Snowbirds : Canada's 431 Air Demonstration Squadron

Photography has allowed me to experience many things that I otherwise might not have been able to. The ability to tell stories with the use of photographs is often an exciting and personally rewarding experience.

In the summer of 2015, I did something that was previously only a dream of something impossible. This something was an incredible opportunity that I'm truly grateful for. It was something I could not have been more excited about when I received an email saying:

“Hi Stephen. Atlantic Canada International Air Show would like to offer you a ride with the Snowbirds.”

Flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds could be considered priceless. It's just not something that can be purchased so I can not thank all those involved enough. I truly can’t. It was an incredible experience that I will now try so desperately hard to share through photographs.

But an invite it only the start.

For fear that it would somehow be canceled, I painfully kept this invite my secret for the weeks leading up to my flying date. It was now Thursday morning. The day before the flight. And the day scheduled for my training.

As I count down the minutes to my flight, I'm in a room with the team's flight surgeon – a person who must first give me clearance to fly. My mind remains stuck on worse case scenarios. One of the first questions I'm asked is “Are you nervous about flying?”, to which I responded, “The only thing I’m nervous about is you telling me that I can not go…”

I am asked the regular health history questions any insurance company would ask followed by a few tests on blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, balance, eyesight, hearing, strength, and general awareness. Upon passing all of that, we had a small conversation on what I should expect in flight that ended with some magical words that went a bit like:

“I see no reason that you will not have a successful flight.

Enjoy your flight”.

I was cleared to fly and moving on to the next stage. After each of the 6 invited passengers met with the team's surgeon, we were all invited out on to the airport apron to welcome the arrival of the 9 Snowbirds about to land at YYG in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Only a few minutes pass before we are talking with the pilots and the technicians, preparing to learn all about ejection seats and how to operate a parachute. It’s a little intense being told there are camping and fishing supplies attached to the bottom of the seat.

Captain Philippe Roy (Snowbird 4 First Line Astern) talks me through the many buckles, hooks, straps, belts and everything else that would be connected to me. My job was to remember how to strap in but also how to get out quickly in case of an emergency.

It sounds easy until you realize just how many connection points would be attached and how little movement I would have.

Once I had the sequence memorized and could demonstrate that I was capable of releasing myself from the aircraft, it was time to move on to the next station where we would be properly fitted for all the gear I needed to wear. I’m not a very big person and it took several tries to find a parachute harness small enough.

All done and ready!

Everything is now labeled and I am passed a pair of gloves. I was now officially ready to fly with the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron. I’ve also now been at the airport for 7 hours. It was time to head home for a bit of sleep with a scheduled “be back at the airport” time of 8:50 am.

As expected, I don’t sleep much and begin to worry about the weather. The forecast of clears skies has changed to clouds and rain with the possibility of a thunderstorm. Not good. As I look out my window at the cloud ceiling of only 800 feet, the disappointment begins to set in. Knowing how easily things like this can be canceled from previous Air Show experiences and invites, I was preparing for the bad news.

But the schedule proceeds as planned regardless of weather and we are invited to attend the hour-long preflight briefing to go over the flight route, weather and various other things that I didn't understand.

I grab a seat next to the pilot who I have been paired with (Snowbird 9 Lead Solo: Captain Morgan Strachan). Everyone is super friendly.

The meeting ends, and we are all given 10 minutes before boarding must begin. This flight is really going to happen and departure will be at exactly 10:50 am.

It was time to test my memory from what I learned the day before. I am tied down and pinned to the seat. The engines are running. The glass canopy is coming down and we are moving and taxiing out to the runway. I’m in jet 9 with the view of all 8 in front.

It’s time to fly.

10:50 am on the runway.

As I look down the runway arranged in a 3×3 formation, I am not sure what to think. I am filled with self-pressure to photograph this flight well, all while listening to last-minute reminder instructions on when and how to evacuate the aircraft if there is an emergency during takeoff. Stuff was being said and my mind was racing.

It is all a bit unbelievable. Here I am in a Canadian iconic Snowbird, with 6 more jets in front of me and 2 more out my right side window. We start to slowly move forward and continue to pick up speed until we are floating in the air over Charlottetown.

11:00 am depart Charlottetown.

A quick right turn is my first introduction to the plane's gravitational force and we are quickly on route to Slemon Park in Summerside.

We are flying solo and not in formation with the rest of the team. This is when Captain Morgan Strachan tests my tolerance to g-forces. As I watch the needle push towards and pass 3, I can feel the weight crushing me into my seat.

I am asked: “Do you want to try flying?”

Did I hear that right? I reply jokingly: “If you are serious.”

As I timidly put the camera down in my left hand and gently placed my right hand on the center stick, I ask “How sensitive is this? And how quickly are we going to move?”… to which Morgan replied, “Just give it a try”.

