A Salute to Canada’s CF Snowbirds

Recalling the day excited anticipation turned to deep despair and grief.

In mid-May 2020 here in Kamloops, B.C., life was quite similar to other parts of our country; we were slowly getting used to the idea of a global pandemic and what that meant to each of us. Obtaining essential items from the grocery store was a chore, most of our favourite places to eat, shop and exercise were closed, we all knew someone whose job had been affected and we missed being in contact with family and friends. Health-care workers and first-responders were the heroes of the time and support for them was evident throughout the city. Looking back, it was just the beginning of what would be one of the most difficult times we would face.

We were all suffering from a deep boredom and desire for something, anything to break the monotony and anxiety we were feeling. Thank goodness for Operation Inspiration and the knowledge that soon our beloved Canadian Forces Snowbirds would be doing a fly-over in Kamloops. That day was anticipated like few others at the time. Schedules were altered, to-do lists ignored just so we could get to Fulton Field in time to “get a good spot” to capture shots of the beautiful red-and-white CT-114 Tutor jets as they flew in formation over our city and Fulton Field at the Kamloops Airport.

As my wife and I drove west along Tranquille Road, it was soon evident that hundreds of others had already arrived and getting that special spot was not going to be easy. Luckily, we knew of a private business building that would provide a great viewing area just east of the landing field and offer some protection from the cold wind blowing from the east. Although sharing our location with others increased our anxiety, everyone there seemed keen to distance themselves from one another as well.

The anticipation and excitement were palpable, with animated chatter, frequent checks of watches and peeks around the corner of the building to scan the eastern sky as the time for the Snowbirds’ arrival came and went. And then we heard them, wait, that’s just two jets. There must be more coming in later. And then, yes, the group arrived with not one, but two complete flyovers. Magnificent!

CF Snowbirds groundedPhoto: Al Baker
Two iconic red-and-white CT-114 Tutor jets.

Later that day, after waiting for all the jets to land and ensuring that the best photos possible were taken, we headed home where I would create a short video (below) to be posted on Facebook for my friends and family to see. In short order, that little video had been viewed and shared by dozens of people. And then the absolute unthinkable happened. Shortly after take-off the next morning, one of the jets inexplicably crashed over a residential area close to the airport. Again, like everywhere in the country, we could not believe what we were watching on the news and social media. We instantaneously went from a city thankfully distracted to one in deep despair and grief as we heard the news that one of the two people on that jet had been killed in the accident. This tragic news was shared at the same time we were learning that the pilot had survived and was in hospital. And so, we became a city torn by grief and shock, and hopeful praying.

The excitement and anticipation of the day before was now gone. In its place was a heaviness of heart. Tears were shed in private and in the company of others. Prayers were said privately and in the company of others. Flags were at half-mast throughout the city. Photos and posters of Captain Jennifer Casey who sadly lost her life were seen posted in many front windows. News of the condition of Captain Richard MacDougall slowly trickled out and thousands of prayers said for his recovery and healing.

Like so many other tragedies in modern times, there was a desire, an essential need for the collective mourning of the citizens of Kamloops. It started with a few bunches of flowers and Canadian flags on the fencing around the eastern perimeter of Fulton Field and quickly grew to a memorial that was a kilometre long over two sections, where one could find all sorts of memorial items and keepsakes. Everything from flowers cut from backyard gardens, floral bouquets and teddy bears, to Canadian flags, photos of Captain Casey, painted wooden crosses and much more. It was a mourning fence. It was a shrine. It was a holy and quiet place where hundreds of Kamloopsians went to pay their respects, pray and weep. There are no words to adequately describe the heavy feeling of loss, grief and despair that every person who walked that kilometre felt as they read the words written on the flags and posters.

CF Snowbirds mourning fencePhoto: Al Baker
A portion of the CF Snowbirds “mourning fence.”

That little video I had posted suddenly took on new meaning for a lot of people. The number of views and shares increased substantially. I felt the need to make a new video dedicated to the CF Snowbirds and Captain MacDougall and also in memory of Captain Jennifer Casey. I walked the main half kilometre stretch with my camera on video capturing the heart and soul of the citizens of Kamloops in grief. The tears in my eyes made it difficult to ensure the camera was in focus. The resulting video has been shared and seen by hundreds of people across Canada, parts of the United States and Europe. I am humbled by this.

The CF Snowbird Tutor jets remained at the Kamloops airport for weeks afterwards; a constant reminder of the tragedy to those who drove past. The items on the Memorial Fence were eventually removed and we, as a city, are thankful that some of the items were taken back to Moose Jaw as a permanent collection for the Snowbird crew. Our hearts still ache for the family and friends of Captain Jennifer Casey. May good and happy thoughts and memories of her remain with you always. Prayers were answered for the recovery of Captain Richard MacDougall. Prayers are still being said for him as he heals further, for his friends and family and for all the crew who are surely challenged by such tragic events.

To the CF Snowbirds: Kamloops, and all of Canada, salutes you and thanks you.

Next, check out 10 iconic attractions that make Canada great.

Originally Published in Our Canada