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Military lifts order grounding Snowbirds team, some restrictions still in place

OTTAWA — Canadians can expect to see a different Snowbirds show next year — including fewer low-level and low-speed manoeuvres — as the military is placing new restrictions on its famed aerobatics team following two crashes in less than a year.

OTTAWA — Canadians can expect to see a different Snowbirds show next year — including fewer low-level and low-speed manoeuvres — as the military is placing new restrictions on its famed aerobatics team following two crashes in less than a year.

The restrictions were revealed Monday as the Royal Canadian Air Force announced the Snowbirds' iconic Tutor jets were allowed back into the air after being grounded for more than three months following a deadly crash in British Columbia.

It's believed the plane went down after striking a bird shortly after takeoff from Kamloops on May 17. Capt. Jennifer Casey, the team's public affairs officer, was killed after trying to eject, while the pilot, Capt. Richard MacDougall, sustained serious injuries.

The crash was the second in less than eight months after another Tutor went down in the U.S. state of Georgia in October. A flight investigation found a problem with the plane's fuel-delivery system and flagged concerns with the ejection system.

A report released in June found that the ejection seat got tangled with the pilot's parachute as he tried to escape. The pilot sustained minor injuries.

Similar concerns about the ejection system were raised by investigators after the Kamloops crash, which remains under investigation.

Col. Ron Walker, commander of the Snowbirds' home base in Saskatchewan, 15 Wing Moose Jaw, said the Tutors have remained in Kamloops as investigators have pored over the causes of the two crashes and worked to ensure the planes are safe to fly.

Yet while the lifting of the grounding order means they can now be flown back to Moose Jaw, Walker said it could actually take a couple of weeks for them to return. That is because the pilots have to be recertified to fly the planes.

While such recertification is required and usually completed each year, Walker said that "because the pause has been so long, most of the qualifications and currency that the pilots have has lapsed."

"So we're going through a special process — a bit unprecedented, frankly — to recertify the pilots," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

Even after the Tutors are back, there are no plans for aerobatics shows this year. The Snowbirds cancelled their demonstration season earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, Walker indicated the team will start looking to next season.

That season is likely to look different for the Snowbirds and spectators, as Walker said there will be new restrictions on the Tutors' minimum flying height and speed are following a detailed risk assessment that was launched because of the two crashes.

"We've looked at the whole flying show and some of the manoeuvres, and that review is still underway," he said.

"But you'll probably see a bit of a different show next year, where we'll avoid some low and slow-flying manoeuvres, if you will, to allow in the event of another bird strike, for example, to be able to have more time to react."

There are also new rules on the minimum length of runway from which the Snowbirds will fly, which Walker acknowledged could prevent the team from participating in some communities' air shows.

Walker could not say how long the restrictions would be in place, including whether they might remain until the Tutor fleet, which is more than 55 years old, is replaced.

The Air Force is also ordering additional maintenance and preventive measures on the Tutors, including special engine inspections before flights are allowed to resume. And it is replacing the engines on three out of 23 of the planes.

"We determined there were some engines that had high amounts of flying hours on them," Walker said. "So those are being replaced. And there's a few additional preventative measures that are being implemented on the technical side or the maintenance side."

While the restrictions aim to give pilots more time to react, they do not address the concerns raised about the Tutors' ejection seats, which a military report in 2016 recommended should be upgraded.

The Department of National Defence has said it is in the early stages of assessing ways to upgrade the ejection system as part of an overall refit of the Tutor fleet to keep it flying through 2030.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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