The Canadian Forces Snowbirds, based out of Moose Jaw, are a national icon that have traveled the air show circuit every summer since 1971.
But the planes the Snowbirds fly—the CT-114 Tutor—are more than 56 years old.
If you think Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets are old, the Tutors are even older.
The last Tutor rolled off the assembly line in 1966.
McDonnell Douglas didn’t roll out the very first F-18 for another 12 years in 1978.
Back in 2002, the Canadian government started talking about replacing the Tutor. This was back when Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister.
The plan was they’d be replaced by 2006.
In the interim, they needed to be upgraded.
Back then, former Snowbird pilot Dan Dempsey said the squadron needed new aircraft to remain relevant.
“Does it make sense to spend several millions of dollars to upgrade an aircraft that, at the end of the day, is still going to be 40 years old? I don’t think it does,” he remarked to the CBC back in 2002.
Dempsey said there was no point in performing air demonstrations in planes that are so old that no one, except the Snowbirds, flew them.
Fast forward 20 years to present day, and the Tutors are still being flown out of Moose Jaw. And it’s hoped the aircraft can continue to be flown until 2030.
A MESSAGE FROM FINDING AL – A DOCUMENTARY
Al Capone was one of the world’s most notorious gangsters and leader of a vicious crime syndicate that smuggled booze into prohibition-era Chicago.
As an icon, Capone represented the collapse of law and order in Chicago during the 1920s. It was a kill or be killed world. Capone was always in danger.
When activity in the city became too hot, Capone was rumoured to escape north to Canada. Taking a train across the border to a small city on the prairie with an unusual name—Moose Jaw.
Earning the nickname “Little Chicago,” in the 1920s, Moose Jaw was home to a distribution route that fed booze to thirsty Chicago through a number of unmarked dusty roads.
But when Capone was questioned about his affiliations with Canada, he gave one of his most famous quotes: “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”
Was Al Capone ever in Moose Jaw? This documentary uncovers the truth and explores never-before-heard stories about the legendary man. Watch it online here.
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A replacement for the Snowbirds could cost up to $1.5 billion.
As many as two dozen new aircraft would be needed to sustain the Snowbirds’ nine-plane formation — the largest air demonstration team in North American — when factoring in maintenance.
The Canadian Forces reportedly considered using propeller-driven aircraft, like the Harvard II, which the Air Force currently uses to train all of its pilots on in Moose Jaw, but noted that other teams that made the switch saw a drop in air show attendance.
The air force has also examined leasing aircraft for the Snowbirds, and looked at, but rejected, a suggestion to substitute the CF-18 fighter aircraft for the Tutors.
Using CF-18s would increase the ability of the Snowbirds to perform around the world but reduce their availability for smaller venues in Canada that have runways too short to accommodate the jets, the air force concluded. In addition, the CF-18s would be 20 times more expensive to operate than the Tutors.
Regardless, replacing the Snowbirds is on the backburner as buying the fighter jets is the country’s priority. Not that one would know that by all the hemming and hawing Canada has done over the fighter program since 1997, when Canada made its first $10 million investment into the F-35, again under the Chrétien government.
So, the Tutor replacement will have to wait until at least 2030, 24 years later than initially planned.
The issue with older airplanes is it can be more expensive to maintain them and access spare parts.
Every 400 flying hours — about every two years — the Tutors are completely torn apart and rebuilt.
There are definitely members of the defence team that would prefer not to spend money on the Snowbirds because national morale building doesn’t contribute directly to combat capabilities.
Back in 2016, hourly operational costs for the Snowbirds were $14,350 and the total annual cost to run the squadron was $4.3 million.
With the cost of fuel being what it is today, that cost has likely increased significantly since then.
The Boeing T-7A Red Hawk has been pitched as a replacement for the Tutor. Components for that plane would come from a Boeing plant in Winnipeg.
Leonardo showed off its Aermacchi M345 Tutor II as a possibility at the Saskatchewan Air Show in 2019.
In the meantime, Public Services and Procurement Canada awarded a $26 million single source contract to L3 Harris in March, 2021 to develop a new avionics suite for Tutors. And an additional contract was signed to install the new equipment, bringing the total cost of the project to $30 million.
The modernization will include a variety of new equipment, such as electronic flight display systems and navigation and communication equipment.
The military says, if all goes according to plan, the initial operating capability of four modified Tutors is scheduled for October 2022 with modifications to all remaining aircraft by the end of 2024.
Since 2016, the military has also been working on improving the Tutor’s ejection system, specifically the harness and parachute.
There have been questions raised about the original seat’s effectiveness in low-level ejections, especially after the 2020 crash that killed Capt. Jennifer Casey, the team’s public affairs officer.
The accident was caused by a bird strike.
The investigation that followed the crash found that Casey and pilot Capt. Richard MacDougall, who was seriously injured in the accident, were ejected from the aircraft at low altitude and in conditions that were outside “safe ejection seat operation parameters.” Because of that, the parachutes did not have the required time to function as designed.
One of the recommendations from the accident report was that the air force should look into changing the ejection system to make it more stable.
Currently, the military is working on assessing various parachute designs, performing testing for airworthiness clearance with the plan that they will eventually replace the existing parachute in the Tutor.
After the 2020 accident, the rest of the Snowbirds season was cancelled that year.
The Tutors were also grounded the year before after one of the planes crashed during an airshow in Atlanta.
During that accident, the ejection seat tangled with the pilot’s parachute as he tried to escape from the aircraft.
It’s believed that crash was caused by engine problems.
Luckily, the pilot Capt. Kevin Domon-Grenier escaped the incident with minor injuries.
The Snowbirds had to cancel several shows again this year, including their Canada Day performance in Ottawa, after technicians discovered issues related to a device that sets the timing for the deployment of the parachute during the ejection sequence.
The planes were grounded while the parachutes were re-tested and re-packed to ensure proper timing is set for their activation in the event of an emergency.
In their 50-year history, the Snowbirds have crashed 28 aircraft in 24 separate incidents that resulted in the death of seven pilots and two passengers. Dozens of other Snowbird pilots suffered serious injuries as well.
The cause of other recent(ish) incidents have been for a mix of different reasons.
In 2004, a mid-air collision between two Snowbird jets claimed the life of Capt. Miles Selby.
A report by the air force’s Directorate of Flight Safety, as reported at the time, determined the pilot was too inexperienced and lacked sufficient training to do the complex “co-loop maneuver.”
In 2007, a crash in Montana was blamed on a mechanical issue. Capt. Shawn McCaughey died during an air show practice when his seatbelt came unbuckled as he rolled his Tutor, causing him to fall out of his seat, lose control of the plane and fall out of the sky.
In 2008, a Snowbird crash that killed Capt. Bryan Mitchell and a military photographer was determined by investigators to be the fault of the pilot for flying too close to the ground.
The safety report stated that Mitchell did not realize that his aircraft had “descended dangerously low”, causing the right wing to clip the ground, tumble, and crash.
Flying a high-performance aircraft in aerobatic teams is strenuous and not without risk.
Following the 2020 crash, aviation lawyer and engineer Arthur Rosenberg told CTV that while the Tutor was a terrific plane for its time, the Snowbirds shouldn’t be burdened with flying them anymore.
“It’s had its day. It should be retired,” he said.
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