Crash shows it's time to ground the Snowbirds' aging Tutor jets, experts say

As an investigation into the crash of a Snowbird jet unfolds, some are calling for the permanent grounding of the iconic Tutor jets that have served the military aerobatics team for close to 50 years.

Sunday’s crash, which occurred just seconds after two side-by-side Snowbirds jets took off from a Kamloops, B.C. airport, killed public affairs officer Capt. Jennifer Casey and seriously injured pilot Capt. Richard MacDougall.

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.

Prior to Sunday's crash, seven pilots and one passenger had been killed in crashes involved the Tutor jets and several aircraft had been lost over the course of the Snowbirds' history.

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

Arthur Rosenberg, an aviation engineer and lawyer, says the jets should be taken out of service now.

He told CTV News Channel Monday from New York that the Snowbirds are an “absolutely spectacular” demonstration flight team, but “in my opinion, they do not belong flying these old planes anymore.”

“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,” he said.  

He says Sunday’s crash is similar to one in Georgia in October in which a Snowbirds pilot who ejected and walked away mostly uninjured reported engine failure. The plane crashed in an unpopulated area.

The Tutors have served a role as terrific training and acrobatic flight aircraft but “it’s time to move on” no matter how well they are maintained, says Rosenberg.

Dave McConney, a former aircraft technician with the Canadian Forces Air Command, agrees. He told CTVNews.ca via email that the Tutor jets “should have been retired a long time ago. I was in Air Command back in the ’80s and they were considered old and past retirement then.”

He says the Tutor “is considered one of if not the best trainer aircraft ever made in the world (military or civilian)” and that while the quality of workmanship of Canadian Forces personnel is world renowned, it is inevitable that metal eventually fatigues and breaks and parts wear out and fail.

McConney, who lives in Hamilton, Ont., says incidents increase as an airframe gets older and he fears that more accidents will happen if the Tutors are allowed to fly for another 10 years.

But aviation analyst Keith Mackey in Ocala, Fla. doesn’t believe the age of the plane is a factor.

“It has a very good reputation. The pilots love it,” he said of the Tutor on CTV News Channel Monday.

“Any airplane like that, even if it is old, if it is properly maintained, really is a serviceable aircraft. The age doesn’t affect it, as long as the maintenance is kept up. And I’m sure in the case of the Snowbirds, it is.”

Retired general Tom Lawson, who served as chief of defence staff from 2012 to 2015, says the Tutor is a “fantastic” aircraft.

He says he understands that questions about the Tutor’s safety are circulating, but Lawson, a former fighter pilot, says the planes are in good condition and have been well maintained.

David McNair, a former Transportation Safety Board investigator, says the video will play an important role in the investigation, along with the account of the pilot, whenever he is well enough to provide it.

He said along with determining a cause for the crash, investigators will be seeking to find out why both occupants didn’t survive, in order to make recommendations that may save lives in the future.

McNair says the Tutors are a beautiful, reliable aircraft and are well maintained.

“I’m sure the air force would not fly an unworthy aircraft,” he told CTV News Channel on Monday. He did point out that new pilots have not trained on the jet, so have to be retrained when they join the Snowbirds.

As well, he says takeoffs in formation mean pilots can’t do the kind of instrument scan that is possible when they are taking off on their own.

When asked about the future of the Snowbirds program, Lt.-Col. Mike French said it was not his job to speak on behalf of the Canadian Forces, but said he “certainly” hopes the Snowbirds will continue.

“As Canadian ambassadors, we demonstrate the skills, professionalism, and teamwork of the Canadian Forces and we serve as a platform for recruiting,” French said during a news conference on Monday. “It's a mission that I can get behind, it's a mission I believe in and it's a mission that I believe is important.”

The Snowbirds had been on a two-week tour of Canada called Operation Inspiration, which was meant to raise the spirits of a nation under pandemic restrictions.

The team was not performing at the time of the crash. They were scheduled to fly through the Okanagan Valley on Saturday, but that was changed. On Sunday, the team was heading to Comox and then was going to fly west to Vancouver Island.

‘PILOT’S WORST NIGHTMARE’

A number of experts say a video taken by a bystander at a Kamloops airport show there was a “pop” before the aircraft begins a rapid ascent.

“That pop is very significant and is usually a sign of what is called a flameout,” said Rosenberg, likening it to the sound a barbecue makes when it runs out of propane.

“The single jet engine basically stops working.”

McConney also believes MacDougall encountered engine failure.

“The flight of the aircraft was that of an aircraft that has lost power. That is a pilot’s worst nightmare when the engines fail on takeoff.”

Long-time pilot Ron Czick, who trained on the Tutor jet while serving in the military in the 1980s, said he has watched video of the crash and that he also hears a “pop” sound as the plane is leaving the airport.

“You’re always trained to go as high as possible so you can assess and then eject if you have to,” he told CTVNews.ca from his home in Montreal.

He thinks MacDougall may have been trying to return to the airport, but that the plane pulled up so quickly that it went into a “wing stall,” when the aircraft loses energy and the wings can’t generate the lift needed to maintain altitude.

That would cause the nose to drop, says Czick, who retired from the military in 1986 and has been flying private aircraft ever since.

After the jet rolls, Czick says it appears two seats eject from the plane, but since the aircraft was already in a rapid descent, the seats on the Tutor couldn’t compensate. He said today’s ejection seats are more sophisticated than what is in the Tutor and would be able to thrust an occupant further upward.

In this case, it doesn’t appear the parachutes were able to deploy quickly enough, says Czick.

Rosenberg says that the ejections happened at about the worst time, except if the plane had been upside down because it was spinning and horizontal.

“Really, it was miraculous that anybody survived this crash.”

The time between the stall of the plane and the ejections is about five seconds, says Brampton, Ont.-based aviation expert Phyl Durdey. According to the plane’s flight manual, at about a 3,100-foot-per-minute descent, which is about what is shown in the video, says Durdey, safe ejection needs to happen at about 155 feet above the ground.

“They needed substantially more altitude to safely eject,” he told CTV News Channel.

With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Ben Cousins

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