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“It has been a tough time for everyone. We too were self-isolating. But we know a lot of people are not working, may have lost their job, and are finding this time very difficult, so if we can bring a little positive moment into someone’s day, that is great.”
Maj Jean-Francois Dupont was reflecting on the past six days that had taken the Canadian Forces Snowbirds from the Maritimes to Quebec and Eastern Ontario, the first leg of a national morale-boosting tour to thank frontline workers and Canadians for their efforts to combat and contain the spread of COVID-19.
Dupont, otherwise known as Snowbird 1, spoke to Skies on May 8. The team had arrived in Trenton, Ont., that afternoon, following a flight from Ottawa that descended over the towns and cities of Perth, Kingston, Napanee, Belleville and others, leaving in its jetstream a flood of social media posts capturing the CT-114 Tutors and thanking the members of 431 Air Demonstration Squadron for what many said was a highlight of their day.
“The feedback has been phenomenal,” he said.
The squadron had expected some enthusiasm from aviation buffs and others on social media, but they have been overwhelmed by the gratitude and volume of appreciative words, photos and videos posted online by Canadians as they captured the formation overhead.
“I am a photographer myself so I like to see a great picture, and I have seen a lot of them,” said Dupont.
Squadron members have been particularly taken by the images of excited young children as the jets soar by in the background. “That is always a big boost for us.”
The appropriately-named Operation Inspiration officially launched on May 3 over New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. That leg of the journey allowed the team to pay tribute to the 22 victims and families of the mid-April Nova Scotia shootings while also honouring six fallen comrades of a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter based at 12 Wing Shearwater, which crashed during an April 29 training exercise in the Mediterranean.
“A heavy heart that day,” recalled Dupont. “That was very humbling for the whole team. To be able to pay our respects to the [Cyclone crew and those affected by the shootings], to do a fly-by in their honour – everybody was pretty touched.”
A need for something positive
There is nothing ordinary about Op Inspiration. Fly-bys of major events are a common occurrence for the Snowbirds and the airshow season is a fixture on the calendar. But all have fixed dates, times and locations that are usually published months in advance. Maintenance problems and uncooperative weather might curtail the odd performance, but the squadron knows where it will be, and when, to perform.
Op Inspiration came together in a matter of days and is being made up on the fly, literally.
In response to Canadian Armed Forces measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Air Demonstration Squadron had been on pause since mid-March, its CT-114 Tutors parked at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, Sask., and the team members working from home. By mid-April, though, with the team’s airshow season very much in doubt, they began considering a late spring or early summer tour to recognize healthcare and other frontline workers. The tragic shooting on April 18 and 19 in Nova Scotia reinforced the need for something positive, and perhaps sooner rather than later.
Unknown to them, higher headquarters at 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg, Man., had been thinking along similar lines, and their suggestion was quickly approved and officially announced on Apr. 29.
After more than a month without flying, though, the team had to “reset” its basic currencies and then rebuild its formation flying, first in pairs and then as half a formation, before flying as a complete nine-aircraft team.
That they were able to accomplish that in just four flights was remarkable; prior to the COVID-19 suspension of operations, the Snowbirds were still incorporating two new team members and had yet to fly as a nine-ship formation. The demonstration squadron had only resumed flying in early December, after a temporary pause while the Royal Canadian Air Force Directorate of Flight Safety conducted an investigation into the crash of a CT-114 Tutor near Atlanta, Ga., last October. The team was about a month behind in its pre-season preparation.
“We were at a point where things were progressing nicely, and then we pretty much came to a stop,” said Dupont. “We were not quite [able] to put nine planes together. We tried before the COVID [pandemic] happened and one aircraft broke and we couldn’t do [it].”
Though flying in formation is less technical than the loops and rolls of an aerobatics display at an airshow, maintaining a tight formation for 30 to 45 minutes non-stop at low altitude is harder for some, he said.
“The squadron did an awesome job getting ready for this. We had the full support of headquarters. They didn’t want to rush us to get going, so we went out the door when we were ready, but there were still some pieces to put together as we were flying [to the East Coast].”
Flexibility and freedom
While they had a rough flight plan, “flexibility” has been the operative word. The CT-114 Tutor has a range of about 365 nautical miles or 675 kilometres at around 28,000 feet, but only around 197 nm or 364 km at 1,000 feet, the altitude they would be flying over cities and towns. And that tank of gas is significantly affected by winds, temperature and humidity.
Consequently, the route is determined in part by available airports within that range, and the flight pattern is often a zig-zag over as many locations as possible.
“We have the freedom to go wherever we want. Nobody is telling us exactly where we need to go. But Canada is a big country and it is hard to fly over everywhere,” explained Dupont. “We have a general plan. The day before we assess the weather and see if it will be doable. From there, our public affairs officer will post a map of roughly where we will be flying. She’ll put up that the timings and general route have to be flexible depending on the weather.”
Maintenance and weather have delayed departures or prevented a flight altogether. From Nova Scotia, the squadron had intended to fly over Newfoundland, but poor spring weather blocked several attempts.
The team has been deliberately cautious about releasing routes and timings too soon to avoid setting unrealistic expectations. And while they are flying over most cities and towns at about 1,000 feet, they are climbing to higher altitudes in between to manage fuel, a move that has put them out of sight of many on the ground. The most common lament on Facebook and Twitter comes from Canadians not under the flight path or when a timing changes.
“Unfortunately, we won’t go if we’re not ready. Sometimes maintenance takes a little more time or refuelling takes more time, or we just have to wait for the weather,” said Dupont. “But generally, we have been able to fly the planned route, and even some extra. I can assure you that every single flight we have flown, we have gone almost all the way to running out of fuel to make sure we are covering as much as we can.”
Op Inspiration does not have a completion date. Headquarters has given the demonstration team the latitude to adapt to spring weather and adjust the route accordingly. But the squadron is nonetheless trying to be efficient with resources, said Dupont. After a stop at their home base of Moose Jaw, Sask., for “a few days” to perform aircraft maintenance, they hope to complete a westward swing over Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia in four to five days.
One of the more rewarding aspects of the airshow circuit is mingling with aircraft enthusiasts, young and old. This tour, though inspirational, is remarkably different. Squadron members are wearing masks when physical distancing is not possible, staying in hotel rooms that have not been occupied in the previous 72 hours, and going straight from the aircraft to the hotel and back. And finding somewhere to sit and eat when only take-out food is available has presented its own challenges.
But the thousands of photos and videos taken by Canadians as the Tutors have passed over their neighbourhoods has made every obstacle worthwhile. And at a time when many need a positive moment, the longer-term inspiration of the operation could be significant.
As one young girl wrote on a poster she displayed in her backyard, “When I grow up, I want to be a Snowbird.”