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COMMENTARY: Snowbirds face an uncertain future with aging planes, dwindling budgets

Military begins investigation into deadly Snowbirds crash
WATCH: Military begins investigation into deadly Snowbirds crash (May 18)

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

READ MORE: Who was CF Snowbirds member killed in crash? Capt. Jenn Casey remembered as a ‘beautiful person’

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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.”

Investigation underway into CF Snowbirds crash in B.C.
Investigation underway into CF Snowbirds crash in B.C.

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.”

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Hawn praised the Tutor as “a terrific, highly maneuverable airplane,” perfectly suited to its role as a colourful flying advertisement for the serious work the RCAF does, “but it is getting old.”

The Tutors are so old, in fact, that the parents of many of the aircrews were not alive when the Canadian-built aircraft was acquired as a trainer for pilots who often moved on to supersonic fighter jets such as the CF-101 Voodoo, CF-104 Starfighter, and CF-18. Put another way, the Tutors flying today would have been like the RCAF using Second World War Spitfires as its aerobatics aircraft until the beginning of the 21th century.

That the RCAF was still able to fly nine white, red and blue demonstration aircraft and two spares from the Snowbirds base at Moose Jaw, Sask., to Nova Scotia and back out west to the Fraser River Watershed this month was a credit to the work and ingenuity of maintainers who sometimes scavenge for parts at the RCAF’s dead aircraft park at Mountainview, near CFB Trenton, or make the parts themselves.

READ MORE: Dozens of pilots stage flyover tribute to Snowbirds in B.C. after fatal crash

Now grounded in Kamloops pending the crash investigation, the Snowbirds face an uncertain future. This is not only because of their age. The federal budget deficit that has been quickly building up since the COVID-19 crisis began two months ago may lead to deep cuts in the military budget. Even in the best of times, Canada has spent nowhere near the two per cent of GDP on defence that it has promised NATO for years that it would do.

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The Snowbirds are not the RCAF’s only flying museum pieces. Liberal and Conservative governments have repeatedly pushed back the procurement of all kinds of new aircraft. CH-124 Sea King helicopters were finally retired last year after 55 years of service. There are no plans at present to replace the persnickety, nearly 40-year-old CC-150 Polaris that usually flies prime ministers to global summits.

Capt. Jenn Casey remembered as ‘sunshine’ by colleague
Capt. Jenn Casey remembered as ‘sunshine’ by colleague

It is somewhat the same unhappy story with submarine-hunting CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft that have already been flying since the early 1980s. They are to be given a 20-year life extension. Meanwhile, most of Canada’s allies, including tiny New Zealand, have been retiring their turboprop surveillance aircraft and replacing them with new, more capable aircraft.

The biggest critical gap in the RCAF fleet is at the top end. Almost all of Canada’s closest friends are buying or already operating stealthy fifth-generation F-35 fighters. After many years of delays, the Trudeau government announced last year that while it continues to ponder what type of new fighter jet to acquire, it intends to keep the almost 40-year-old CF-18s flying until at least 2032.

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History of incidents involving Canadian Forces Snowbirds
History of incidents involving Canadian Forces Snowbirds

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.

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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.