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In February 2012, Canadian Skies’ contributing editor and test pilot, Rob Erdos, had the unprecedented opportunity to try out for the Snowbirds aerial demonstration team. He spent a week flying with the iconic Canadian air show performers, documenting the pilot selection process first-hand, and learning that the Snowbird culture of discipline and professionalism offers valuable lessons to any aviator. This article is the second of a two-part feature that will examine what it takes to soar with the Snowbirds, while shedding lights on the intricacies of learning to safely perform nine-plane precision formation aerobatics.
PART 2: “DID YOU MAKE THE TEAM?”
“This was supposed to be fun!” I thought, as I struggled with the Tutor through yet another formation exercise. My hands had a death grip on the controls, and I was beginning to mutter unprintable things. My second try-out flight with the Snowbirds was proving more challenging than the first. In part one of this article, I described my first flight with the Snowbirds; a three-plane familiarization mission in the Tutor. I walked away from that first flight a wiser, but slightly humbled, pilot. Formation aerobatics are great sport, and an intense challenge, but my first flight performance was certainly not spotless. My second and last flight with the team would be my “try-out.” I was in Moose Jaw, Sask., to understand what it takes to be selected as a Snowbird. I was learning fast, but I felt in need of guidance.
Perhaps nobody understands the selection criteria better than Snowbird #1, Major Wayne Mott. As Team Lead, he is typically called “Boss.” During a rare spare moment in his busy schedule, Mott explained the prerequisites for a pilot applying to the Snowbirds. Applicants must have logged a minimum of 1,200 hours in high-performance aircraft, which in the current Air Force amounts to experience as a fighter pilot in the CF-18, or as an instructor in the Harvard II or the Hawk. Mott, a former helicopter pilot-turned-Tutor-instructor, was understanding of the ambitions of RCAF pilots from the multi-engine or rotary-wing communities, but was also realistic about their prospects during try-outs. “I know they can do it,” he offered, “but we simply don’t have time to teach.”
Surprisingly, the list of applicants is not a mile long. The Air Force is currently short of pilots, and qualified applicants often find that their Commanding Officers can’t spare them from operational duties. As well, the number of high-performance cockpit seats has decreased over the years, reducing eligibility to a dwindling proportion of Air Force pilots. The team typically sees eight to 12 applications per year, ideally selecting eight candidates for try-outs. With an annual turn-over of half the team, the Snowbirds need four or five new pilots per year for what is typically a two-year posting. Mott emphasized that there’s no quota to fill. “The minimum standard must be met,” he stated. “We won’t lower our standards to get the numbers.” In cases where insufficient numbers of candidates were found suitable, former Snowbirds have been invited back or tours have been extended.
SELECT FOR ATTITUDE. TRAIN FOR PERFORMANCE.
Candidates receive a “welcome package” at least two weeks before arrival in Moose Jaw. The package consists of the Tutor Aircraft Operating Instructions (AOI’s), the Tutor checklists, and all 492 pages of the Snowbird Standard Maneuvers Manual. Applicants would be wise to have a photographic memory, because I had already discovered that mere familiarity with these documents was insufficient. Much of the material must be committed verbatim to memory, and is subject to instant recall.
These days, most applicants for the team have no prior flying experience in the Tutor, necessitating preliminary “training” on the jet. The word “training” merits emphasis because, as I described in the last instalment, it’s really a process of learning to swim by being pushed into the deep end of the pool. The expectation is that the student will have thoroughly absorbed the Snowbird choreography and Tutor procedures, and will act them out during their first mission – in formation, of course. The assumption seems to be that if you want to be a Snowbird, you’ll go to the trouble of learning the material. As I found out, it’s easier said than done. Candidates get two “training” flights with Snowbird Standards Pilots before they embark upon the formal try-outs. Although intense, these two initial flights give all the applicants a common base of familiarity with the Tutor, and afford them a chance to make a few mistakes out of sight of the team members. The results from the first two flights are not formally evaluated for the try-outs.
Then the fun begins. Starting at flight three, candidates begin flying with the Snowbird team members. There are four formal evaluation flights.
