SAULT STE. MARIE — Many Canadians have gaped with awe, whether from the ground at air shows or on television, video or online, at the skilful manoeuvres of the Snowbirds, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aerobatics team.
St. Joseph Island residents are proud that one of their own, Captain Patrice Powis-Clement of Richards Landing, is the respected squadron’s newest pilot, joining the aerobatics team in September 2020.
“It’s a pretty big honour,” Powis-Clement said, speaking to SooToday from CFB Comox in a recent interview.
It has, and continues to be, a challenging time for the Snowbirds.
Captain Jennifer Casey, the squadron’s public affairs officer, died when the Snowbirds Tutor jet she was flying in crashed shortly after takeoff May 17, 2020 in Kamloops, BC.
And, beginning in 2020, COVID-19 has delayed or cancelled so many events, including air shows.
Nevertheless, the Snowbirds have their 2021 air show schedule posted online and are rehearsing their aerial manoeuvres for those shows as they normally would.
“With regards to air shows, there are a lot of air shows planned this summer,” Powis-Clement said.
“The worst thing that we could have done this year is not plan like we normally do. From day one, when I showed up (as a new Snowbirds member), we’ve been planning like it’s a normal year with regards to our attendance at air shows. Whether or not that happens, we’ll see when we get to that point, but we didn’t want to be caught unprepared when it’s time for those air shows.”
The team, officially known as the RCAF 431 Air Demonstration Squadron and based in Moose Jaw, is currently in spring training prior to air show season.
“We’re honing our skills and improving on every flight so we’re ‘show ready’ in June,” Powis-Clement said.
How does a RCAF pilot become a member of one of the most respected aerobatics teams in the world?
“You apply for a try out. You submit your name, they look at your background, how many flight hours you have, then you have a try out,” Powis-Clement said.
“(After basic training on the CT-114 Tutor jet the Snowbirds use) there’s two to four weeks of flying the Tutor in formation. It’s a real eye opening experience.”
“After the try outs, which are quite stressful, you realize what’s needed to be a Snowbird. It is a great honour being on the team, but I remember when I first heard I was going to be on the team, I thought there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get to the point where we can fly air shows,” Powis-Clement said.
“The progress we’ve made as a team, it’s pretty surprising how fast everything gets put together. We came to Comox a couple of days ago and we’re doing our full ‘high show,’ because that’s the highest altitude we fly on our manoeuvres, to be flown in the best weather conditions.”
Being a Snowbird is not a 9-to-5 job.
“It’s not like we go up there and fly then walk away for the day. There are briefings beforehand and afterwards. Our practices and our shows are videotaped. We come back to the ground and scrutinize ourselves so we can improve on the next flight. It is a lot of work,” Powis-Clement said.
There is an element of danger when flying any aircraft in any circumstances, but Snowbirds jets fly at high speeds, sometimes within a mere two metres of each other in rehearsals and air shows.
That, of course, requires not only skill but absolute concentration.
But Powis-Clement said he has taken it all in calm, cool, collected RCAF stride.
“Flying any plane, there’s a high degree of alertness you need.”
“You go from a small airplane like a Cessna and move up to bigger and faster things, and with each step along that way, you need to know more and think faster, and then when you put formation flying into it, not only are you worried about your own plane and what’s going on inside the cockpit and outside, but in our case eight other planes around you that you have to be aware of,” Powis-Clement said.
“It sounds like it’s almost insurmountable to do the kind of stuff that we do, but one of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve started is it’s all about reputation. Anybody who does a major league sport or plays a musical instrument to a high level, it’s all about practice. We all start out with the basics and we move up to doing a full show.”
From being a child on St. Joseph Island to being a Snowbird pilot, how did the captain’s journey evolve?
Powis-Clement, 31, attended Saint Joseph Island Public School, then Central Algoma Secondary School (CASS).
“I know from a very early age we were right underneath the flight path of all the airplanes coming from Toronto to the Sault Airport (Powis-Clement is a keen observer from the ground). The first air show I went to was in North Bay...flight has always been something that I’ve been interested in.”
He joined the 696 Royal Canadian Air Cadets, based in Blind River, when he was 12.
“What that did for me was give me the opportunity to get involved with the flying they had to offer. They have a gliding program. Twice a year we would go gliding in North Bay, so that gave me more exposure to flight.”
He earned his glider licence through the cadets at 16, later becoming a glider instructor as a senior cadet.
He is a graduate of Sault College’s aviation program.
“I remember being a passenger on flights, on a glider or a small single engine aircraft, and the perspective it gives you on just being above the ground, it’s just a cool feeling,” Powis-Clement said when asked to describe what flight means to him.
“But then, to be in control of the aircraft, I remember some of my very first glider trips that I did and I thought ‘wow, this is a totally different experience,’ being able to control this machine in the air.”
“From that point on, I knew that I wanted to fly as much as possible, to be in control of an aircraft.”
After Sault College he enrolled in the military and was accepted by Royal Military College in Kingston, his eyes set on becoming an officer.
Upon joining the RCAF, he was stationed in Moose Jaw in March 2015 for basic flight training, officially getting his wings in May 2016.
He soon started instructing other pilots before eventually being selected to join the Snowbirds squadron.
Powis-Clement said being a Snowbird usually consists of a three to four year tour.
For young people interested in a career in aviation, Powis-Clement advised “take advantage of those opportunities that are out there (such as air cadets). As long as you work hard and you’re dedicated to learning how to fly, almost anybody can do it.”
“Everybody’s super proud,” said Powis-Clement of his St. Joseph Island family, adding he gets home for Christmas every year (more often than that, if he can).
“It’s a very, very nice place. I’m very proud to have come from there.”