Snowbirds under fire

Plan to cut costs exposes pilots to ‘technical risks’


The safety of Canada’s Snowbird fleet has traditionally been a sore point for the air force, but documents obtained by the Toronto Star show these questions are indeed warranted. The documents reveal that plans are underway to keep the planes flying for 10 years past their lifespan despite “technical risks.” Officials say that $116 million in upgrades is significantly cheaper than replacing the fleet. Seven snowbird pilots have been killed since 1972.

The Toronto Star

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Snowbirds under fire

  1. Déjà vu?

    Sun, July 9, 2006


    Canada’s Defence Department is spending billions on new trucks, helicopters and heavy aircraft, but the aging, accident-prone Snowbirds could remain flying a decade or more past their expected lifespan.
    The 43-year-old Tutor jets that thrill Canadian audiences with aerial ballet were set to retire this year, before an extension was granted to 2010. Documents obtained through access to information show the department is considering keeping the fleet flying until 2020-23 despite a lack of spare parts and an “increased risk of unexpected aircraft problems.”
    Since the Tutors were brought into service in 1963, the Snowbirds have had 12 major accidents involving 19 aircraft; four were damaged and 15 destroyed. Five pilots have been killed.
    A note to Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, written June 13 in anticipation of questions about the fleet’s escape system after an accident last August, said improvements have been made “where feasible.” But the system has never been replaced and upgrades are limited compared to modern technology and performance expectations, the report states.
    A Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project was launched in 2001, and an update report from the Defence Department dated May 2006 lists first the “status quo” as an option. A reduced squadron of Tutors or a tiny team of four CF-18s from Cold Lake are also under consideration, as is the acquisition of a “newer, more relevant aircraft for Snowbirds” that has a modern escape system and would provide “a high-quality show.”
    The name of the proposed aircraft was whited out in the 2006 documents. An August 2003 report recommended securing funding of $330 million to immediately proceed with the acquisition of Hawk aircraft to perform in the 2009 Snowbird season.
    NDP MP Dawn Black said 60 years seems like an “excessively long time” to have planes in flight. She wants to compare the cost of acquiring new jets with repairing and maintaining the aging fleet, but said safety of pilots and air show visitors must be paramount.
    Calling the Snowbirds “great symbols of Canada,” Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said experts and the air force must decide if the Tutors stay airworthy.
    “But if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind that one, they wouldn’t do the job that’s required to do and two, they wouldn’t be safe beyond a certain date, then I think it’s appropriate to replace them,” he said.

    June 10, 1972: A solo plane collides with another on a straight pass. One pilot dies.
    Jan. 24, 1977: An engine flames out after a short period in flight, causing a minor injury
    July 16, 1977: During an airshow, two Snowbirds collide during a formation change. Both aircraft crash, but only minor injuries occur.
    May 3, 1978: During a low-level rolling manoeuvre, a horizontal stabilizer fails. The pilot unsuccessfully attempts to eject and is killed.
    June 17, 1986: Travelling from Moose Jaw to Medicine Hat, two Snowbirds collide. One lands safely and one crashes, causing minor injuries.
    Sept. 3, 1989: Two Snowbirds crash during an air show display, killing one pilot and injuring another.
    June 1, 1992: A Snowbird does an unintentional gear up wing landing. The pilot emerged without injury, but the aircraft caught fire and was destroyed.
    Mar. 21, 1994: A Snowbird has engine failure during an air show practice, causing minor injuries to two airmen.
    Dec. 10, 1998: During an airshow practice, two Snowbirds collide; one lands safely while another crashes and kills one pilot.
    June 21, 2001: During a media flight, two Snowbirds make contact. One lands safely and the other crashes, causing one major and one minor injury.
    Dec. 10, 2004: During a practice, two Snowbirds collide and both crash, causing one minor and one fatal injury. It has not been determined yet if either pilot attempted to eject.
    Aug. 23, 2005: During a shakeout manoeuvre before a show, a Snowbird experiences a loss of thrust and safely ejects with minor injuries.

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