Whither the Snowbirds?
|No... Not that.|
It would seem that the CF-18 is not the only RCAF asset that is being tasked with flying past its prime. (Unlike the wonderful and evergreen Anne Murray)
|There ya go.|
Recent news reports have stated that the RCAF's fabled demonstration team will likely continue flying the venerable CT-114 Tutor until the year 2030. This would put the 60's era jet trainers approaching their 70th birthday by the time they retire. Not as a design, but as actual 70-year-old airframes, as the last Tutor was built in 1966. Even now, the Snowbirds can be considered ancient artifacts (apologies to any of my readers over the age of 50).
There is no shame in this, as the CT-114 Tutor has outlasted the CF-101 Voodoo, and is well on track to outlasting the CF-18 as well.
Indeed, the 431 Demonstration Squadron could be considered a "Heritage Flight". As Professor Jones would say:
From 1961 to 2000, the CT-114 Tutor served as the jet trainer for the RCAF. In 1967, ten CT-114s were adapted into the Golden Centennaires demonstration team in order to celebrate Canada's golden centennial.
The Tutor ended up being a fantastic choice for a demonstration team. Its small size, agility, and forgiving nature allowed it to perform maneuvers that larger aircraft (like the ill-fated F-105 of the Thunderbirds) simply could not. Best of all, it is a Canadian-made and designed aircraft. This makes it a perfect fit.
|CT-114 in "Golden Centennaire" livery.|
The sad thing is, there is no obvious replacement for the Tutor.
Since 2000, the CT-114's pilot training duties have been passed on to the CT-156 Harvard II (aka: T-6 Texan II) and the CT-115 Hawk. Either of these aircraft would make a serviceable replacement for the Tutor as both are currently used in air demonstration teams. The BAE Hawk is currently in use by the RAF's Red Arrows while the T-6 Texan II is in use by Greece's HAF "Daedalus" demo team.
There is one small problem here, however...
The RCAF does not actually own any Harvard IIs or Hawks. Both aircraft types are leased. Not that this would preclude either from performing Snowbird duty, it just does not seem right.
There is always the option of disbanding the Snowbirds altogether, but that would be a very sad day for the RCAF and Canadians as a whole.
Canada and the RCAF have a proud legacy of producing some of the world's greatest aviators. Not only does a air demo team wow the crowds and encourage enlistment, but it pays tribute to Canada's rich history of producing the likes of Billy Bishop and Chris Hadfield.
|CT-156 Harvard II|
The CT-156 Harvard II would likely be the more economical choice, short of disbanding the Snowbirds altogether. Built by Beechcraft (now Raytheon) and maintained by Bombardier, the Harvard II serves as the RCAF's basic pilot trainer. As such, any RCAF pilot, whether it be C-17, CF-18, or even CH-146 Griffon helicopter pilot should be familiar. The Harvard II is also roughly the same size as the Tutor.
Ostensibly a American T-6 Texan II, which itself is based on the Swiss Pilatus PC-9, the Harvard II would likely be seen as a step down from the Tutor, however. While a turboprop is still technically a jet engine, there would be a loss in performance and prestige compared to the CT-114. Even the privately owned Patriots air demonstration team flies the turbofan-powered L-39 Albatross.
The BAE CT-155 Hawk would seem to be a more obvious choice. Already in use by the RAF's Red Arrows demo team, the Hawk has seen use worldwide both as a trainer and a light fighter/attack aircraft. It has even been modified for carrier landings by the USN, becoming the T-45 Goshawk.
The Hawk is bigger, heavier, faster, and more powerful than the venerable Tutor. While such an upgrade is usually welcome in most military aircraft, this is not always the best case for demonstration teams. Undoubtedly, some of the maneuvers currently employed by the Snowbirds would have to be modified, if not abandoned with the adoption of the Hawk.
|Textron AirLand Scorpion|
Another option would be to acquire an entirely new aircraft, possibly the Textron AirLand Scorpion, or similar. Ideally, this would replace both the CT-114 Tutor and (eventually) the CT-155 Hawk. The Hawk is, after all, a 1970s design.
Purchasing an all-new design could result in an attractive offset deal, possibly resulting in adoption of an aircraft that is built in (if not designed) Canada. This would not only pay homage to Canada's aviators, but Canada's aerospace industry as well.
Depending on the timeline, budget, and performance requirements; Canada may be able to adopt the winning T-X design. An offset deal that includes Canadian firms participating in T-X manufacturing (similar to the JSF program) would likely be a boon to both the RCAF and the Canadian aerospace industry as the T-X will likely see worldwide sales.
There is one last option...
|The RCAF's CF-18 Demonstration Team's 2016 livery.|
For several years now, the Snowbirds have flown alongside a CF-18 Demonstration Team that performs a solo acrobatic performance. This requires two aircraft (one as a backup) plus the usual crew.
This begs the obvious question: Why not amalgamate the two demonstration teams?
This would, of course, put the Snowbirds in whatever high performance fighter jet that replaces the CF-18, be it F-35, Super Hornet, Gripen, Typhoon, or Rafale. This would put the Snowbirds more on par with their American counterparts; the USAF Thunderbirds and the USN Blue Angels.
Operating costs for the Typhoon, and Rafale would likely prohibit their use a team demonstration aircraft. Even their originating nations do not use them as such, preferring to use the BAE Hawk or Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet. The Blue Angels intend to replace their aging Hornets with Super Hornets in the future (a move that does bring up questions) rather than the F-35C. Whether or not the Thunderbirds will transition to the F-35A or T-X remains to be seen (the Thunderbirds recently transitioned to Block 52 F-16C/Ds, so there is no rush).
Given its low operating cost, the Saab Gripen could be the only potential CF-18 replacement fiscally capable of Snowbird duty. Even then, numbers would likely need to to be cut. Oddly enough, the Gripen is not used by any air force demonstration team. Not even Swedish Air Force's (Flygvapnet) Team 60. This could be explained by the fact that Team 60 is more of an ad hoc demo team comprising of senior flight instructors instead of full-time demo pilots. Flygvapnet does provide a thrilling solo Gripen performance, however.
Imagine five of these.
While the current plan may be to keep the Snowbirds flying the CT-114 Tutor until 2030, that may end up changing. The government webpage on the replacement is quite vague, stating a cost estimate of "$500 million to $1.5 billion" and "may also be linked to the solution for Future Pilot Training, which is due to replace NATO Flying Training in Canada in the 2020 period".
That sounds as if any and all options may be on the table, with a likely possibility being whatever replaces the currently leased Harvard IIs and/or Hawks... Which could simply be more of the same.
Let us hope the Snowbirds are here to stay, and that they do not "spread their tiny wings and fly away".