My Snowbirds Flight - Aide-Memoire
By Bill Upton
My hobby is modern military aviation photography.
My passion is modern military aviation history.
My trade is working in the aviation industry.
My hope was to fly with the Snowbirds.
My wish finally came true.
My day is done.
On Friday, May 18, 2001, after much prodding and cajoling by my colleagues, Lucio, Cliff and Paul, in Bombardier’s Photographic Department, I realized one of my many dreams.
I flew with the Snowbirds.
I had thought that it would be interesting to photograph the Snowbirds formation - at the end of their 30th year of operating the Canadair designed and built CL-41A / CT-114 Tutor trainer - flying over the buildings where they were originally built, or their ‘home’, so to speak. I had never seen any such shots and asked the Photo guys what they thought about it. Some of them had previously flown on Tutors or with the famed team and thought the idea was great and that I should make a formal request and then follow through with it.
A few weeks later, on May 17, 2001, an early Friday morning just following the end of my engineering shift at the Bombardier Global Express fatigue test rig, at the time of 1:01 in the blessed a.m., my e-mail Inbox at my work station “dinged”. Opening the new mail, I read those four little words from Snowbirds Senior Coordinator, Captain Andy Cook (Snowbird 11) that I had long been waiting for, “You have been approved.” The rest of the letter dealt with where’s and when’s and what-have-you’s for the very next day. Unfortunately, Cartierville was not on the list.
After a totally sleepless remainder of the night, then a 2 ½-hour-long drive northwest of my home, I arrived, just in time for a 9:00 a.m. pre-flight briefing at the very low overcast Mont Laurier airport, a small entity hidden somewhere in the Laurentian Mountains, waaaay north of Montreal.
Four media type persons, a Quebec chanteur and myself sat ourselves down in a briefing room at the airport to thoroughly read a 39-page Sponsor’s Guide and sign the all-important Statement of Understanding at the end. We then listened intently as Aircraft Technician Corporal Mike Grimard (Snowbird 6A), Captain Andy Cook and Standards Pilot Captain Eric Pootmans gave us the type of flight briefing none of us had ever heard before. Looking around the table, most people seemed to gaze off into the distance with their glazed-over eyes as is usual when listening to such recitations on standard commercial airlines. Maybe the first cups of too-strong morning coffee finally kicked in, but suddenly all eyes, ears and many little back of the neck hairs perked up at the words, “…Eject,…eject,…eject!”
“Whaaa? What’d he say, what’d they say?!?” These words aren’t used on any of the Air Canada briefings!
“Expliquez, s’il vous plait!”
And explain they did – a few times.
One person, who I can only assume, had planned on relaxing in the Tutor’s seat and looked forward to maybe eating stale peanuts and drinking a can of Coke off the tray table, had a somewhat rude awakening toward flying in these little military jets. She had many probing and some annoying questions for the briefing team. They responded with eye opening answers for the uninitiated to military stuff. These included words like, uh-oh, emergency, punch out, rocket’s blast, canopy shatters, parachute, reserve ‘chute, keep seat pan attached when in the trees (apparently tall, pointy Pine trees could cause an ‘ouchy’ if the seat pan is released!), and possible broken bones. She decided to graciously bow out of the upcoming festivities at this point.
Another female, a reporter, dressed in a pretty, flowing frilly frock, and sporting lots of jingling jewelry as well as all-too-much oil-based makeup, was reticent when told she had to remove the oily makeup and potentially spark-inducing jingling metal thingys and had to wear a not-so-frilly jumpsuit. The notion that oil and metal-sparking things in a pressurized oxygen environment don’t play well together didn’t quite register with her, but she went into the washroom and after a while, emerged as not a happy camper.
For the rest of us, the decision to go wasn’t swayed even after Captain Eric Pootmans cheerfully boasted that, “We have never lost a media person during any of our Media Day flights.”
I stayed put.
At 10:30, the rest of the Snowbirds team, led by the “Boss”, Major Robert “Bob” Painchaud of Snowbird 1, who hails from the local area, entered and was individually introduced to us. After a brief welcome speech and a description of where over the Laurentians we who were left, were scheduled to fly, Major Painchaud gave us an update on the weather, which didn’t look good due to low clouds, rain and general overcast for the planned noon take-off time. He forecast that from 2:30 to 3:00 seemed more realistic.
