July 15, 2020

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Outdated aircraft should remain on ground

Editorial

It was designed as a cross-country tour to lift the spirits of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Operation Inspiration became a source of national sadness last Sunday when a Canadian Forces Snowbirds aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff in Kamloops, B.C., killing Capt. Jennifer Casey, a military public affairs officer, and seriously injuring Capt. Rich MacDougall, who was piloting the aircraft.

The tragedy — the aerobatics team’s second crash in less than a year — has prompted a national outpouring of grief and raised troubling questions about the safety of the Snowbirds’ 57-year-old Tutor jets, which had been targeted for retirement 10 years ago.

"I think there are very good questions being asked by a whole lot of people about safety," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged on Tuesday, "first and foremost by the (Royal Canadian Air Force), and there is going to be a proper investigation and we’re going to allow them to do their work before we make assumptions about what might be the outcome of that investigation."

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds over Brandon on May 5. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun)

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds over Brandon on May 5. (Tim Smith / The Brandon Sun)

With the planes approaching six decades in service, some experts argue the latest tragedy — the eighth fatal crash in the 50-year history of the Snowbirds — should be the swan song for the beloved aerobatics team.

The CT-114 Tutor jet has been a staple of the precision demonstration flight team since its founding in 1971. It also served as a training aircraft from 1963 until being retired from that role in the early 2000s.

The Tutors were set to retire in 2010, but that date was extended by 10 years, despite an internal 2003 report that warned of escalating technical, safety and financial risks and urged the fleet be replaced immediately.

The federal government has a plan to replace the Tutor jets between 2026 and 2035, at a cost of between $500 million and $1.5 billion. The upgrades are set to begin in 2022, but the Tutors are currently cleared to fly until 2030.

Snowbirds commander Lt.-Col. Mike French was quick to come to the defence of the aircraft, noting the Tutors are regularly torn down and rebuilt like new and undergo regular maintenance to ensure they are safe.

The CT–114 Tutor jet has been a staple of the precision demonstration flight team since its founding in 1971. It also served as a training aircraft from 1963 until being retired from that role in the early 2000s.

Not everyone agrees. Arthur Rosenberg, an aviation engineer and lawyer, told CTV News this week the jets should be taken out of service now.

"They’re a national treasure for Canada and to be flying around, with all due respect, in these putt-putts, is just not a good thing," Mr. Rosenberg said of the Snowbirds’ pilots. "In my opinion, they do not belong flying these old planes anymore."

The Snowbirds have rightly become a national icon as they race through the skies — flying up to 590 kilometres an hour, often with a separation between aircraft of 1.8 metres — at air shows and national celebrations, such as the Grey Cup game and Canada Day.

But it is vital to remember these are not professional entertainers or daredevils joyriding in the stratosphere for the amusement of adoring fans. The Snowbirds are Canadian service personnel who should not be asked to risk their lives in aircraft that increasingly appear to be past their best-before date.

The team is on an "operational pause" now, and that should continue until the cause of the crash is found. If mechanical failure is to blame, the team should remain grounded until the aging fleet is replaced.

The Snowbirds deserve to be admired for their spectacular skills and dedication, not because they are putting their lives on the line in antiquated aircraft.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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