To some extent, or perhaps an illusion, I am now flying a Snowbird. We are moving fast with some very responsive controls. It felt very arcade-like as it did not take much to bank a hard turn while I zigzagged along following highway 2 west. Speaking as someone with no piloting experience, I felt like the jet was incredibly stable as I went up into the clouds and back down.

11:07 am arrive in Summerside.

We are only in the air for what felt like just a few minutes and Summerside is already in view. Morgan takes back the controls and I pick my camera back up as we pull up alongside the team already in formation. Now I'm really feeling the trueSnowbird experience with a wing-to-wing measurement of 4 feet.

We proceed to circle show center at Slemon Park Airfield for what feels like a half dozen laps. During this time, each of the pilots are planning the show by selecting ground reference points. The performance is incredibly done by eye with choreographed sequences using the buildings below as reference points to help keep everyone oriented.

It was fascinating to hear the planning and the triple checking to ensure every team member was on the same page. The attention to detail filled our allowed air-space time and required asking for an extension to make sure the routine was fully planned.

Once everyone was clear to go, it was time to have some fun. The 9 jets closed in on each other again inching closer and closer to that amazing 4-foot distance from wing to wing.

One thing I noticed and I never really considered until in the air was that the pilot in Snowbird jet 1 is the only person truly watching where we were flying. Everyone else’s job was to fly parallel with their neighbor and trust the rest. You’ll notice that in many of my images, Morgan is only looking at his wing in relation to the next closest jet to center. He appears to rarely be looking forward.

And because of the formations and where my jet 9 is mostly positioned on the outside, it became a challenge and a bit frustrating to photograph a clean image without window frames. Most of the action was happening out the right side while I was on the far left side.

So it was pretty exciting when I looked over my left shoulder to see Snowbird 7 Outer Left Wing: Captain Steve Reed sneaking up beside us. With the camera up against the glass, it appeared like Steve was having some fun with the camera and bobbing his head as if he was singing along to some good music. Just another casual afternoon flight for those that do this daily.

These pilots fly almost every day. I’m near in shock but we are talking about the various fishing and farming crops passing below. I learned some pilots were planning on going golfing, while others were going deep sea fishing after the final show on Sunday.

It was hot. Very hot.

I’m wearing several layers of fire protective clothing in a glass bubble and the sun was cooking me. I kept the visor up not only to see the camera better but to keep wiping the sweat out of my eyes.

At this point, the heat was making me more nauseous than the flying was.

11:28 am depart Slemon Park.

We’re done making some noise in Summerside and the Egmont Bay area and begin to follow the Northumberland Strait back to Charlottetown. I am offered the opportunity to fly again. With a bit more confidence, it feels  much more fun and without realizing, I am reminded to watch my height as we are now really high up and the other jets are  pinpoints below.

With a slight push forward on the center stick, we descend quickly towards the Confederation Bridge.

I mention how great it would be to get an image of the Snowbirds over the bridge. Morgan reminds me of the rule that all Snowbirds must always fly in numerical order and with us being in jet 9, we are required to always stay behind #8. It's their way to stay safe but also to my benefit, I had a view of everyone.

We make a wide turn over the New Brunswick side and come in high nearly inverted towards the bridge. This was the most g-force I felt on the entire flight. It hurt a little bit.

The tail smoke is turned on and the chase begins and the scene in front of me becomes a work of art. It was a beautiful thing as we flew into, over and under the lines of the jets in front. The footage from the GoPro I had velcroed to the dash was fantastic.

11:40 am arrive at Confederation Bridge.

11:49 am arrive back to Charlottetown.

We pass over St Peters Island in tight formation and over the Charlottetown harbor, the Exhibition grounds and in over West Royalty to set up for one last pass over of the Charlottetown airport.

For landing, we are again arranged in a 3×3 grid for a 3 jet wide landing - exactly as we took off an hour earlier. Again, I can't help but notice more focus given to the wings and distance from the center jet than there was actually landing the plane. The wheels make contact and the canopy immediately opens to allow for some much needed fresh air.

12:00 am we are back on the ground.

My day is now officially over and the weekend Air Show has begun but I was not really willing to just let it end there.

Armed with a 13×19 print from my flight, I found myself back at the airport the next day waiting outside the boardroom for the performance debriefing to end.

Asking for signatures from everyone properly concluded my Snowbird weekend experience.

This story, my images, and my words can only offer so much and it likely falls short of how it really feels to be racing around the skies in a Canadair CT-114 Tutor. I do hope some of my excitement is communicated and felt by you in this photo essay. If I was 15 years younger, I might have found myself enrolling in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Thank you Air Show Atlantic for this opportunity and thank you, Ron Mackay, for the extra behind the scene images I couldn’t do myself.

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