‘You kind of have to pinch yourself’: Snowbird pilot living the dream

As hundreds upon hundreds of wide-eyed spectators looked to the skies during Wednesday’s Rotary Air Show, a question came to their minds: What’s it like up there?

Cpt. Matthew Hart knows the answer. As one of nine Canadian Forces Snowbirds jet pilots performing in the show, he’s in awe of his good fortune.

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“You kind of have to pinch yourself every day because it’s a dream job that everybody on the team dreamt of doing pretty well their entire lives,” said Hart prior to Wednesday’s much-anticipated Flin Flon show. “Most of the guys either joined the air force to be a Snowbird or just loved what the Snowbirds represented as far as serving Canada and representing Canada, and just wanted to be a part of that.

“For a lot of us it’s taken at least 10 years of air force training and air force flying to get to where we are, so it’s a magical feeling, really, being part of a team like that, representing Canada, representing the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Armed Forces. Being able to demonstrate the skill, professionalism and teamwork of the military and just make Canadians happy is a pretty amazing experience.”

Spectators of Wednesday’s 45-minute-or-so show agreed it was an amazing experience. But still, some wondered amid all those gravity-defying twists and twirls above the Flin Flon Municipal Airport, are the pilots scared up there?

“I wouldn’t say scared,” said Hart, answering only for himself. “During my first year [2014], when things were very new and I was still on a very steep learning curve, I would say there were times I was nervous, especially during days where it’s windy or bumpy or things like that, where the conditions are a little more challenging, and some show sites as well can be challenging. … But I still try to stay super sharp, super focused. You have to. It’s a very, very intense job. But I wouldn’t say I’m as nervous as I used to be during my first year.”

Hart stressed the health aspect of being a Snowbird pilot. Most of the pilots wake up in the morning and take in a light workout. They are also disciplined eaters who take care to stay hydrated.

In terms of preparation, he said the pilots spend about 90 minutes planning out and visualizing each performance. Throughout the show, they are in continuous radio contact.

Wednesday was something of a homecoming for Hart, who began his career as a pilot for Jackson Air Services, formerly based near Channing, in 2005. He does not have operational experience with the air force overseas, though he said four of the other Snowbirds pilots do.

The glossy white, blue and red Snowbirds planes were originally used to train pilots who would then graduate to actual fighter jets. Up close, the planes cut a sleek figure. While they lack the bells and whistles of more modern training aircraft, the 50-year-plus units look like they could have come right off the assembly line.

In addition to nine Snowbirds, Wednesday’s show gave spectators a look at the prized CF-18 Hornet fighter jet, a demonstration aircraft as impressive as it is intimidating.

Maj. Indira Thackorie, public relations officer with the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-based Snowbirds, landed at Flin Flon Municipal Airport early Wednesday afternoon.

Thackorie described  Snowbirds performances – held across Canada and the US every Wednesday and weekend as spring and summer weather permits – as outreach efforts that include on-the-ground interaction with the public.

“That’s the really the goal of all of this, is to showcase the men and women of the Canadian Forces and what they’re doing out there domestically and internationally,” she said.

“In order for Canadians to be proud of their military, they have to see us, and typically you don’t tend to see us out there doing domestic [work]. I mean, unless it’s a flood and we’re sandbagging, it’s difficult for people to have that one-on-one interaction with the military.”

Wearing a red flight suit and dark sunglasses, Thackorie noted that Snowbirds shows are typically booked up to two years in advance. 

She was pleased that the pilots made Flin Flon one of their stops this summer.

“For us to be able to come to smaller locations like Flin Flon, it’s incredible, it’s amazing, because we get to reach a community that we wouldn’t normally get to go to,” she said.

Thackorie said Snowbirds shows are all the more rewarding when they benefit community projects. The Rotary Club of Flin Flon, hosts of Wednesday’s show, will put proceeds from the event toward the new Flin Flon General Hospital ER.

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