MEET THE WINNERS
Of course, I was in no danger of being selected for the team. The real try-outs had occurred the previous week, and three lucky pilots had been selected from among six candidates. I was eager to see how their experiences compared to my own. It was my privilege to meet the three newly-selected Snowbirds:
Regan Wickett was on his first tour as an instructor on the Hawk jet in Moose Jaw. He had previously been a high school math and physics teacher;
Guillaume Paquet joined the Air Force in 2004 and was serving as an instructor on the Harvard II in Moose Jaw, having formerly been a civilian flight instructor at a flying school in Montreal; and
Craig Tomlinson had also been a civilian flight instructor prior to joining the Air Force in 1998. In his first tour, he flew CH-146 Griffon helicopters at 427 Squadron in Petawawa, Ont., prior to being posted to Moose Jaw as an instructor on the Harvard II.
Understandably, they were in a pretty good mood as we sat down to chat about their experiences during try-outs. I was gratified to learn that their thoughts were similar to my own. They all found the study materials daunting. “It’s not clear what to study. You can’t absorb all the detail,” recalled Paquet.
Wickett added that their instructions “may have been intentionally vague,” to gauge candidates’ ability to prioritize. Paquet confidently added that it wasn’t a problem, as it afforded him an opportunity to demonstrate his preparation and motivation. Clearly, all three were keen students.
They described the try-outs as more of a difficult course than a competition. The candidates worked together as a team during try-outs; something the Snowbirds no doubt encouraged. Paquet described the “elephant walk” that they did together before their flights to rehearse every step of the start, taxi, takeoff and in-flight plan. Wickett recalled that the “domestics,” the detailed Snowbird procedural choreography, were the most challenging part of the try-outs, requiring fine attention to detail. Tomlinson admitted that, “I was behind at first,” and I felt relieved when they all nodded. Paquet recalled that his first takeoff in the Tutor was in formation. “I guess you could call that a steep learning curve,” he chuckled.
While they all found the Tutor a delight to fly, all three found the transition to Snowbird flying challenging. “Did you ever have a moment during the try-outs when you felt you had blown it?” I asked. They all laughed. Tomlinson admitted to having broken out of formation on Sortie 3 due to a trim error, but quickly added that, “you can’t let it get to you.” Wickett never felt he made a single critical error, but admitted to concern about the standard that was expected of him. Paquet recalled that he made mistakes, but remained confident.
All three emphasized how important it is to show a positive attitude throughout the try-outs. Mistakes were expected, but a Snowbird pilot should be able to put them behind him. It wasn’t just about showmanship. Team members would do a lot of challenging, and at times, stressful, flying together. Just as in any high-performance athletic activity, a positive attitude was an essential part of a winning team.
The three new Snowbirds also remarked upon how the team was always willing to be self-critical of their performance. Even Lead, they recalled, critiqued his own errors in flight. The example clearly influenced them, as they explained that admitting errors, but never accepting errors, was a key Snowbird attribute.
I envied them. They made the team. I had yet to prove myself in my final try-out flight.
FLYING WITH THE TEAM
We assembled in the Snowbirds’ briefing room to prepare for a four-plane formation mission. Call sign: “Snowbird Blues.” For this flight, I would fly with current team members, and we would see what I had learned during my “training” flight. I was glad that we had rehearsed the still unfamiliar formalities of the briefing. This time I arrived with a joke; the obligatory task for the new guy. The formation Leader was again Snowbird 5, Brett “Oreo” Parker. Riding along with me, as “Blue 2,” was Captain Brett “Laser” Glaeser. We would take off in two groups of two, rejoining once airborne. In the practice area, we would once again fly the Snowbirds’ high wingover maneuver, called an “up-and-down,” alternately ending the maneuver in a steep turn, which they called an “up-and-down-with-a-wrap.” We would alternate these maneuvers with trail and rejoin, wherein we would break individually into a long line and practice rejoining formation promptly.
