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Sky wizards

Legendary daredevil Snowbird troupe drops by for series of flybys

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Three hundred metres in the air.

Six hundred kilometres per hour.

Just 1.2 metres of space between your jet's nose and the tail of the jet in front of you.

That's an average day at work for Capt. Gregg Wiebe, pilot of Snowbird 4 on the Canadian Forces Snowbirds Demonstration Team.

Wiebe, who grew up in Kenora, Ont., took to the skies north of Winnipeg with his teammates Saturday to impress and/or strike fear into some civilian passengers along for the ride.

The team is here on a stopover as it heads to Ontario to begin its regular air-show season. The Snowbirds will perform in Kenora July 1.

They'll give Manitobans a sneak peek today, though, as they do flybys of The Forks, Oakbank, Birds Hill, Beausejour, Anola, Ste Anne, Steinbach, Morris, La Salle and Carman, starting at 2 p.m.

There is a little bit of magic in the Snowbirds' show. But it's not the patterns they make in the sky with their trailing smoke. It's the illusion of danger.

"The word 'dangerous' doesn't enter into our vocabulary," Wiebe said.

"Every manoeuvre we're going to do, we put a risk factor on it. And if the risk factor becomes too great, then we don't do that manoeuvre."

But if you've seen a Snowbirds show from the ground, you know that 1.2-metre gap between planes seems like only millimetres.

"Well, I guess it is a little bit like a trick."

There are no illusions about the effort Wiebe and his elite teammates put into training for up to 60 performances across North America they plan to put on this summer.

Each year, the team trains from November to May for at least three different routines tailor-made for a variety of weather conditions. Then, air-show season keeps them busy from May to October.

Wiebe, who started out as a helicopter pilot when he joined the Canadian Forces in 1982, first caught the flying bug watching float planes on Lake of the Woods as a child. Now he has logged 8,000 hours of military flying.

At age 51, Wiebe is the oldest member of the team and plans to retire soon. He's been with the Snowbirds since 2004 and part of the show team for two years.

"This is a great way to finish it up -- with one of the best flying jobs in the world."

Like every Snowbird pilot, Wiebe has a call sign bestowed upon him by the team: Abe.

He likes to think it represents Abraham Lincoln. But the inspiration is actually Abe Simpson -- Homer Simpson's elderly father.

If you see the Snowbirds up in the sky today, be sure to wave to Abe. He'll be the one in the middle of the diamond formation -- the one with a plane just 1.2 metres in front of his nose.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2013 A4

History

Updated on Sunday, May 26, 2013 at 10:20 AM CDT: Added Kenora date.

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