One of the first PR pictures released by Canadair of the, then, RCAF Tutor, dated February 1964, coincidentally happens to be the same aircraft as flown now by the Boss, Tutor ‘006. I had a general talk with Major Painchaud about my original plans for this flight and he apologized for not being able to accommodate me at this time with the flyover of the former Canadair ‘home’ facilities. He suggested trying again next year and that it was a good request. I also mentioned to him about the early photo of ‘006 and the date, and he said he’d really like to see that. I made a mental note to get a new colour 8x10 print of this photograph for him.
RCAF 26006, seen on an early test flight in February 1964. (Bill Upton Collection)
CAF 114006, seen as Snowbird 1, over Mont Laurier in 2001. (Bill Upton Photo)
We, the ‘passengers’, were then paired off with pilots who were to soon fling us around the clouded, northern skies. I was assigned to Major Ian Searle who flies the No. 6, Outer Right Wing position in the Snowbirds formation. Besides Major Painchaud, Ian is the only other Major here and is also the high-time pilot with the team, having flown with the Snowbirds in 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000 and now in 2001.
I felt I was in good hands.
New and unique to the team this year is the first female pilot accepted by the Snowbirds. She is Captain Maryse Carmichael, piloting Snowbird 3. I had a long talk with her about her history with the ‘Forces. She had flown the military versions of the Canadair Challengers from the early VIP types (“…like driving a bus around.”) to the latest EST versions. She particularly liked the EST version, as it was more interesting flying along with Canadair CT-133 and CE-133’s in the EW and SAR roles off the coast of Nova Scotia. She had been an instructor on the CT-114 Tutor during her tour out west as well.
While waiting for the lingering overcast to clear, we few walked out to the planes parked on the small tarmac and ‘happy snaps’ were taken of all the passengers and flight crews together. A faint drizzle began and most everyone went inside, however, Major Searle asked if I wanted to stay and check out the cockpit of his pride and joy, Snowbird No. 6, bearing the CAF serial number 114145.
He didn’t have to ask twice.
Tutor serial 114145 as Snowbird 6, is seen on the damp tarmac at overcast Mont Laurier airport, Quebec. Snowbird 5, seen off to the right, is Tutor 114081. (Bill Upton Photo)
He raised the canopy and by using the left foot kick-in step and the right foot pull-down step, I easily climbed in and sat on the right hand seat slowly gazing around at the layout of the seemingly all too tiny, yet just enough elbowroom sized cockpit. Here I was, finally sitting in a plane that Canadair had first designed and built more than 40 years ago, but is still modern enough to perform the demanding job of being the mount of the most proud of Canadian Forces squadrons. It was indescribable, but it certainly smelled like a thirty-something year old airplane. That is standard and unique to most such aircraft. It definitely was missing that new-‘plane smell.
During this familiarization we were called back in to be updated on the weather and soon found out that fickle Mother Nature just wasn’t going to co-operate and we were faced with a further delay, takeoff time now tentatively scheduled for 4:00 p.m.
The flight crew went out to grab a bite to eat and soon some of the media passengers ordered food in - pizza, poutine, French fries and soft drinks - with the tab being graciously picked up by the airport manager. I, not wishing to risk any potential near future problems with any type of stomach awareness, decided on just a plain, dry donut and a bottle of water.
Finishing my ‘meal’, I hung around outside with the gang of Snowbirds Aircraft and Avionics Technicians, commonly called the ‘Techs’. Everybody knows the Snowbirds through the aerial performances executed gracefully by the pilots, however, these technicians are a very integral part of the squadron. They form a tight bond with their partner pilots and demonstrate a spirit of teamwork and professionalism that is truly unique. We talked about the future longevity of the team and they said they could easily keep these birds maintained with enough readily available spare parts until at least 2005. The aircraft that had, during a recent training workup, a hard landing at Comox (a different No. 5), would be repaired, and could supply some of these needed spare parts along with many CT-114s now retired from CAF service. I then asked them to clarify something about the swapping of tails on the Tutors and they confirmed that this was done due to fatigue on the empennage, especially on the aircraft at the outer positions. That is also partly why the aircraft are moved around to different positions in the formation from year to year. To prove the point, the number visible on the tail of Snowbird 8 here did not match the number stamped on the nameplate affixed in the left speed brake area. The aircraft’s true serial number is that found on the right hand cockpit sill at the slant bulkhead and that is what is visibly painted on the tail.
I also broached the delicate subject of tummy troubles with passengers during these media flights and the inventive places where people deposited their messy innards in their Tech’s equipment. In this regard, their primary credo is; You messed it. You clean it!
