To millions of Canadians and airshow fans around the world, Canada's Air Demonstration Squadron is known simply as "The Snowbirds."
For over 35 years, this highly professional team has been demonstrating its aerial magic across North American skies before annual audiences of three to five million spectators. They have been recognized for decades as among the best in the world at what they do, precision formation aerobatics combined with stunning solo crosses at minimum separation.
As aerial ambassadors for Canada, the Snowbirds have proudly flown the Canadian flag to every corner of the continent, from the far reaches of the Canadian north to the Gulf of Mexico. In doing so, they have become one of Canada's most enduring symbols of national pride.
Early History of 431 Squadron
During the Second World War, 431 Squadron first took to the skies in March 1943 as one of Canada's war time bomber squadrons.
The pilots and flight crews of 431 (Iroquois) Squadron, were initially authorized on November 11, 1942. They began operations with the Vickers Wellington bomber, a medium twin-engine aircraft and soon transitioned to the heavy bombers, first the Handley Page Halifax and then the Avro Lancaster.
Canadian and British bomber squadrons, including 431, operated mostly at night, at least until later in the war when Germany's air power began to collapse, then moving to day-time missions.
Whether at night or during the day, 431 Squadron bomber crews flew nearly every type of mission conceivable from laying mines to bombing gun emplacements, submarine pens, airfields, factories, railways and V-1 flying bomb sites.
Along with the variety of missions, came a high rate of risk. In all, 431 Squadron lost 72 aircraft and 490 members of its aircrew, including 313 killed, 36 missing and 104 captured. Along with aircrew, 14 of 431's non-operational personnel were killed as well.
After four years of war, 431 Squadron returned to Canada on June 11, 1945 to prepare for deployment to the Pacific Theatre as part of Tiger Force. But with the surrender of Japan on Sept 2, 1945, Iroquois squadron was instead disbanded three days later, on Sept 5, 1945.
Early Aerobatic Teams in Canada
On January 18, 1954, 431 Squadron was reformed and supplied with the Canadair F-86 Sabre jet fighters. During this time, a four-fighter aerobatic team was formed with its first performance held at the National Air Show in Toronto on June 12, 1954. These four F-86 fighters performed 10 shows between August 15 and September 11 from Vancouver to Toronto before over 500,000 Canadians.
The team also participated in Operation Prairie Pacific, which had been "designed to introduce western Canadians to jet operations in the RCAF." Despite the team's success and sudden popularity, 431 Squadron was again disbanded on October 1, 1954.
The Golden Hawks
However, Flying Officer Joseph (Fern) Villeneuve, who led the 431 aerobatic team, was chosen to lead another aerobatic team, the Golden Hawks, formed in 1959 to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the RCAF and the 50th anniversary of powered aviation. The Golden Hawks, flying six gold F-86 Sabres, performed until 1964.
The Snowbirds, along with the Golden Hawks, are only two of the historical Canadian air display teams, beginning in 1929 with creation of the Siskins; followed by the Blue Devils; Fireballs; RCAF Tigers; Sky Lancers; and Goldilocks. The Northern Lights Aerobatic Team, a civil Canadian team, also performed from 1994 to 2001.
The Golden Centennaires
Finally, the direct precursor to the Snowbirds, the Golden Centennaires, was created to celebrate Canada's Centennial in 1967. Led by Wing Commander Owen B. Philp DFC, CD, the Centennaires performed during the centennial year only, but in that time, the team, which featured eight Canadair CT-114 Tutors painted gold with dark blue and red trim, performed over 100 shows across Canada, including at the opening and closing ceremonies at Expo '67 in Montreal.
The Golden Centennaires' show also included a CF-101 Voodoo, a CF-104 Starfighter and two Avro 504K biplanes. The team was disbanded in 1967, and the planes were sent to CFB Moose Jaw, CFB Portage la Prairie and placed in storage in Ontario.
When Col. Owen Philp, who would become known as the founder of the Snowbirds, arrived at CFB Moose Jaw in 1969 as the new base commander, he noticed that a few of the CT-114's had white with red markings while the rest of the Tutors were unpainted. When he learned the red-and-white Tutors were the former Golden Centennaires planes, painted because of minor rust issues on the fuselages, Philp saw an opportunity to create a new aerobatic team.
