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May 14, 2018 | Local, Aerospace

Aircraft used by Snowbirds aerobatic team, on the go since 1963, will be kept flying until 2030

An avionics upgrade is required if the planes are to continue flying in North American airspace, but it is unclear at this point what other work will also be needed to be done on the aging aircraft.

The 55-year-old planes used by the Canadian military's iconic Snowbirds aerobatic team will be kept flying until 2030.

Aircraft avionics will be modernized on the CT-114 Tutors to comply with upcoming aviation regulations and the life of the aircraft extended for another 12 years, according to April 2018 Royal Canadian Air Force documents obtained by Postmedia. The avionics upgrade is required if the planes are to continue flying in North American airspace. It is unclear at this point what other work will also be needed to be done on the aging aircraft.

No information was available on what the modernization program will cost taxpayers.

The planes have been in the Canadian Forces inventory since 1963 and have been used by the Snowbirds since 1971. The Tutors were supposed to have been retired in 2010, but that date was extended to 2020. This latest initiative would see the aircraft removed from the flight line when they are 67 years old.

Aerospace firms will be consulted about the life extension program over the next two years, according to the documents. A request for proposals will be issued in 2021, aerospace industry officials meeting in Ottawa last month were told.

“It is anticipated that equipment ordered would begin to be delivered in 2022,” the RCAF confirmed in an email to Postmedia. “Ultimately, the goal of the CT-114 Tutor Aircraft life extension project is to allow the RCAF to continue its Air Demonstration mission to highlight the professionalism and capabilities of its airmen and airwomen.”

The RCAF is facing a dilemma with replacing the aircraft used by the Snowbirds. The federal government has indicated it wants the aerobatic team to continue operating and the Snowbirds are seen as a key public relations tool for the military.

But some in the Canadian Forces have privately questioned spending money on the Snowbirds because they do not directly contribute combat capabilities to the air force.

The Tutors were originally used as jet trainers for the RCAF, but that role has been transferred to other aircraft.

Various military documents obtained by Postmedia show the back-and-forth debate on what to do with the Tutors. Replacing the Tutors would be expensive. In 2012 the Canadian Forces estimated it would cost $755 million to buy a new fleet of planes for the aerobatic team, according to documents obtained by Postmedia through the Access to Information law. A current replacement cost was not available.

In 2008, the Canadian Forces examined options for replacing the Tutors in either 2015 or 2020. But officials decided on the 2020 date because of concerns about the cost of purchasing new planes. “Although extending to the CT114 to 2020 will be technically challenging, overall it can be achieved with minimal risk and at significantly lower cost when compared against a new aircraft acquisition,” a briefing note for then Conservative Defence Minister Peter MacKay pointed out in November 2008.

That conclusion, however, was in contrast to an earlier examination of the aircraft. “Due to obsolescence issues, in the 2010 time frame, the Tutor will no longer be a viable aircraft for the Snowbirds,” an April 2006 briefing note for then-air force commander Lt.-Gen. Steve Lucas pointed out.

In the past, the air force also examined leasing aircraft for the Snowbirds. In addition it looked at, but rejected, a suggestion to substitute CF-18 fighter aircraft for the Tutors.

Using CF-18s would increase the ability of the Snowbirds to perform around the world, but reduce their availability for smaller venues in Canada that have runways too short to accommodate the jets, the air force concluded. As well, the CF-18s would be 20 times more expensive to operate than the Tutors.

Thousands of Canadians every year watch the team perform, and the Snowbirds are a fixture at Canada Day celebrations and air shows across the country.

“The Snowbirds also contribute more than any other Canadian performer to the success and viability of the billion-dollar air-show industry in Canada and North America,” according to Department of National Defence documents.

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