Again, a further weather delay was announced until 5:00. At 5:30, a small, private plane went up to scout the region and soon reported back that the weather around the local area was looking promising. Then the clouds started to lift, and the rays of Old Sol started to poke through, drying some of the wet spots on the tarmac. Soon, small patches of blue sky appeared, barely VFR conditions, then at 5:50 p.m., a flurry of activity and Major Painchaud called the crew in for the flight briefing. And, finally, I heard a sweet sounding (to me anyway) order to the Aircraft Technicians, “Techs, please prepare your passengers.”
Could I have run any faster to my assigned airplane? I would have given Jonathan Bailey a run for his money! I skidded to a halt at the right side of the aircraft and there was Snowbird No. 6’s Tech, Corporal Mike Grimard, holding up HIS blue flight coveralls for me to try on. This single-piece garment had the famous 431 Squadron crest sewn on the front and the Snowbirds red crest on the right shoulder. Perfect fit. If it hadn’t fit, I would have made it fit somehow. He told me to remove the neck strap from my Nikon F5 (ejection issues apparently, possible head ripping off, simple things like that) and to stow all of my film in one of the lower leg pockets of the suit.
Then he helped me on with the bulky parachute pack and we fastened it to me securely, or so I hoped. I climbed into my assigned airplane, as did the other media passengers in theirs, with all the local area spectators smiling and watching enviously from behind the yellow ribbon barricades.
I was grateful now to Mike for being like a mother hen during my cockpit ingress and strap-in procedure. He studiously watched me to see if I had retained anything from the safety briefing he gave, held some eight-plus hours prior by this time, regarding the strapping in and aircraft ground abort procedures. I fastened and unfastened everything during two simulated ground aborts that I requested to do, to be certain for myself and to satisfy him that I had listened and had it all down pat.
He loaned me HIS blue helmet with the white Snowbirds insignia on the top and I carefully pulled it down over my head and wiggled it around until it felt comfortable. The silence was almost deafening with that helmet on. I could barely hear Mike talking to me. Then he tightened each strap in the harness with a smart, sharp tug to each one, which kept me from taking any deep breaths. When I informed him that breathing would be a good thing for me to continue doing, we loosened each one a fraction just enough to allow me to almost fill my lungs. Then, he did up the final strap, the lap belt and central buckle, which they hadn’t covered in the briefing. Simple enough until he made the precautionary recommendation to, “…arrange your ‘boys’ comfortably if you don’t want to talk falsetto!” I did as I was warned, and a good thing too, as he yanked hard on the straps to ensure that I would stay down firmly on the seat during maneuvers, and after the initial shock, I was soon able to breathe a sigh of relief. The ‘boys’ were okay. He then familiarized me with the myriad of cockpit gauges and doodads that I could look at or use during flight, especially those marked in hornet-striped, touch-under-penalty-of-death, yellow and black paint.
All dressed up and almost ready to go! (Bill Upton Photo)
As a parting gesture, an airline standard “Boarding Pass” (i.e. the Snowbirds euphemism for the all important ‘barf bag’) was waved in front of my face and placed in a pocket on the top of the dash within easy reach. Mike smiled a sly knowing smile. I hoped I wouldn’t need it. I justly assumed he and my pilot were thinking the exact same thing. As a precaution, I did a practice session of attaching and removing my, I really mean, HIS oxygen mask…quickly…numerous times, just in case. I really didn’t want to do any type of cleaning today. Before he left me, I asked Mike to take a photo of me all kitted up, sitting in the cockpit, for proof that I was really there, and that I had gotten this far, just in case the weather closed in again and cancelled us for good.
The pilots had completed their briefing and quickly trotted out to their respective aircraft to firstly perform the all-important walkaround inspection with their aircraft technicians. That was completed smoothly and Major Searle deftly clambered into the left-hand driver’s seat and began strapping on his aircraft as he had done so many times before. Both hands, in a seemingly detached way, began to deftly move around the cockpit to bring the bird to life and soon the instrument panel lit up and the sounds of my breathing could be heard in my helmet via the microphone in my oxygen mask. He came online once he had his red helmet and mask on, adjusted the volume on the center console, and asked me if I was all set.
I guessed that he couldn’t see big smile under the mask, so a thumbs-up and an enthusiastic, “You bet” was all I could muster at the moment. He told me to call him “Ian”.
