We pull out of a 3g turn over Garibaldi Lake and fly towards the Black Tusk rock. The immense flanks of the mountain rear up in front and, for a moment, it seems as if my flight with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds aerobatic display team is about to come to an abrupt, if spectacular, end.

As I feel for the ejection seat handles, visions of the Second World War film 633 Squadron fill my mind. This is no suicide bombing run down a precipitous Norwegian fjord, however, it is a routine pre-show shakedown flight for the Snowbirds and a chance to get great photographs over the snow-capped Canadian Rockies for 1998's publicity material.

"One more circuit of the lake for the photographer," says team leader and commanding officer Maj Darryl Shyiak. On cue, the formation executes another tight turn and I take a deep breath of oxygen from my mask. Our aircraft, Snowbird 5, is in the second line-astern position and is piloted by Capt Mike Ayling. The tight turn gets tighter and Ayling grunts with the physically demanding task of holding the Canadair CT-114 Tutor in place behind the first line-astern aircraft, Snowbird 4 and the leader immediately in front in Snowbird 1.


"We fly with plenty of nose-down trim," says Ayling. "I need force in the stick to help me keep this close-in position during the turns. If I get too high up I don't push, I just release the stick." The physical effort of keeping station is therefore intensified, but the result is the rock-solid formation flying that has become the Snowbirds' hallmark. "You have to pace youself. There are some formations when I have to be in position, but I don't have to watch it so closely and I go to 70% effort instead of 100%. But as soon as we fly something like the "Big Goose" formation I put all the energy I can into it".

The Big Goose, as the name suggests, is the Snowbirds' interpretation of the Canadian snow goose in flight. The first three aircraft form the head and body of the bird, while the remaining six aircraft form the swept-back wing, with three aircraft per side. Ayling's aircraft lies at the apex of a wing, and his accurate flying is therefore crucial to the success of the formation. "I have to be stable for the other guys. That's the difficult thing about it. I don't want to pass on errors which would simply be exaggerated as they get passed down the wings."

The aircraft are a big help to the team. The dynamically stable CT-114 is no fledgling, in fact the vast majority of the Snowbirds pilots are much younger than the aircraft they fly. The prototype was first flown in January 1960, and of 212 built by 1967, roughly 120 remain in service with Canadian Forces. Of these, around 80 fly with 2 Flying Training School, and 14 with 431 Squadron at Moose Jaw CFB in Saskatchewan. The Snowbirds' home is also 15 Wing at Moose Jaw, with 431 Squadron providing the team. The balance of surviving Tutors are with the Central Flying School at Winnipeg CFB in Manitoba, while some are also in storage in Malaysia.

The aircraft is powered by an Orenda-built General Electric J85-40 (CJ610-1B) turbojet which pumps out almost 12kN (2,700lb) of thrust at sea level. When Canadair designed the CL-41 (as the manufacturer designated its private-venture trainer), the selected powerplant was the 10.7kN Pratt & Whitney JT12A-5 turbojet. This was replaced with the GE engine for the production version, a decision which is not regretted to this day. "The CT-114 is reliable and extremely economical to operate, and that's really why we can fly 11 aircraft," says Capt Chris England, Snowbird 10. "It is so reliable that we do not even have a support aircraft, like so many other display teams. We carry all our own spares, baggage, publicity material and so-on in the gull wing doors in the nose, or in a wing root storage area."

Despite its rather staid appearance, the CT-114 has a wide performance range. Top speed at 28,500ft (8,700m) with 50% fuel is just over 430kt (795km/h), while maximum permissible diving speed is around 478kt. Stalling speed, on the other hand, is a sedate 71kt. Service ceiling is 43,000ft, although on this day we rarely break the 10,000ft mark as we fly through, rather than over, the Rockies. The rugged little airframe is also stressed to pull up to +7.3g and -3g.