Oreo quickly took us through the series of maneuvers; each command or response was spoken aloud by the appropriate pilot. For example, if the formation were to change from “heavy right” to “echelon right,” Lead would call “Blues, echelon right…Go,” and the last pilot in that formation would call “2 in.” Oh! Blue 2, that’s me! Um, “2 in,” I muttered. We briefed an engine failure scenario. I got the basics right, but committed the sin of failing to recall the checklist verbatim and muddled some of the Snowbird terminology. We reviewed the applicable language for every eventuality. If I were out of my approved formation position I was to call “2 Shadow.” If someone were moving when they shouldn’t, a pilot would call, “Freeze.” By this point, I had a Snowbird-English dictionary committed to memory. Finally, we briefed our formation return for landing, including a brake failure scenario. With multiple airplanes on the runway, a brake failure requires instantaneous correct reaction by the entire formation, along with a series of confirmatory radio calls. I got the words right, but only after a prolonged pause, and needed to be reminded to speak more “vigorously.” I felt like a chastened child.
By the time we waddled out to the Tutors with our equipment, my head felt full. I was trying to recall from memory what the rest of the formation knew from experience, and felt that if I shook my head it would all leak out. Start-up and taxi were a repeat of the last flight, meaning that things happened just slightly too fast for me, but I staggered along. The formation takeoff was visually intimidating, but fun. I was still fighting with mental overload and failed to anticipate landing gear and flap retraction, allowing Lead to momentarily run away from me. On the way to the practice area, Lead took us through speed brake drills and smoke system checks. I thought my timing was good, but Laser offered suggestions. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the airplane was flying faster than I was thinking.
We joined up in Heavy Right formation for our first maneuvers, with me in position to the right and slightly behind Lead. It occurred to me with dismay that they were already about to start maneuvering. Unlike the last flight, there would be no solo warm-ups; no opportunity to get settled in the Tutor. The up-and-downs were a blur. After each pair of maneuvers, Lead loosened the formation; and, as planned, everyone got five seconds on the radio to debrief their errors. I tended to get low (“deep” in Snowbird lingo) when Lead turned into me, and fall behind (“stretched”) when he turned away. I made other errors too, but had trouble recalling them, and those I recalled I had trouble articulating. The approved Snowbird terminology proved elusive while my hands were full of airplane.
Trail and rejoin seemed like a welcome break after the formation work, but that too proved harder than the previous flight. The rejoins started well, with a keen cut-off angle on Lead, but I consistently seemed to chicken out and “shut down” the overtake velocity too soon, creeping sluggishly into position. Irritation was rising, and under my visor my brows were a knot of frustration. During the last rejoin, I determined to be more aggressive. Rather predictably, I overshot.
It was all fun, but it was the hardest I had worked in an airplane in many years, and I was a puddle of pilot when I was poured from the cockpit after landing. Back in the briefing room, Laser told me that I had three minutes to write down my debriefing points for each maneuver. Writing was a bit of a chore.
“DID YOU MAKE THE TEAM?”
The debriefing from my evaluation flight was an ego-bruising revelation. About two hours after our flight, following confession for my myriad aeronautical sins, I took myself for a long walk around the Base. Mott had emphasized to me that the try-out process focuses on the candidate’s learning curve, and it was clear to me that the Snowbirds would not be able to pass judgment upon me after a single flight. Nevertheless, I would no doubt be asked, “Did you make the team?” There would be no ducking the question. I would have to arrive at that answer through honest self-assessment. The answers, frankly, surprised me.
Upon reflection, the Snowbirds appeared to be looking for three things: sound fundamental flying skills, absolute procedural discipline, and a positive attitude. It’s time to weigh my performance. Let’s look at those three criteria individually:
The Snowbirds’ were clearly looking for solid flying skills. I’d rate the minimum requirement for hands-and-feet flying skills at above average, but there is nothing superlative required. Even as I write this I sense incredulity. Nothing superlative!? They do nine-plane formation loops! Really, above average will do it. The price of admission to a Snowbird try-out is a passable proficiency with formation flying and aerobatics, but any pilot with that foundation of skills can learn to fly their maneuvers. The try-out emphasizes consistency and a positive learning curve simply because time in the jet is limited. On that score, I give myself a passing grade. Not to say that my formation aerobatics watered anyone’s eyes. I frankly found it intimidating, and occasionally got psyched out of position – especially when there were cows and houses where I normally expected to see sky — but I was learning. Verdict: I think I could do it. It would certainly be fun to try.