The Boss came up almost immediately on the radio with the attention getting command, “Snowbirds”, a slight pause, “Check in.” Before I could take a breath, I could hear each pilot in turn and in a separate, affirmative tone with a somewhat singsong quality, call immediately to check in, “Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine.” We were informed of the local elevation (825 feet) and adjustments were made to both altimeters. Then the Boss called, “Snowbirds, start-em up.” Almost immediately I could feel, more than hear, our Tutor’s J85 engine come to life. The EGT and oil pressure gauges flickered to life with wavering needles, within seconds the engine RPM smoothly wound up, and all seemed right inside this compact little world. My heart seemed to also be winding up faster in concert with the engine.
The now frumpy former frilly-frocked female reporter had finally decided to call it quits and the Boss announced this to her pilot and all other aircraft and passengers over the Comm system. I guessed that the unflattering flight coveralls in dark blue just wasn’t in her preferred colour choice. She probably would have had to clean the borrowed things afterwards anyway.
Glancing around outside the cockpit I noticed each aircraft technician standing immediately in front of his or her respective aircraft with their ear protectors on while all of the spectators were wincing or had fingers planted deeply within their waxy ear canals. Yet, here I was just beside and above the right hand air intake, the canopy still wide open, and all I could hear and feel was a faint rumble.
Duly warned to pull arms, elbows and hands inside, all of the Snowbirds’ canopies came down in unison and then I could see, for the first time, just how confining the cockpit truly was. This was absolutely no place for someone with claustrophobia. I sucked on the oxygen coming through the mask - happily that worked - and watched as the O2 flow indicator blinker in front of me moved each time I took a breath. I gave the oxygen-on-demand toggle switch a tweak to ensure that it was working too.
That was good stuff, that oxygen. Gotta love it.
Due to the small, single runway at Mont Laurier, on Major Painchaud’s order, we were all to taxi out, in single file behind him. As I looked up and out through the forward windscreen, there he was going past our nose with others pulling out of the parking slots in numerical order and following suit. Ian looked to his left, tweaked the throttle, and strained to see wingtip clearance out of my side of the aircraft. I looked and called, “Clear” to him as our wing cleared that of Snowbird 7. He throttled up and we were soon rolling across the bumpy tarmac towards the taxiway inline behind Snowbirds 5 and 4. As we approached the taxiway, Ian called for me to remove “The Pin” from below my right leg. This ejection seat safety pin prevents the inadvertent operation of the ejection seat. Removing it now meant that my seat was now ‘hot’ - armed, and ready to fire. I did so and placed it into its temporary stowage location under the right-hand corner of the dash and Velcro’d the attached red flag to the top of the dash for visibility to the ground crew at the Last Chance point as we taxied slowly past. If it weren’t visible, we wouldn’t have gone another foot. With a quick look over of the aircraft for anything amiss and then seeing the red flags, the ground crew, with a thumbs up signal, allowed us to proceed farther along the taxiway. We then halted close behind Snowbird 4 and watched as the Boss, then Snowbird 2, followed a few seconds later by Snowbird 3, took off on the start of a racetrack pattern around the local area.
We trundle out on the taxiway behind Snowbird 4 as Snowbird 2 flashes by on its takeoff roll. Our windshield is spotted with raindrops. (Bill Upton Photo)
Now near the button of Runway 04, Snowbird 4 turns to begin his takeoff roll. Note my “Boarding Pass” and the red ejection seat flag. (Bill Upton Photo)
The next three Tutors were cleared to proceed and we backtracked down one side of the runway. As we were doing so, the small formation of three aircraft passed overhead in a left-hand pattern and, at the same time, Snowbird 5 shot past us in the other direction on his takeoff roll. Snowbird 4 lined up with us just offset behind and to our left, then started his roll. Our aircraft was buffeted with the blast from his exhaust. Ian turned on the front windshield’s exterior hot air defroster to blast away the water droplets and dirt that was left there from the rain that fell during the day and what No. 4 had just deposited. Such an efficient system would be great on my car instead of my worn out, sightline-streaking rubber wipers.
Now it was our turn. We slowly moved forward and over, lining up off to the left of the centerline of Runway 04. I became more aware of the sounds of my fast breathing and wondered if it bothered my pilot as I could hear his as well, albeit measured and slow. I tried to match his rhythm but found out it wasn’t that easy to do with the excitement building. Ian asked me to be sure my hands, legs, and camera were clear of the stick on my side and to pull the visor on my helmet down (in case of a birdstrike to the cockpit). It is hard to imagine that thin slice of plastic deflecting anything, let alone a bird travelling at whatever knots coming through the windshield, yet it was the rule and I readily complied.
