Flying with the snowbirds

By Ryn Gargulinski: QCS

Canadian Snowbird pilot Maj. Cory Blakely said his fondest air show memory is not dipping or flipping or diving high speed, but a moment in Reno, Nev., two weeks ago, when he was signing autographs after the performance and a little boy grabbed his arm.

“He hugged my arm like a teddy bear,” Blakely said, adding his parents happened to be in from Edmonton, Alberta, to watch the show and it brought a tear to his mother’s eye.

Blakely said he knows how much flying can mean to a kid. After all, he said he’s been fascinated with the wild blue yonder himself since he was old enough to point at an airplane. In fact, he said he met his wife when they were kids in the Air Cadets, a Canadian program for young adults to foster interest in the air industry.

And foster it did. As with the rest of the Snowbird team who will be headlining today’s 13th annual Rotary Air Show, Blakely comes with years of military flying experience. He joined the Canadian Forces in 1990, received a diploma in Aviation Science from Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, in 1991 and got his wings in 1994. He came to the team two years ago with experience as a combat support pilot, more than 450 instructional training hours and more than 2,850 hours of military flying experience.

When he does land home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, during the six-month touring season, it’s usually for maintenance stops, he said, and very brief visits with his family. They come to him when they can, as his wife and daughter share his joy of the sky.

He said his wife is on the business end of an air career and his daughter is longing to follow in his wing span — sort of.
“She wants to be a pilot or a ballerina,” Blakely said of the 7-year-old, agreeing the two careers are not as far apart as they may seem. After all, air show chairman Bob McClelland did refer to the Snowbirds as performing aerial ballet.

Although it may look easy, a week in the life of the top-rated Canadian team involves the same thing that gets one to New York’s Carnegie Hall — practice.

“We have Mondays off,” Blakely said. “On Tuesdays we’re doing a transfer to the weekday show where we practice and then perform on Wednesday. Thursday we transfer again to the weekend show and practice on Friday. Saturday and Sunday we do the show, review and practice for the next one.”

Blakely also said they go through each show on the ground to practice radio transmission prior to performance and watch a videotape afterward.

“We go through every moment chronologically,” Blakely said. “It helps us improve.”

Although he may be without his family during the Snowbird’s six months of touring, Blakely is never alone. One cannot forget his fellow pilots and the other integral members of the Snowbird team — not to mention the audience.

“When I’m one on one in the autograph line, I see the motivation and inspiration in the kids’ eyes,” Blakely said, adding the air show is not just about entertainment but also about demonstrating to the youth what they can aspire to do.

Snowbirds Public Affairs Officer Lt. (Navy) Petra Smith said she also enjoys the wide array of spectators. “Since I’m not in the air, I get to see how the crowd reacts to the show. It’s great just being able to meet everyone (in each location).
“Tucumcari has been wonderful. I want to stress how grateful we are to be here, especially since we came earlier than expected due to the weather. The reception has been phenomenal and the landscape here is beautiful.”

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Thirteenth annual Rotary Air Show
When: Gates open at 10 a.m.; show starts at noon
Where: Tucumcari Municipal Airport
Tickets: $10 for adults; $5 for kids

Meet the Snowbirds

Snowbird No. 1: Maj. Ian Mclean, 43, from London, Ontario, first year as team lead. Flew with Snowbirds in late 1990s, flew in exchange program in England where he was sent to Saudi Arabia in response to Sept. 11, amassed more than 5,100 flying hours.

Snowbird No. 2: Capt. Paul Couillard, 36, from Montreal, third year with the team. Brings helicopter experience in Nova Scotia and more than 3,650 flying hours.

Snowbird No. 3: Maj. Cory Blakely, 35, from Edmonton, Alberta, second year with the team. Experience as combat support pilot, said his favorite aspect of flying is being in control.

Snowbird No. 4: Capt. David Boudreau, 37, from Dalhousie, New Brunswick, first year with the team. Brings more than 5,200 hours military flying including time on a maritime patrol in British Columbia.

Snowbird No. 5: Maj. Chris Hope, 40, from Blenheim, Ontario, third year with the team. Held instructional positions in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has more than 5,550 flying hours.

Snowbird No. 6: Capt. Patrick Gobeil, 30, from Ville de la Baie, Quebec, second year with the team. First obtained commercial license before joining the military in 1997; more than 2,650 hours flying for military and civilian.

Snowbird No. 7: Capt. Mike French, 32, from Langley, British Columbia, first year with the team. Participated in numerous NORAD and NATO exercises following Sept. 11; brings more than 2,900 military flying hours.

Snowbird No. 8: Capt. Andrew Mackay, 39, from Orleans, Ontario, fourth year with the team. Spent helicopter time as a rescue pilot, amassed more than 4,800 hours of military flying.

Snowbird No. 9: Capt. Chuck Mallett, 35, from Edmonton, Alberta, third year with the team. Helped pilots with transition to new Canadian training aircraft, brings more than 3,350 flying hours.

Snowbird No. 10: Capt. Tery Lebel, 47, from Montreal, first year with the team. Team coordinator for 2005 Snowbirds, brings more than 5,500 military flying hours.

Snowbird No. 11: Capt. Gavin Crouch, 29, from Comox, British Columbia, second year with the team. Team coordinator with more than 2,400 hours military flying experience.

Other team members:
Public affairs officer: Lt. (Navy) Petra Smith
Crew chief: Sgt. Dave Scharf
Deputy crew chief: Master Corp. Darrell Fournier
Lead avionics technician: Master Corp. Tony Forster
Lead aviation technician: Corp. Tracy Nichols