Safety is paramount in formation flying. At speeds exceeding 500 kilometres per hour, the slightest mechanical issue can lead to catastrophic collision. Since the Snowbirds team began flying Tutors in 1971, seven pilots and one military photographer have died in accidents.
Designed and built in Canada, the Tutors first entered service as training aircraft in 1963, making them as old as the venerable Sea King helicopters. The newest Tutors in service were built in 1966.
In 2000, the Tutors’ training role was taken over by CT-155 Hawks, modern and widely used British-made jets that were leased from Bombardier Aerospace. The introduction of the Hawks for training purposes necessitated a decision on the future of the Snowbirds team, which had not been assigned any of the Hawks and were left with the Tutors.
At first, it seemed the Chrétien government would shut the Snowbirds team down for cost-saving purposes. Then, in 2002, they initiated the Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project, with a projected cost of $600-million. But the project was allowed to languish: no aircraft type was ever chosen, nor any timeline specified.
In 2003, a Department of National Defence study warned that “With each passing year, the technical, safety and financial risk associated with extending the Tutor into its fifth decade and beyond, will escalate. These risks are significant.”
In 2005, Gordon O’Connor, then the Conservative party’s defence critic, called for a re-examination of the safety of the Snowbirds’ Tutor fleet. He warned the Martin government that it might have to “ground the fleet and make a costly decision about whether to replace them.”
In 2007, the Harper government turned down an opportunity to lease 18 Hawks for the Snowbirds team
O’Connor became defence minister the next year —*when his worst fears about the Snowbird fleet would have been confirmed. A briefing note, written for the Chief of the Air Force Staff in April 2006, stated: “Due to obsolescence issues, in the 2010 time frame, the Tutor will no longer be a viable aircraft for the Snowbirds.”
Yet, in 2007, the Harper government turned down an opportunity to lease 18 Hawks for the Snowbirds team —*even though the cost of leasing and operating these newer, safer planes would have fit within the team’s existing operating budget.
In October 2011, the Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project reappeared in a report written for then associate minister of defence Julian Fantino. The projected cost for a new fleet had risen to $755-million. However, the funding has never been allocated in a federal budget. Nor, indeed, has any evident progress been made to select and acquire replacement aircraft.
It is a sad situation, for the Snowbirds team served for decades as an excellent promotional and recruiting tool for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and as a symbol of national pride. However, as promotional tools, the Tutors themselves are now as out-dated as bell-bottoms and sideburns. New jets would project a more modern, technologically advanced image.
The government is being penny-wise and pound-foolish
As recruiting tools, the Tutors lost most of their value when they were retired as training aircraft. Young men and women attending air shows are no longer inspired by the knowledge that they can learn to fly in the same kind of aircraft. If we train our pilots in Hawks, we should fly Hawks for aerobatic displays. The British Royal Air Force uses Hawks for both training and its Red Arrows aerobatics team.
It is possible that the Harper government has delayed replacing the Tutors —*and other out-dated defence equipment —*in order to ensure a pre-election budgetary surplus in 2015. That sort of delay could easily necessitate that the Snowbirds stop flying for safety reasons, before replacement aircraft arrive.
The government is being penny-wise and pound-foolish. If the Snowbirds were to be discontinued it would be difficult and expensive to reassemble the team. A low-cost solution is readily available and easily implemented. We do not actually need to buy new planes. Instead, we could simply lease more Hawks, paint them red and white, and inspire another generation of young Canadians with the wonder of flight.