Good flying skills aren’t enough, however. Flying nine airplanes through a very small piece of sky requires the entire formation to behave as if it were being controlled by one brain. Watching the Snowbirds at work, it became clear that it takes absolute procedural discipline. Do you recall that 492-page Standard Maneuvers Manual? Snowbird pilots need to integrate it into their DNA. It needs to be so completely absorbed into their soul that no pilot in the formation ever surprises another pilot. Those instructions need to become their instinctive reactions in times of stress or fear. In terms of pilot selection, I ventured the opinion to some of the Snowbirds that pilots with absolute procedural discipline were rarer than pilots with good mechanical flying skills. All of their heads nodded in the affirmative.
Returning to my self-assessment for a moment, if I am ruthlessly honest, I have to admit that flying like a Snowbird would be a difficult cultural change for me. As a test pilot, I’m used to having some autonomy regarding how I fly an airplane. I like to do things at my own pace, adapt my technique to suit my mood, and rely on the checklist religiously. Snowbird flying is different. I don’t want to imply that it’s at all robotic. On the contrary, it reflects careful collective consideration of risk and mature airmanship, but it simply has no room for an individual to freelance with regard to technique. Verdict: Fail. I’m pretty stubborn. To tell the truth, I wasn’t good at conformity even when I was in the Air Force.
The final requirement is attitude. Learning to fly with the Snowbirds is difficult. If you screw up a maneuver and scare yourself – and I’m betting it doesn’t just happen to me – you need the ability to put your frustrations aside and follow Lead right into the next maneuver. The formation won’t stop in flight while one deals with one’s emotions. It’s natural to furrow one’s brow and perhaps utters oaths when you mess up, but an emotional outburst or short-tempered comment can harm the learning environment for everyone. Perhaps the singular most important and impressive thing that I learned during my week with the Snowbirds is that everything they do is about the team. The attitudes and behaviours of each individual must be oriented around getting the best performance from the group. If you’re scared or frustrated, one must recall that the pilot in the next cockpit is probably feeling the same thing. Smile! I heard this prescription often during my week in Moose Jaw. Put your mistakes behind you and smile. It’s all about the team. This isn’t a new concept. I’m sure one would hear the same theme in the locker room of any high-performance sports team, but tasks requiring teamwork at this motivational level are rare in aviation.
Returning to my self-assessment, I’d give myself only a bare passing grade. I’m as prone to making excuses for my occasional goofs as most pilots, and do tend to get a bit emotionally involved in my own performance. Learning to put the team first absolutely all the time would be a challenge. Then again, given the exemplary attitudes of everyone I met in Moose Jaw, I’d bet this is something one learns on the job.
My Snowbird friends were kind enough to spare me a final grade on my try-out, but in retrospect I think I can fill in the blanks. I could likely learn to fly with the precision that they require, but the other requisite skills of a Snowbird pilot – diligent procedural discipline and a bulletproof positive attitude – would be harder to master. I have to be honest; I may not be cut out to be a Snowbird. Nevertheless, my week with the team taught me many lessons that will apply to the rest of my flying career. Learning to always strive for perfection; being rigorously self-critical and cultivating that attitude in my colleagues; developing and refining consistent habit patterns in the cockpit; and, finally, exhibiting a positive attitude in the face of challenges and disappointments are the hallmarks of Snowbird success. The Snowbirds represent the best of the Air Force’s culture of airmanship and discipline, and everyone who shares the Canadian skies can be proud of them.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Rob Erdos is an experimental test pilot licenced for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. In addition to being an engineering graduate from the Royal Military College, and holding a masters degree in aviation systems research, Rob is a former Canadian Air Force SAR pilot. An avid airplane builder, and a passionate flyer of historical aircraft for Vintage Wings of Canada, Rob flies such iconic planes as the Spitfire and Hurricane.