Canadian Forces Snowbirds stop training, cancel appearances due to COVID-19

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds fly in Silver Dart formation over the Strait of Georgia while training at 19 Wing Comox. (Department of National Defence/Sgt Robert Bottrill)

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the country's military flight demonstration team, have cancelled training and airshow appearances and will not return to Vancouver Island this spring, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The aerobatic team, known officially as the Royal Canadian Air Force's 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, has ceased training at 15 Wing Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan and cancelled its annual migration to B.C. in May.

The coming months were meant to signal a triumphant return for the squadron as it celebrates its 50th anniversary on the heels of a crash that temporarily grounded the planes late last year.

But the team has already cancelled a handful of airshow appearances due to the delays in training, according to the Department of National Defence. 

"Due to ongoing travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and other training considerations, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds will not be training at 19 Wing Comox in May 2020 as originally planned," said Snowbirds commander Lt.-Colonel Mike French in a video statement published online Tuesday.

"The health and safety of all Canadians is paramount right now. The team is currently taking a pause from flying at our home base of 15 Wing Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan in order to maintain social distancing practices."

French said the training halt "will definitely affect" the squadron's busy summer and fall airshow season, but said "at this time the full effects are not clear."

Department of National Defence spokesperson Capt. Jenn Casey said the department is "assessing day by day" the future of the squadron's 2020 operations.

A handful of appearances for the team's 50th anniversary season have now been cancelled, including the squadron's opening date on June 6 in Michigan, Casey said. 

The Snowbirds were scheduled to fly in more than 30 locations across North America this year, with the final date scheduled for Oct. 11 in Texas.

The team's winter training was already delayed by a month due to an investigation into a crash near Atlanta in October. A Snowbirds pilot sustained minor injuries after he was forced to eject from one of the team's famous Tutor aircraft before it slammed into a farmer's field.

The military has insisted the 57-year-old Tutors are safe, despite their age.

“I have complete confidence in the Tutor aircraft," said Lt.-Colonel Denis Bandet, acting commanding officer and former team lead of the Snowbirds, in December.

"Our maintainers are world-class and take meticulous care of our fleet and the Royal Canadian Air Force has a robust risk assessment process to ensure we conduct operations in as safe a manner as possible.”