Local resident had the rare opportunity to fly with the Snowbirds as a civilian

Flying with the Snowbirds

With the Comox Air Show looming, one man's flight of a lifetime

  • Aug. 10, 2015 9:00 a.m.

Local resident Wolf Christiansen had the rare opportunity to fly with the Snowbirds as a civilian, during the precision aerobatic team’s spring training session at CFB Comox. Wolf offered The Record an exclusive first-person account of his day in the sky. With the Comox Air Show here on the weekend, the timing is ideal for this special, submitted feature article.

Wolf Christiansen

Special to The Record

It is a rare opportunity indeed to be offered a ride with the Snowbirds during one of their training flights. At the time, I was working on a feature about CFB Comox’s Air Defence, Search & Rescue role, and it was more a case of being in the right place at the right time.

I had already taken high altitude training at CFB Edmonton and knew how to eject (a prerequisite to getting aboard the other types of aircraft flown at the base) so I was technically not a novice, although I certainly felt like one. I still needed assistance getting into a flight suit with its various straps, harnesses and flotation vest, as well as instruction on where to plug in my oxygen mask and helmet communications cords.

Unlike other aircraft such as the F-18 and T-33 where you sit behind the pilot, in the CT-114 Tudor flown by the Snowbirds you sit beside the pilot, much like sitting in a right-hand-drive VW Beetle with its sloped nose and engine in the rear. Of course the instrumentation is far more complex and one look out the bubble canopy at any of the other eight aircraft in formation and you know you are not riding in a Volkswagen.

The Tudor is a sleek-looking jet with highly regarded performance. Equipped with a turbojet engine producing 2,950 pounds of thrust, a 1,500 km range and speeds approaching 800 km/h, the Tudor is a rugged and capable aircraft.

Taking off in formation from a long runway was not the sort of missile launch one would expect. The turbojet engines have none of the roar associated with more muscular aircraft and takeoff is a gradual increase in speed with no real sensation of having left the ground, except for the first air pockets caressing the fuselage.

Flying in formation with eight other aircraft is great for taking pictures, but can be a bit disconcerting as the Snowbirds fly very close together.

From the ground it appears as if these aircraft are not moving in formation as they go through their aerobatics.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is wind turbulence to consider, which can rock this little jet much more than you feel in a commercial airliner when an air pocket is encountered. The distance between each Snowbird in many of their formations is about 1.2 metres (four feet), and at times looked a whole lot closer as the planes were jostled around in the turbulence. Needless to say, the degree of skill required by the pilots to maintain this distance through their performance is nothing short of remarkable.

In a high speed loop the G forces are five to seven times body weight. Trying to lift my camera to take a picture at the top of the loop was like trying to lift a sack of cement. This is one of those times when you just point and shoot and hope you capture something.

They do a starburst maneuver where the planes fly straight up in formation from low altitude and then veer off in different directions with smoke trailing from the jet exhaust.

Fluid twists and turns, up, down, over and under, you get the distinct sensation after a while of being in a ballet, but at 800 times the speed. For spectators on the ground the whole performance is choreographed to music, the Snowbirds being the first aerobatic team in the world to do so.

The only letdown of the whole experience was landing. It was nothing short of a thrill of a lifetime and my feet didn’t touch the ground even when I was standing on the tarmac.

The Snowbirds Air Demonstration Squadron is scheduled to perform at this year’s CFB Comox Air Show, Aug. 15. Recognized as one of the world’s premier aerobatic acts, performing upwards of 35 shows a year, the Snowbirds have demonstrated their precision flying before millions of spectators. True Canadian ambassadors for more than 40 years, they are indeed a national icon.

 

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