The first two of 10 Canadian Forces Snowbirds CT-114 Tutor jets grounded at Kamloops Airport were flown home to Moose Jaw on Tuesday morning.
Once back at base, the jets will be used to train other pilots in order to retrieve the remaining eight planes in about two weeks.
The jets have been grounded since a May 17 crash in Kamloops claimed the life of Capt. Jennifer Casey and injured the pilot, Capt. Richard MacDougall.
Speaking to reporters on the tarmac of Kamloops Airport before takeoff on Tuesday, Lt.-Col. Denis Bandet, the Snowbirds’ commanding officer, said the departure marked the beginning of the squadron moving forward with pilot and technician training for 2021.
The Royal Canadian Air Force has had a team of engineers examine the planes in preparation for their return home, Bandet said.
“We took the time to sit back and look at everything through a microscope,” he said.
“We went through every bit of systems on the airplanes, from the motors to the avionics to the structures, to make sure that everything we’re doing with the airplane is proper and ready to go ahead.”
Bandet said that process took time, which is why the jets have remained at the airport for the past three months.
“We’re happy at this point we’ve assessed the risk and that we have every confidence in the Tutor moving forward. I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t have the confidence in the airplane to get in,” Bandet said.
Bandet and Capt. Logan Reid flew the two jets out of Kamloops on Tuesday.
Capt. Alexandra Hejduk, public affairs officer with 19 Wing Comox, said the two jets will be used to train other pilots who require more flying time.
As the jets have sat for more than 90 days, additional flying time amongst the pilots is needed to get their currencies up, so permission was granted from Second Canadian Air Division commander Brig.-Gen. Denis O’Reilly to fly a minimal number of the jets to home base in Moose Jaw for training, Hejduk said.
She said those eight pilots will be in Kamloops within two weeks to fly the other eight jets to Saskatchewan .There will be a public service announcement issued at that time for their departure, but the RCAF has asked that members of the public refrain from visiting the airport to see the jets leave due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Bandet said they are excited to get back in the air and he hopes for an eventual return to normalcy reminiscent of the demonstration squadron’s operations in the past.
“On behalf of the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Armed Forces, 431 Air Demonstration Squadron and 15 Wing Moose Jaw, I want to extend my thanks to the community of Kamloops, the residents of Brocklehurst and the First Nations community,” Bandet said. “The outpouring of support has been outstanding and we felt it resonate all the way back to Moose Jaw — and it’s helped us get through this difficult period.”
On May 17, a CT-114 Tutor Snowbirds jet leaving Kamloops Airport en route to its next stop on the cross-Canada Operation Inspiration tour crashed into a Brocklehurst neighbourhood, killing military public affairs officer Casey and injuring pilot MacDougall.
The entire fleet was then grounded pending a probe into the crash.
In June, the RCAF released a preliminary report, confirming it is exploring a bird strike as the possible cause of the crash. Video footage of the accident showed a bird in very close proximity to the plane’s right engine as it was taking off.
“The investigation is focusing on environmental factors [birdstrike] as well as the performance of the escape system,” the report stated.
In August, the fleet’s operational pause was lifted, with some flying restrictions, clearing the way for the planes to be flown back to base, though the investigation into the crash continues.
In the past few weeks, maintenance crews have been in Kamloops, ensuring the Snowbirds jets are ready to fly when the decision to take them back to Saskatchewan was made. Members of that crew recently spent a day of team bonding at the disc golf course on McArthur Island (that story is online at kamloopsthisweek.com).