Lt.-Col. Mike French and Capt. Jennifer Casey were soaring through the air, trying to bring hope to an anxious and fearful country with each dip and dive of their airplane.
French, commander of the Snowbirds — the official aerobatic team of the Royal Canadian Air Force — says he and Casey belted out Tragically Hip songs as they flew through the air, performing well-practised manoeuvres with the tight-knit team just last week.
Casey was an integral part of creating the team’s Operation Inspiration tour for a country otherwise gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, French says. And he still can’t believe it ended with her death.
“It’s been extremely difficult for everyone on the team,” French said. “You want to go into a period of seclusion and self-reflection.”
Casey, a 35-year-old military public affairs officer, died Sunday after ejecting from a Snowbirds jet before it went down in a residential area of Kamloops, B.C. The pilot, Capt. Richard MacDougall, survived.
It was the eighth fatal crash in the 50-year history of the Snowbirds. The last was in 2008. In 2019, a Snowbirds jet crashed in the United States but the pilot safely ejected.
A team of military investigators is trying to determine the cause of Sunday’s crash but it has left many questioning whether it’s time to ground the team and its aging fleet.
“For me, to imagine a Canada Day without the Snowbirds flying over the Peace Tower is just not possible,” French says.
“I’ve grown up with the Snowbirds my whole life. And for me to picture them not being around would be tragic.”
The home base of the Snowbirds is in Moose Jaw, Sask., where one of the team’s retired planes floats on a pedestal next to a giant statue of the city’s mascot, Mac the Moose.
The site has become a makeshift memorial to Casey, where people have left flowers. Residents are also organizing upcoming events to honour the team.
The reputation of the Snowbirds has grown through performances at air shows across North America. The red, white and blue planes swirl through the sky in stunning formations, appearing unbelievably close to each other.
Flying above stadiums before Grey Cup games, racing through the sky during national ceremonies and stopping at local air shows from coast to coast has made the team a national symbol.
The Canadair CT-114 Tutor has a unique mix of engine control, balance and stability that gives it exceptional manoeuvrability, and is “pure bliss,” French says.
The plane, which was used by the Forces as a jet trainer until 2000, is largely out of use in the aviation world. The jets were to be retired in 2010, but that was later extended to 2020.
French says it’s hard to explain the impact the Snowbirds have on Canada.
The team is in a way an inspiration program, he says, encouraging children who see the planes rip through the sky to chase their own dreams.
French was one of those kids who rushed to see air shows in Abbotsford, B.C., and waited around to get autographs from pilots. It led him into the military, where he became a F-18 fighter pilot and a Snowbirds trainer.
He’s in his third year as commanding officer of the Snowbirds. Every member is a highly-trained Forces member who competed for their position, French says.
Most of the year, team members spend all their time together practising routines, then touring across the country. They are more than colleagues, French says. They are family.
It also takes a very dedicated person who truly believes in the team’s mission to become a Snowbird, French says. And Casey fit in immediately.
The former journalist joined the military as a direct entry officer in 2014. She worked with the CF-18 demo team before joining the Snowbirds in 2018.
French says the first time Casey went up in the air with the Snowbirds, it was clear she was the right fit for the team.
She was always three steps ahead of what anybody needed. She was creative, kind and hardworking.
“She was one of those people that you just love working with. She raised everybody’s game,” French says.
“Casey was one of the main reasons that Operation Inspiration was being perceived so well by Canadians. It was her drive and her determination to get us out there.”