Another Air Show Season is almost over...so let's talk about the Snowbirds.
Nobody died this season, did they?
The last accidental death among the members of 431 demonstration squadron was on or about Thursday, October 9th (?) 2008, during a training flight at the squadron's headquarters in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The incident previous to that was May 18th, 2007 near Great Falls, Montana. Or rather, those are the most recent ones I could find...this year's season isn't over yet. As one website dedicated to the "Snowbirds Aircraft Replacement Project" (S.A.R.P.)1 stated; "the Snowbirds team becomes a political issue whenever pilots are killed". The Canadair CL-41 Tutor is a two seat 1960's-era trainer that at nearly 50 years old; is well past its intended service life.2
So why are we still using them?
Simple: we own them.
The current jet trainer in use by the CAF is the BAE Systems CT-155 Hawk.3 The Hawk would, in fact, make an ideal replacement for the Tutor...except for one problem: we don't own any, we lease them all from the British.
A number of options have been proposed by the Government and Military leaders who are currently sitting on this situation:
1. Keep using the CL-41 Tutors and accept that pilots are going to die while flying them. Accept also that these "regrettable incidents" are going to occur more frequently. Apologize profusely to the pilot's families and friends and whatever media flacks happen to show outrage over the latest lost pilot. Continue making noises about finding a solution to the "problem" and then go back to sitting on it when the media coverage moves on to something more interesting.
2. Use some other aircraft from the current CAF inventory. We do own, for example, a number of CF-116 Freedom Fighters...better known as the CF-5. A canadian variant of the USAF F-5 light supersonic fighter, the CF-5's were retired from CAF service in 1995. The remaining airframes still in Canada are currently stored at CFB Mountainview. CFB Mountainview is located south of Belleville Ontairio, near CFB Trenton. I don't know what it would cost to get these planes put back together and flying, but there is at least one other aerobatic team using them currently; the Patrouille Suisse. 4
3. Buy some more modern aircraft. The BAE Hawk, for instance, which our maintenance crews and supply depots are already set up to support; has been around for awhile. Earlier versions of the Hawk are available for purchase as surplus. For example: Venga Aerospace (a could-have-been contender from the 1980's) entered into a partnership with ALINC engineering to lease 20 Hawk mk 66 aircraft which were being phased out of the Swiss Air Force inventory. These earlier version surplus Hawks would have been cheaper to lease (or buy) than trying to buy (from the British) any of the present CT-155's currently operating. Most of the current operating fleet were due for upgrade or replacement as of last year...would it be too expensive to keep 20 or so of the older models as a basis for a new Snowbirds squadron? Would buying surplus Hawks be more economical? Better question: would operating Hawks be less expensive in terms of fuel, parts, and Pilots?
One final note:
The Indian Air Force demonstration team faced a similar problem. 5 For about the last 15 years, the Surya Kiran team (Sun Rays) has been flying the HJT-16 trainer. This is a two seat, 1960's-era trainer that is at this point about 45 years old. Sound familiar? The HJT-16's were manufactured in India by Hindustani Aeronautics Limited. Got that? The Indians manufacture their own aircraft. Of course, having hostile neighbors does tend to loosen the purse strings when it comes to military spending.
The HJT-16 "Kiran"6 looks a lot like a Tutor...flies a lot like one too.
To replace them, HAL developed the HJT-36 "Sitara"7. The Sitara looks a lot like a BAE Hawk
...and probably flies a lot like one, too.
I wonder if they're going to sell them for export?