As the investigation into the deadly Snowbird plane crash begins, the decades-old jet used by the aerobatic team is under new scrutiny.
The CT-114 Tutor jets have been part of the Canadian Forces inventory since 1963 and have been flown by the Snowbirds since 1971.
But aviation experts aren’t convinced age is a primary factor in the safety of an aircraft.
“This is a really well-trodden trail,” said Billy Allan, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Royal Military College of Canada.
“Age is not important really. It’s engineering and maintenance. They’re designed to last forever and they’re designed not to fail. They’re well-maintained by a careful and meticulous and methodical approach that, in many other fleets, have been thrown out.”
Video of Sunday’s crash shows two Snowbirds taking off from Kamloops Airport on Sunday. The jets ascend into the sky, but one starts to roll. At least one person appears to eject from the plane before it plunged to the ground. As it disappears behind a cluster of trees, an explosion can be heard. The crash claimed the life of Capt. Jennifer Casey and seriously injured Capt. Richard MacDougall.
A team of Canadian military members is now investigating the cause of the crash. A cause has yet to be determined.
Despite their age, modifications to the Snowbirds fleet are done “constantly,” Allan said, and maintenance is “meticulous” and performed in lockstep with every flight. Because the jets were initially designed to train pilots, their makeup is conventional and conservative, he said, making it ideal for “high-stress, high-speed environments.” However, he acknowledged the jets come with safety concerns.
The jets were due to retire in 2010, but that deadline was extended to 2020.
An internal study by the Defence Department warned against stretching the lifespan, only if absolutely necessary. It insisted that the fleet be replaced “immediately.”
“With each passing year, the technical, safety and financial risk associated with extended the Tutor into its fifth decade and beyond, will escalate,” the review stated in August 2003, as reported by the Globe and Mail. “These risks are significant, however they are not easily quantified.”
While mechanical errors are not attributed to most of the crashes involving Tutor jets, it’s not out of the question, in this case, Allan said.
“This is a very dangerous sport. They’re flying single-engine jets, low level, and maneuvering as they do, particularly in areas of high density like Kamloops,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, it goes wrong really badly with the single-engine jets.”
There is a mix of causes in fatal accidents in Snowbirds history.
In 2008, a Snowbird crash that killed Capt. Bryan Mitchell and a military photographer was determined by investigators to be the fault of the pilot for flying too close to the ground. The safety report stated that Mitchell did not realize that his aircraft had “descended dangerously low”, causing the ring wing to clip the ground, tumble and crash.
In 2004, a mid-air collision between two Snowbird jets claimed the life of Capt. Miles Selby. A report by the air force’s Directorate of Flight Safety, as reported at the time, determined the pilot was too inexperienced and lacked sufficient training to do the complex “co-loop maneuver.”
However, in 2007, a crash in Montana was blamed on a mechanical issue. Capt. Shawn McCaughey died during an air show practice when his seatbelt came unbuckled as he rolled his Tutor, causing him to fall out of his seat, lose control of the plane and fall out of the sky.
The crash in Kamloops was likely a “confluence of events”, said Allan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the age of the aircraft is to blame.
“New doesn’t necessarily mean better or more reliable,” he said, “and old does not necessarily mean worse and less reliable, especially when it’s old and really well understood.”
So why not replace the fleet? The Canadian Forces estimated in 2012 that it would cost $755 million to buy a new fleet for the team, according to a report by the National Post. A 2015 estimate pegged the cost between $500 million and $1.5 billion.
Ottawa has shown interest in making a change. Options to replace the Tutors were examined over the years, including leasing a new fleet or replacing with an existing inventory, but expenses have posed a consistent obstacle.
“I think it’s been found unpalatable,” said Allan. “One of the plans offered was to park the planes until we have a new aircraft, and that one’s not been any more palatable than buying new planes.”
The extensions continued, despite a 2016 report from the Department of National Defence stating “significant concerns” about the aircraft should it stay in operation after 2020.
As time goes on, the cost of maintenance and modification rise, said Michael Hicks, the president of the Canadian Aviation College, as do replacement costs.
He believes the nearly 60-year-old jet can never be as safe as a modern aircraft, “no matter how well it is maintained.”
“The safety systems were designed in the 50s, every year that goes by the parts needed to maintain them become harder to find, raising their cost,” he told Global News.
“It costs millions per year to maintain these. And they must be maintained in accordance with their maintenance schedule that’s published by the manufacturer and approved by the government.”
However, Hick said the age of the aircraft is unlikely to hurt the crash investigation. If anything, the simpler system might make it easier.
Allan added that while there are no voice recorders on the jets, a clearer picture will be painted by the surviving pilot.
“There are not many things that go wrong, they know what they are. … Stuff happens when you’re doing high risk, impressive flying,” said Allan.
“But these people know exactly what they’re doing. You can bet the maintainers are going to be sitting on pins and needles right now waiting to find out what happened because they’re going to want to know if they could’ve done anything.”
— with files from the Canadian Press