I brought my camera’s eyepiece up to the visor to check if there would be any problem with visibility later on and there didn’t seem to be any, so I decided to leave the visor down during the flight instead of fiddling around with it. Unfortunately it was still rather cloudy to take decent pictures but some breaks were seen amongst the clouds, but not yet in our immediate area.
I don’t know why, but I suddenly looked straight up through the top of the canopy and saw the other five aircraft passing directly overhead and then Ian said, “We go in six seconds. Watch the formation and let me know where they are when I ask.”
Oh boy, oh-boy!
The adrenaline was REALLY pumping by now, and I tensed for our takeoff roll to start. No time for any lingering doubts about this flight now! Sure enough, exactly six steamboats later, Ian cranked on full throttle and released the brakes. With a smooth jolt, we lunged forward accelerating faster in these first few feet than I had done in any of the sports cars that I had ever owned. We flashed past the remaining three Snowbird aircraft backtracking on the runway to my right, waiting their turns, and then I looked up and forward watching the other five Tutors high up make a tight turn to the left. Suddenly, I felt Ian pull the nose up and we were off. Wheeee, Belmont Park rides were never like this. I checked my watch and mentally noted it was exactly 6:25 p.m.
I watched the gear lever selected to UP and felt the soft thump of the doors closing underneath. Just as I was noticing the five-plane formation was at our nine-o’clock position, I duly informed Ian. I had just brought the camera up to my face to get a picture of my pilot in action, when he cranked our No. 6 into a hard turning, 90-degree left bank, seemingly just over the tips of the tall, pointy pine treetops, in order to intercept his teammates.
I really hoped that I didn’t scream that out loud. I looked around to see if Major Searle had heard anything and was looking my way, thankfully, he wasn’t. Remembering the pre-flight briefing, and wiggling my butt cheeks at the same time, reassured me that my seat pan was right where it was supposed to be.
So, THAT’S what G’s really feel like, something akin to having Santa Claus with his bag full of toys all perched on my shoulders scrunching me down into the hard seat. I didn’t seem to remember that my Nikon was ever THIS heavy. It was about now that I wished I had joined a gym at some point.
And this was just the beginning of the flight…
Against all advice, I kept the camera glued to my face, looking at the world around me through a 20mm wide-angle eye. It wasn’t long before we were pulling up, and really, really fast, into a position slightly below and behind No. 2 with Snowbirds 4 and 5 in line astern positions off to our left. Although my feet were firmly planted flat on the cockpit floor, instinctively they were pumping imaginary brake pedals. This was a vain attempt on my part to slow us down to keep us from running into No. 2, but at what appeared to be the last second, Ian deployed the speed brakes, and ‘aargh’, I was forced hard into the shoulder straps. Good thing that Mike had tightened them just enough.
Another formation left hand turn and we were over the now looking oh-so-small Mont Laurier airport runway as Snowbird 7, then the solos, No. 8 and finally 9 took off to have their turn at playing catch-up. As we completed one final left-hand turn in the racetrack pattern, Snowbird 8 pulled alongside justthisclose off to my right and all the players were finally assembled for the ride of their lives. At this point, I was still immersed in a 20mm world so I decided to put the camera down to view the ‘real’ world immediately around me.
Just like the inscriptions on the side mirrors of our cars state, things are certainly a lot closer than they appeared! It seemed like I could easily just reach out and touch all of that bright white, blue and red painted flying congregation of aluminum that was all around us.
I got set to snap a photo when Ian suggested that I wait a minute because we are still in a loose formation. Huh, loose? I know my eyes went big when I questioned his remark but fortunately, they were still hidden by my dark visor. I took a deep gulp of the oxygen and made sure the flow indicator blinked. He explained that we stay this way for a short while until everyone, especially the Boss, is satisfied with the performance and configuration of all of the aircraft in the formation. I could hear Major Painchaud critiquing others in the assembled mass to ensure such things as the nose lights were off and to finely adjust their relative positions.
We were good.
My pilot advanced the warning, “Wait for it.” to me, and sure enough, in a few seconds, the Boss comes up on the radio and orders, “Snowbirds,…tighten up,…Now!”
Whoa!!! What meager open space that there had been between each of our aircraft was now,…POOF,…literally all gone!