Philp started small, with flypasts at Saskatchewan Roughriders home games. He then decided that flight instructors needed more practice flying formation, and in the summer of 1970, a four-plane team, known as 2 CFFTS (Canadian Forces Flight Training School) Formation Team, flying the unpainted aluminum Tutors, began performing at local events. The first time one of the red-and-white Tutors—a former Golden Centennaire—appeared leading the formation was in July 1970.
The first appearance of four white planes took place at the Abbotsford Air Show before 134,000 spectators. By 1971, the team had been expanded from four to seven white, red-trimmed Tutors. The team performed 25 shows in 1971, including one in Phoenix, Arizona.
With the team's growing popularity, it was time for a new name. The team held a contest and the winning name, suggested by Douglas Farmer, a 12-year-old boy whose father served at CFB Moose Jaw as the padre, was the "Snowbirds".
As Major-General (retired) Glen Younghusband, who was chosen by Col. Philp to lead the Snowbirds, wrote:
"Snowbird was the title of an Anne Murray hit which was popular at the time. It fit well with the white aircraft flown by the team, had an association with Canada and suggested something with grace and beauty."
While success and fame came quickly for the Snowbirds, there was a constant struggle for survival in the formative years as the team competed for funds within a tight military budget. That the team was able to survive and prosper was due in no small measure to the outstanding public relations that the team members generated on behalf of the Canadian Forces.
While pilots and air crew were doing their part to ensure the future of the Snowbirds, senior officers of the Canadian Forces were working behind the scenes to extol the virtues of a national aerobatic team to senior leaders in the Department of National Defence and politicians at all levels.
On April 1, 1978, the Snowbirds finally achieved their goal, and were granted full-fledged squadron status as the "431 Air Demonstration Squadron." The Snowbirds performed their first show as a formal squadron on April 28, 1978 at Royal Roads Military College in Victoria, BC.
Queen's Colours In October 1999, 431 Squadron received its Queen's Colours, denoting 25 years of active service, first as a World War II bomber squadron, then as an F-86 Sabre demonstration team in 1954 and finally as the Snowbirds.
The team performed its 1,000th show at CFB Edmonton on May 20, 1990 and its 2,000th show at the Reno Air Races in Nevada on September 17, 2005, the same year the team celebrated its 35th anniversary.
On August 29, 2015 the Snowbirds performed their 2,500th airshow at Drummondville, Quebec, during the 45th anniversary year of the Squadrons founding.
Since its inception, all members of the Snowbird team have been volunteers who have earned the privilege of representing the Canadian Forces and Canada for a two to three-year tour of duty. The Snowbirds boast the smallest complement of personnel among the world's six premier jet aerobatic teams, largely because they fly a very economical aircraft which does not necessitate dedicated support aircraft and additional maintenance personnel.
The "Warriors of the Air," are today one of Canada's best-known ambassadors, performing annually for millions of spectators. The skill and professionalism of the team—pilots, ground crew and other personnel—has made it one of the top aerobatic teams in the world and a fitting tribute to the air crew of 431 Bomber Squadron, who sacrificed so much in defence of our freedom during the Second World War.
Formation flying is not without its dangers since flying by its very nature has an inherent element of risk. Since its inception ten members of the Snowbirds team have been killed during performances or training flights, while another member, Capt. Wes Mackay, was killed in a vehicle accident.
The following members of the Snowbirds have died while serving with the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron:
- Capt. Lloyd Waterer, 10 June 1972
- Capt. Gord de Jong, 3 May 1978
- Capt. Wes Mackay, 25 Sept 1988
- Capt. Shane Antaya, 3 Sept 1989
- Capt. Michael VandenBos, 10 Dec 1998
- Capt. Miles Selby, 8 Nov 2004
- Capt. Shawn McCaughey, 18 May 2007
- Capt. Bryan Mitchell, 9 Oct 2008
- Sgt. Charles Senecal, 9 Oct 2008
- Capt. Jennifer Casey, 17 May 2020