reactivation of No. 431 Squadron.
Ironically, besides being a term for winter birds, Snowbirds are also the informal name for often-elderly Canadians who fly south for the winter. However, there was nothing old-fashioned about the new team, and they continued to gain prominence in Canada.
The team has seen many memorable performances over the years, beginning with their first performance under the Snowbirds name on July 11, 1971 at CFB Moose Jaw. The first time the team performed outside of Canada was on November 27, 1971 at Williams Air Force Base, located close to Phoenix.
Opposing solos are a big part of aerial shows for many aerobatics teams, and the Snowbirds are no exception. They performed their first formal public show with opposing solos on May 12, 1972 at Yellowknife.
Even more stunning was what occurred in Inuvik in 1974, when the Snowbirds became the world’s first aerobatic team to perform at midnight. Given the extreme precision and perfect visibility necessary for aerobatic maneuvers to be completed, this feat was especially miraculous.
Inuvik also remains the furthest north the team has ever flown.
Not only was this a standout performance for the RCAF’s aerobatics team, but it was a performance that was aided hugely by the fact they performed in Canada. Inuvik is in the Northwest Territories, which enjoys daylight conditions even at midnight due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle.
The year of 1981 brought the first woman to serve on the technical crew, Lt. Heather Campbell.
The Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 marked the first time the team made use of colored smoke – the blue, yellow, black, green, and red of the Olympic Rings.
The year of 1990 saw another smoke trail-centric performance with the team releasing red smoke to commemorate the team’s 20th anniversary as well as the silver anniversary of the adoption of Canada’s national flag. That same year saw the team’s 1000th official show at CFB Edmonton on May 20.
The Snowbirds performed outside of Canada and the United States for the first time at Zapopan Military Air Base, located near Guadalajara, in 1993. This is the furthest south the Snowbirds have ever flown.
In 2006, the team’s 35th anniversary, the Snowbirds were honored on Parliament Hill with not one but two standing ovations.
The first woman to act as a technician was Corporal Marlene Shillingford, for the 1993 and 1994 seasons. Heather Campbell returned as the crew chief for the 2007 season.
The first woman to be a pilot with the Snowbirds was Captain Maryse Carmichael. She flew for the team during the 2001 and 2002 seasons, and later became the commanding officer from 2010 to 2012.
In 2013, the Snowbirds were photographed from space by the International Space Station.
The Snowbirds performed their 2,500th snow in 2015 in Drummondville.
3. Accidents and Incidents
A common yet unfortunate fact of aerobatics is that, given the dangerousness of the performances, accidents do occur from time to time, and the Snowbirds are no exception. Some of these include fatalities, with the last being Captain Jenn Casey in May 2020.
Eight pilots have died as a result of RCAF Snowbirds accidents, along with two passengers. In addition, an automobile accident in 1988 killed a pilot, Captain Wes Mackay.
The RCAF seeks to honor the Snowbirds who have passed on in the line of duty:
- Captain Lloyd Waterer: Died on June 10, 1972 following a wingtip collision with another plane while attempting to perform opposing solo maneuvers at the Trenton Air Show in Trenton
- Captain Gordon de Jong: Died on May 3, 1978 at an air show in Grand Prairie when a horizontal stabilizer failed, thus making the jet uncontrollable
- Captain Shane Antaya: Died as the result of a midair collision on September 3, 1989 during the Canadian International Air Show, crashing into Lake Ontario; in the course of the same accident team commander Major Dan Dempsey was able to eject safely
- Captain Michael VandenBos: Died as the result of a midair collision during a training mission south of Moose Jaw on December 10, 1998
- Captain Miles Selby: Died as the result of a midair collision during a training mission in Mossbank on December 10, 2004 while practicing a co-loop maneuver; the other pilot involved, Captain Chuck Mallet, was thrown from his wrecked craft while still stripped to the seat, but sustained only minor injuries
- Captain Shawn McCaughey: Died during a practice flight on May 18, 2007 at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in Great Falls as the result of a restraining strap malfunctioning
- Captain Bryan Mitchell: Crashed in a non-exhibition flight on October 9, 2008, killing himself and Sergeant Charles Senécal, a military photographer
- Captain Jenn Casey: Died on May 17, 2020 following a crash in Kamloops during Operation Inspiration, an event designed to rouse public spirit to combat the COVID epidemic
4. Additional Interesting Facts
Other notable events and facts about the Snowbirds from the half century of their existence include:
- Like baseball teams, the team conducts spring training at their facilities in Comox
- All of the pilots are volunteers, with tryouts being held at spring training to replace half of the pilots from the previous season to address team departures and ensure the best pilots get the chance to fly
- By contrast, while technicians for the team also rotate by season, the technical coordinator, crew chief, and deputy crew chief are permanent positions
- Wondering “How fast do the RCAF Snowbirds fly?” They can reach a top speed of 470 mph, though the fastest the team typically flies in performance is 370 mph
- “How close do the RCAF Snowbirds fly together?” The shortest distance is an astonishing 5.9 ft
- The Snowbirds’ color scheme includes a blue stripe down the length of the plane as a tribute to the Golden Centennaires, which also featured that design
- The Snowbirds represent the Children with Intestinal and Liver Disorders (C.H.I.L.D.) Foundation as well as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation
5. The Future
With the Snowbirds using the same aircraft for several decades now, they will likely have to upgrade at some point in the near future. Thankfully, the Canadian government has a plan to do just that.
The Snowbirds represent a point of pride for Canada’s aviation tradition, and are seen as a great recruiting tool, both of which serve as a large part of the impetus to replace their current craft.
The current scheme calls for the Tutors that have been the Snowbirds’ jets for so long to be replaced via the aptly-named Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project, which in turn is linked to the broader CT-114 Life Extension Beyond 2020 Project.
Factors such as the new planes’ smoke systems, paint scheme, and luggage capability are all important considerations.
The initial estimate for this plan’s overall cost is between $500 million and $1.5 billion, while the timeline is focused on approving a contract in 2022 and delivering the new planes to the Snowbirds by 2035.