Now I could see and feel all of the work that goes on in keeping this much metal and glass from smashing into other similar bits of metal and glass all around us. The control stick in front of me moved in small increments, the throttle next to my left knee slid back and forth almost imperceptibly and the pressing of my chest into my shoulder straps let me know when the speed brakes were being deployed. I kept quiet and watched as Major Searle focused intently on maintaining our position relative to No. 4, just off to our left in the first line-astern position immediately behind Snowbird 1. I didn’t know where to look next, it was all so new to me, so I looked straight ahead and saw less than 10 feet in front and above our Tutor’s nose the blackened exhaust of Snowbird 2 with its two smoke-generating diesel oil delivery pipes poking upwards from below. My eyes followed the routing of the pipes to their source, the dual tanks beneath the center fuselage.
At this point the formation starts another hard left turn, there’s those darn G’s again, and the Boss calls, “Snowbirds,…smoke on,…Now!” Immediately a small yellow light illuminates above each side of the instrument panel and I can see small spits of diesel oil spurting into the exhaust of No. 2. Long, white plumes of smoke instantly form about 6 feet behind the aircraft that I can see off to our left.
We fly in some turbulence, wings actually overlapping, moving fore and aft, sliding up and down, yet still maintaining tight position relative to each other, changing formations on the Boss’s commands. Due to sensory overload on this flight so far, my mind doesn’t register all of the different formation changes we did. I do seem to recall Arrow, the Vulcan, Concorde, and the Big Diamond, each change pre-announced, then precisely executed on the Boss’s emphatic command word, ”Now!”
What an indescribably great view from this seat, seeing the forest, a small lake named Lac Brochet, and hilly scenery below. Cars stopped alongside the small roads with their occupant’s little heads poking out of the windows while others ran out of their houses into the front or back yards to get a look and wave as we flew past overhead. All of these small trainers shifting around in organized unison, the deftness of close-formation flying, simply amazing to those passengers inside and spectators outside.
Between formation changes a welcome command (at least for we, the passengers) is issued, “Snowbirds,… relax,…Now!” At this point the aircraft would be unloaded, hooray no more Gs, I would seem to again weigh my normal, svelte 160 pounds, my Nikon F5 was easier to hold and lift, and I wondered if I uttered an audible sigh of relief each time.
The call came soon for a change to the nine-plane Line-Abreast formation, which Ian said to me, was quite spectacular to see. Truly so if viewed from the ground, however, the aircraft were so perfectly lined up wingtip to wingtip I virtually saw only one Tutor off to our left and one on our right. I asked if we could move up about 10 feet so that I could shoot the other aircraft in the lineup but we were pressed for time, and another formation change was soon called for.
During most of these maneuvers, keeping the camera eyepiece pressed up to my visor frequently was, in retrospect, NOT the thing to do, as this ‘cyclopic’ view of the immediate world precipitated the first shallow waves of nausea to creep up. But I was determined to not let that happen, yet I couldn’t seem to readily convince by battered innards. I flipped the on-demand oxygen toggle switch a few times and breathed deep, keeping my focus on the distant, hazy horizon. Ian asked me how I was doing and I forced a non-visible grin behind the mask and gave him a quiet thumb up. He hit a switch on the panel and cranked on the cool cabin ram air full blast and that was a welcome relief. I managed a weak, “Thank you.”
Using just-in-case methodology, I finally did retrieve and open my “Boarding Pass” and rested it in a convenient, quickly accessible location between my right elbow and the side of the cockpit, but vowed I wouldn’t have to use it. Fingers and toes were crossed for luck.
Aaaannnd yet another gut wrenching team formation change! We were now over the outer edge of the city of Mont Laurier at an altitude of 4,000 feet AGL and at a speed of around 250 knots. I could look straight down to the left and past my pilot at the scenery and other Snowbird aircraft tight alongside and now below us. There was a winding river, bridges, an industrial park, and looking towards where Snowbird 1 was, a housing development with mowed lawns and clean, blue backyard pools. I finally managed to crank off a few shots with my leaden camera now that I was getting the hang of being in this aerobatic flying dervish. I wondered what the people below thought of all this commotion in their area.
This was just so punishingly cool!
