The Canadian Forces Snowbirds commanding officer watched attentively from the tarmac as the pilots prepared their planes to take off on a training mission
It’s routine for the military’s professional air demonstration team, but having gone months without flying, the process feels extra special lately, Lt.-Col. Denis Bandet explained.
The CT-114 Tutor jets were grounded in Kamloops, B.C., following May’s crash during the Snowbirds’ cross-country flyby tour, Operation Inspiration.
The team’s public affairs officer, Capt. Jennifer Casey, died. The pilot flying the plane carrying her, Capt. Richard MacDougall, was seriously injured and is still recovering.
“Dealing with the emotions that go with that and seeing how the squadron is going to heal and move forward, it was some struggling times and challenging times,” Bandet said.
“But working with a squadron of people who are committed and motivated, we kind of leaned on each other to get back up off the ground.”
The Snowbirds usually begin their season in the spring of each year, but with the coronavirus pandemic, 2020’s — supposed to be their 50th — was put on hold.
That’s when Capt. Casey came up with the idea for Operation Inspiration, Bandet said.
“She 100 per cent believed in what she was doing,” he said. “You couldn’t help but get excited when she was around talking about it.”
The air team had already flown over some of the Maritimes, the interior, including the Prairies, and had spent the night in Kamloops with plans to head further west on the mission when tragedy struck.
The morning of May 17 was a good one for Casey, who had the opportunity to pet a dog and enjoy one of her favourite drinks from Starbucks, Bandet recalled, as he looked at a picture of the late captain smiling back at him on the wall in one of the 15 Wing hangars.
“Her passion and just the way she approached everything, it was refreshing,” said Bandet, who got to know the public affairs officers well in recent years.
“She worked tirelessly. I don’t know how she did it, actually. She was an army of one… it was amazing.”
According to a preliminary investigation report released in September, military analysis of video footage of the takeoff that day shows what investigators believe could be a bird “in very close proximity” to the right engine intake of the aircraft while it was taking off.
Moments later, the plane dived steeply and Casey and MacDougall ejected, with MacDougall surviving.
The tragedy — the eighth fatal incident in the aerobatic fleet’s history — has prompted questions about the integrity of the approximately 60-year-old planes, but Bandet, who has been up in them this week, has confidence.
“I have zero doubts,” Bandet said. “Any opportunity I can get to jump in the airplane, I’ll do it, knowing that I have the best equipment and the best support behind me.”
The planes were inspected while on the ground in Kamloops and again, thoroughly when they got back to Moose Jaw, he said, noting that’s why the pilots are just getting back to training now.
“Part of the pause we took, the op pause that we took, was to examine everything. We went through our systems, our airframes, our engines, our avionics, our ejections seats – just to really makes sure that we had the confidence in that,” Bandet said.
“If our engineers in Ottawa are telling us that these airplanes are safe to fly, our chain of command, our generals, our leadership, is telling us these planes are safe and ready to go, I take that to heart.”
The air team, which typically travels with 11 planes, (nine of which do the formation), typically keeps four to nine more at 15 Wing and at least as many again in storage in Trenton, Ont.
They were supposed to be retired in 2010, a date that has been pushed back.
Now, Bandet says the plan is to fly the CT-114 Tutors until 2030.
Another challenge, for many reasons, had been getting pilots back into the planes, Bandet said.
They need to fly at least every 30 days, but for some of them, about 90 days had passed, he said.
“We had to take a real slow, methodical approach,” Bandet said. “We just did it one step at a time.”
Two pilots went to Kamloops to bring back two planes to get the rest of the team recurrent, he said.
While it has yet to be determined whether MacDougall, still very much a member of the squadron, can fly again, the commanding officer said three other members of the team departed over the summer.
“We’re a volunteer unit. The armed forces are a volunteer unit,” Bandet said. “We just had some people internally reflect that this wasn’t the avenue or the career they wanted to pursue anymore.”
To fill the spots on the team heading into the 2021 season, the Snowbirds recalled past pilots with experience on the team.
While some were still in the military in different roles, others had left to work in the airline industry, Bandet said.
“They re-enrolled or came back as reservists to fill that need and the support from the industry, we wouldn’t be here where we are without that support,” he said.
Casey, however, has not been replaced. An out-of-province colleague is tentatively handling the Snowbirds’ public affairs.
While the Snowbirds are in the skies again, they’re involved in a lot of discussions on the ground as well.
Some of those discussions are around establishing a permanent memorial for Casey, Bandet said, but where that will go and what it will look like are still being worked out.
“We just want to make sure we do it properly,” Bandet said.
For now, the air team has established a tribute wall featuring pictures of Casey smiling alongside artwork and letters of support from the community.
“It’s humbling how many people are reaching out to us, especially given that so many Canadians are challenged right now in their circumstances and they still thought of us,” Bandet said, adding it was especially heartwarming to see the community of Moose Jaw out to welcome them home following Casey’s funeral.
As the public affairs officer, she understood her role and the role of the Snowbirds so well, he reflected.
“Why we exist is to provide that conduit between… the civilians of Canada and their military,” he said.
That’s what Bandet said the Snowbirds are focusing on as they rebuild.
They’re aiming to fly twice a day Monday through Friday, hoping to complete 100 training missions before heading into what will be their 51st year, but 50th season, in the spring.
Preparing for the 50th season was also something Casey was enthusiastic about and involved in.
“We’re putting all the efforts to make sure that the 50th gets the treatment and attention that it deserves,” Bandet said.
“If we didn’t approach the 2021 season with all the excitement that we have right now, we would be doing her, her legacy, an injustice.”