The commanding officer of the Snowbirds defended the safety of his team’s decades-old aircraft and said he hopes the squad will fly again, one day after the fatal crash that has put the Canadian Forces aerobatics program under renewed scrutiny.
In the wake of the incident in Kamloops, B.C., that killed Capt. Jennifer Casey, at least one former Royal Canadian Air Force colonel says evidence is mounting that Snowbirds should be scrapped.
But at a news conference in Moose Jaw, Sask., where the Snowbirds are based, their commander, Lt.-Col. Mike French, said that although the loss of a crew member was the famous flying squad’s “absolute worst nightmare,” it shouldn’t mean the team is permanently grounded.
French described the Snowbirds as “Canadian ambassadors” whose high-flying manoeuvres “demonstrate the skill, professionalism and teamwork of the Canadian Forces” and serve as an important platform for Air Force recruitment.
“It’s a mission I can get behind. It’s a mission I believe in. So I certainly hope our mission will continue,” he said.
The CT-114 Tutor jet carrying Casey had just left the airport in Kamloops at about 11:45 a.m. local time when it crashed shortly after takeoff. Casey — the Snowbirds’ public affairs officer — was killed, and pilot Capt. Richard MacDougall suffered serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
French said the circumstances of the crash, which occurred during a nationwide tour intended to uplift Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, still aren’t known. But he said both Casey and MacDougall ejected before the plane hit the ground.
The crash site has been secured by local law enforcement, and an investigation team from the Directorate of Flight Safety in Ottawa had arrived to determine the cause of the incident, French told reporters.
He said it’s typical for preliminary findings to be released within about 30 days, but the full investigation could take more than a year. Investigators will review video footage, conduct interviews and examine human factors, weather conditions, maintenance activity and other potential causes of the crash.
The Snowbird fleet has been placed on an “operational pause,” according to the Canadian Forces.
Sunday’s incident was the second time in seven months a Snowbird has crashed. On Oct. 13, 2019, Capt. Kevin Domon-Grenier was forced to eject from his jet as it crashed into a farmer’s field before a scheduled show at the Atlanta Speedway in Georgia. He suffered minor injuries.
In addition to Casey, seven pilots and one passenger have been killed and several aircraft lost over the course of the Snowbirds’ history, which stretches back to 1971. In 1989, a crowd at the Canadian National Exhibition looked on in horror as Capt. Shane Antaya’s plane plunged into Lake Ontario after it struck another Snowbird; Antaya was killed.
The Snowbirds’ most recent fatality prior to Sunday was in 2008, when Capt. Bryan Mitchell and Sgt. Charles Senecal were killed during a photo flight in Moose Jaw.
The crash Sunday saw the jet slam into a residential neighbourhood, shaking houses and leaving a smoking wreckage on the front lawn of a home, illustrating the potential danger the team’s operations can pose to members of the public as well as crew members.
Paul Maillet, a retired colonel who served 33 years in the RCAF, said the most recent disaster is only the latest indication the Snowbird program should be shut down.
“I just personally think it’s time. I really do,” he said in an interview.
Maillet argued that in the best of times there was a case to be made that the Snowbirds weren’t a worthwhile use of military funding, given that the team is not involved in combat missions and its operations are primarily for public enjoyment. He said the financial pressure the COVID-19 pandemic will place on the Canadian Forces budget will only make the expenditure more difficult to justify.
In 2017 the Department of National Defence said operating the flying team cost $ 4.3 million a year, according to media reports from the time.
Maillet also said it’s unusual for a fleet to experience two crashes in as short a period as seven months, and the pair of recent incidents could be a sign the Snowbirds’ planes are no longer safe. The RCAF obtained the Tutor jets in 1963 and has used them in air demonstrations since 1971.
Get the latest in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star, including up-to-date coronavirus coverage, with our email newsletters
“Do we really need this, in this new normal that is coming?” Maillet said of the program. “These kinds of things are nice to have but certainly I would question the essential nature of it.”
At Monday’s news conference, French maintained the Tutor jets are safe. He said they’re effectively rebuilt every two years to keep them in “mint condition” and are thoroughly inspected before each flight.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority of the Snowbirds,” he said.
In a statement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan indicated the Snowbirds’ flying days are far from over.
“The Snowbirds have provided inspiration to Canadians for decades and will continue to do so in the future,” he said, adding that the work the team performs “is an important demonstration of CAF’s ability and is something that brings pride to Canadians.”
He called Casey’s death a “tragic loss” that was made “even more difficult for Canadians and the entire Defence Team” by the fact it came during an operation intended to boost the nation’s spirits.
At the time of Sunday’s crash, the team was scheduled to travel from Kamloops to nearby Vernon as part of Operation Inspiration, the goodwill tour. The cross-country operation started in Nova Scotia earlier this month, but has now been delayed indefinitely.
The B.C. General Aviation Association was organizing a mass flyover it called “Operation Backup Inspiration” to honour Casey and the Snowbirds on Monday evening. Thirty-five local aircraft were expected to take part in the 14-minute procession, according to the association’s website.
Meanwhile, residents in the Kamloops neighbourhood where the jet crashed were still recovering from the shock.
Marni Capostinsky said she and her three children used to enjoy watching recreational pilots flying over their house in Kamloops. But when she heard planes roar overhead Monday morning, she cringed.
“After yesterday, the sound brings you back … it’s almost traumatizing,” said Capostinsky, who saw Sunday’s crash from her deck.
On Monday morning, debris was still littered on her yard and yellow caution tape spanned her driveway. People in camouflage uniforms walked in and out of the crash site.
“I feel so terrible for (Casey),” said Capostinsky. “But at the same time I’m so thankful that everybody is OK in the neighbourhood, because it could have been a lot worse than it was.”
Down the street, Richard Needham said the normally bustling neighbourhood was eerily quiet. He said he and his neighbours are still reeling. “It’s surreal,” he said. “It’s just hard to believe that something like that happened so close to home.”
Needham had been in his garage Sunday when he heard a plane flying overhead. Then, he heard “a big bang” that was so loud he “felt it.”
He rushed out of the garage and saw a big cloud of smoke. As he got closer, he spotted pieces of airplane in his neighbours’ yards, and local residents trying to put out the fire with garden hoses.
Casey joined the Canadian Forces in 2014 and was based out of Trenton, Ont. She had previously worked in radio as a reporter, anchor and producer in her hometown of Halifax and Belleville, Ont., according to her Royal Canadian Air Force bio. She joined the Snowbirds in November 2018.