My view of flying over the city of Mont Laurier with the meandering Rivière du Lièvre just below. The Boss can be seen framed in the left windshield and Captain Maryse Carmichael pilots Snowbird 3. Then, during the ‘quiet time’, the self-portrait with Major Ian Searle. Reflected in my visor can be seen Snowbird 2 against the puffy clouds. (Bill Upton Photos)
We eased out of the steep bank and leveled off then headed west for some very loose flying. All of the aircraft widely separated, with Snowbirds No. 3, No. 1, and No. 2 leading flying line abreast. Major Painchaud snapped his plane into inverted flight while the rest had a chance to catch their breaths. Normally at this time the media passengers are permitted a short time on the stick, to perform simple maneuvers like Lazy S’s and shallow aileron turns under the strict guidance of their pilots, to get a feel of what it’s like to fly one of these world renowned little aircraft. Due to the weather starting to close in again around the area, this activity was quickly cut short regrettably before it truly had a chance to start. Another pilot’s voice came up on the headset to request some inverted flight on behalf of his passenger, but this was quickly denied by the now so familiar voice of The Boss.
At this quiet time I held the camera out at arms length to try to catch a shot of Major Searle and myself together in the cockpit, a task almost impossible to do when banking and turning. By now some 40 minutes had passed and it was deemed time to head back to the small Mont Laurier airstrip. So, we were called to once again “tighten up” and suddenly all of the little specks that were planes way in the distance came screaming back into close formation. Here I was once again still feeling for the brakes, with arms outstretched to the dash as we converged back behind, and under Snowbird 2. BANG…speed brakes fully deployed, SLAM…chest into the straps, and there we were all nice and tight again.
I was just getting used to this type of flying by now and was starting to feel quite at ease when we were told to break and line up ready to land. We all assumed a single file formation and proceeded to once again fly a racetrack pattern around the airport as each Snowbird Tutor landed on Runway 04/22 and taxied off in turn.
The gear lever was selected to DOWN and I felt the welcome thump of all three landing gear locking into position. Speed brakes popped out on the aircraft immediately in front of us and I felt ours deploy slightly once again and the stall warning horn started to blare. But with a slight nudge to the throttle, it was quickly silenced. One last low-level pass over the runway and I could see some of the team’s aircraft at the far end backtracking and some turned off onto the taxiway which intersected at about midway on the left.
Finally out of the left-hand racetrack pattern, a sharp banking left turn brought our nose inline with the centerline of the runway and I was watching the aircraft directly in front of us just taxi clear of the strip when I felt the mains touch down softly. The nose was quickly lowered and we were grounded, braking quickly to clear the runway for the next aircraft arriving almost immediately behind us.
Bummer, it was over!
Ian asked me to re-install “The Pin” to lock my ejection seat levers. This was now NOT an easy task to perform, trying to blindly feel for and find that teeny-tiny little hole near my right foot with all of my internal gyroscopes having been so thoroughly tumbled and my head still spinning following all of that flight maneuvering. Whew, the pressure was palpable, but, after two blind and fumbling attempts, that little pin was pushed home securely and we continued to taxi in.
Some of the aircraft were parked haphazardly around the side of the little terminal and I spotted Mike Grimard waving us towards an open spot. He guided Ian into the tight spot and we kept inching forward until I thought that the nose light was going to poke Mike in the belly. One final tap to the brakes, the nose bowed down slightly, sprang back up and we were stopped. Our aircraft’s engine was shut off, the instrument panel went dark, and the sound of silence in my helmet was again deafening.
About 45 minutes had passed since the landing gear thunked up into their wells, and yes, time does fly when you’re having fun. Mixed emotions washed over me as my innards and my outers were mutually happy to be on the tarmac, but still wishing that it wasn’t ending now that I was finally just starting to get used to everything swishing around the sky.
Ian popped open the canopy and asked me how I was doing. I leaned over, extended my hand to him, gave him a hearty handshake, and said, “Thank you Major, it was ab-so-lute-ly wild and not at all what I’d been led to expect.” He smiled and then pointed to the G-meter on the windshield center post and read off to me loudly, “3 point 9. That was a good one!” I managed a somewhat simple smile to that. I don’t think our definitions of ‘good’ were exactly the same. Due to other aircraft still taxiing in and engines running in close proximity to us, he suggested that we keep our helmets on for a minute or so until all Snowbirds had stopped and shutdown.
As the last J85 engine was slowly winding down, Mike popped up beside me and asked me how I’d done as I slowly removed the helmet and slowly unbuckled myself from the aircraft. Funny, even though I was now free of the straps, I could still feel as though they were still squishing me tightly. Their lasting impressions, both figuratively and literally, were the black and blue criss-cross marks on my upper body that were visible for days later.