The Snowbird's Tutors are cycled through the squadron from standard fleet-training units. "We put on around 300h a year per airframe," says England. "The Snowbirds aircraft are all low time: the top-time aircraft has just over 10,000h." When the team began using the Tutor in 1971, the aircraft were unmodified and only flyable from the left seat of the side-by-side cockpit. The left seat provided access to the undercarriage gear handle and emergency hydraulic system which could not be easily reached from the right-hand seat. "But we found this was awkward, particularly for those pilots flying on the left side of formations. So the aircraft were then configured to be used from either side and are fitted with an extra gear handle and emergency hydraulic pump," says England.

The aircraft are staged through the fleet on a six- to seven-year rotation. "When an aircraft is designated to become a Snowbird it has to be modified and then de-modified to return to service". One particular modification for the airshow circuit is the essential addition of a smoke generator. In the case of the Snowbirds, the smoke-creating diesel fuel is housed in two tanks under the fuselage. The diesel is pressurised and fed as a jet into the exhaust where it turns into white smoke. "We no longer use coloured smoke as we found the red dye was very corrosive," adds England.


I watch as the smoke comes on from the tail of Snowbird 4, poised only slightly more than 1m above our canopy. Nerves of steel and plenty of practice are required for this job. Everyone in the squadron, aircrew and groundcrew, are volunteers. Each are selected for a two-year tour of duty, with half the personnel changing each year. The much-sought-after posting to the Snowbirds is open to pilots throughout the Canadian Forces, though only a few get through after competitive flying trials held each year in November at Moose Jaw.

The process of building up to the selections runs from September into October each year when a shortlist of eight is drawn up. Two groups are selected from this batch and four finalists are selected. "They are then integrated into the team and fly with their second-year counterparts," says England. "The show is put together around January and February and, by March, we're ready to begin. Then we go to Comox on Vancouver Island for a two week 'dry-run' period". The show season begins in April. In 1997, the team performed in 63 shows at 43 sites in North America ranging from Juneau, Alaska, to Nellis AFB, Nevada, where it appeared at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the US Air Force in April.

Flight International was invited to join the Snowbirds during Airshow Canada in Abbotsford, British Columbia, in November. For our photographs, the team had planned a formation take-off, one of the Snowbirds' "signature" manoeuvres. Normal procedure is to line up offset in three banks with less than 3m space between the tail of the aircraft in front and the nose of the one behind. A slight crosswind, however, would have threatened to blow the exhaust of the front aircraft into the intakes of the rear sets, so the take-off was staggered.

Once airborne, the team closed up and headed north over the Fraser River, threading its way up a narrow glacial valley hemming in Stave Lake. Gaining altitude to clear the first significant peaks, the Snowbirds crossed Golden Ears Provincial Park before reaching Garibaldi Provincial Park.

After several tight circuits of the lake, the team turned south. Over the wide expanse of Howe Sound I was given the chance to try out the Tutor as we descended from 10,000ft. I tried not to feel insulted when, as I took control, the once tightly packed formation burst open and each put so much distance between us and them that they were hard to tell apart from the splattered summer bugs on the canopy.


With control safely returned to Ayling, the team re-formed and turned east to pass over Stanley Park and the spectacular entrance to Vancouver harbour. Returning to the field, the Snowbirds performed a couple of wing-over manoeuvres before making another of their distinctive formation landings.

The task of landing all nine aircraft virtually at once demands supreme timing and precision. The formation approached the runway in an inverted triangle shape with Snowbirds 9, 3, 1, 2 and 8 forming the base. This flew slightly more than 1m above and in front of the second echelon, made up of aircraft 7, 4 and 6. Snowbird 4 was slightly ahead of his two wingmen. The apex of the triangle, and therefore the first to touchdown, was our aircraft, Snowbird 5.

"There's not really a flare, you can never get a graceful landing," says Ayling. The view from five was startling as we approached. Poised almost within arms length of the nose is the entire team, and 24 undercarriage legs were visible. Number 5 slams down at 95kt, followed almost immediately by 4 right in front of us. "4 comes down like an elevator in front of me, so I get on the brakes and get out of the way," says Ayling who calls "5 clear" on touchdown "so the guy in front can touch his brakes".

With the Tutor's life extended through to 2005, plenty of air-showspectators will have the chance to enjoy the Snowbirds in their present guise for years.

Source: Flight International