He could tell that all was not quite back to 100 percent with me yet and smiled and tried to reassure me by saying that he gets that way too when he hasn’t flown for a few days. That’s why the pilots fly as often as they can. It was only then that I noticed that Ian also had a “Boarding Pass” on his side of the dash…hmmm, what if he had to…nawww, don’t even go there!
I then attempted to convince and prove to Mike that I had survived relatively unscathed and unstained. He seemed pleased to see (as was I), that my “Boarding Pass” was empty (which I kept as proof and a souvenir) along with HIS oxygen mask and HIS helmet. Upon my standing up in the cockpit, I showed him that the anterior and posterior areas of HIS flight coveralls were both quite dry. He laughed and said “Too bad the same can’t be said for the guy in number four.” I asked him silently with wide-open eyes and he nodded ‘yes’, so I can only assume that there was pizza and/or poutine all over the place!
Can’t ever go wrong with just a plain, dry donut and a bottle of water.
It was then that I noticed I was really sweating profusely but I remembered that I had been a willing (although later, friends did question my sanity in this endeavor) participant in a punishing 45-minute almost non-stop aerobic exercise program, all the while sitting and without bodily moving myself. I took a long, deep breath and backed out of the cockpit, off the two steps, to the ground. Both of my legs felt like they were made of lead-impregnated rubber, heavy and wobbly at the same time. Major Searle came around the front of No. 6 and we shook hands again, more him holding me up straight than actually shaking hands. Ian looked fresh as a daisy. Mike snapped some photos of this occasion with my camera for the record.
Drenched in sweat, stiff-legged in a wide balancing stance, but still smiling, I heartily shake the hand of my pilot next to his aircraft immediately after the flight. Actually, he’s holding me steady. (Bill Upton Photo)
Then, the Boss, Major Painchaud, made the rounds to each crewmember and media passenger at which I thanked him for this honour, opportunity, and his approval, and for the outstanding professionalism with which he led us throughout the overcast skies of the Laurentian Mountains.
We all went inside the small, wooden log terminal for a reception from excited relatives and friends, and talked about our personal experiences flying in the other positions of the formation. Looking back outside at one point, we could see a couple of the biggest Techs hauling out the limp-ish, blue-clad remains of the passenger of No. 4 and literally dragging him on his tippy-toes across the grass. All the while, a woman was wiping his white-as-snow face and head with a large wet towel. He was quickly deposited into the washroom and I never saw him again.
Ian gave me his Snowbirds business card and asked me for copies of the photos I took for the Squadron’s annual scrapbook. I promised, and then he told me to relax for about an hour or so before driving home, as I might feel a little ‘funny’. I then told him that I was completely indebted to him for the delicate precision and smoothness with which he drove us through the greatest experience of my life. He truly made it seem so routine and somewhat comfortable, even when pulling those dreaded G’s in the maneuvers. Then it was good-byes to all that I gotten to know on this very long and exciting day.
I changed into dryer clothes, packed up my camera gear, put it in the trunk of my car, and then sat on the seat thinking about what I had just done. Almost unnoticeably, I saw and felt that I was leaning hard to the left against the car door. I pushed myself upright and noticed that the leaning thing happened again! I put my hands on the steering wheel to pull myself back up and my arms didn’t want to stay there, they plopped down hard onto my lap, and the leaning thing repeated. Wild, and a tad unnerving! So this is probably what Ian meant. I guess that my body thought that I was still in the Tutor doing aerial circuits. Just then, a sudden, heavy rainstorm came up and so I relegated myself to remaining trapped in the car in the airport’s small parking area until my arms, hands, legs, and inner ears figured it out that they were also back on Terra Firma again. It took a while. Then the dark came and I went on the long trip home to record the day.
I also vowed to look into gym memberships. Yeah,…right!!
Major Ian Searle Snowbird 6
Bill Upton May 2001
Bill Upton started work at Canadair in February 1979 and worked for the next 15 years in the company's Surveillance Systems on the CL-227 Peanut VTOL RPV. Employed variously as mechnaical designer, draftsman, flight test team mechanical engineer, and payload operator, he sometimes doubled as photographer on many offsite flight assignments. He later transferred to the Experimental Engineering Department working on fatigue testing of the CRJ, Global Express, and CF-18 programmes. He later joined the Photographic Department and today, now in retirement, volunteers at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and writes historical articles about Canadair products.
Bill has graciously provided our CAHS Journal with an comprehensive and profusely illustrated multi-part history of the Canadair CL-41 / CT-114 Tutor, the 5th and 6th parts of which are featured in the two CAHS Journals now in the mail.