Photo credit: Capt Maciej Hatta

Interview with Snowbird 1 Team Lead, Major Jean-François Dupont

By Douglas Landsborough
Editor Jennifer J. Lacelle
June 30, 2021

Almost as soon as he could walk, Major Jean-François Dupont wanted to fly.

With a rich history in aviation that started as an Air Cadet and with a glider license, Maj Dupont is now the Lead pilot for 431 Air Demonstration Squadron—known to most Canadians as the Snowbirds. Alongside his fellow pilots and backed by technicians, mobile support operators, support clerks, and engineering, logistics and public affairs officers, Maj Dupont dazzles audiences across Canada and the US, performing feats that at times look impossible.

Before joining the Snowbirds, Maj Dupont wanted to be a fighter jet pilot. Because of a delay in that training, he opted to become a flight instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) instead. What was supposed to be a year or two turned into four years in that role and saw Maj Dupont deployed to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, where approximately 30% of all of RCAF’s flying hours takes place every year.

It was at 15 Wing where Maj Dupont saw the Snowbirds flying nearly every day. Beyond the impressive technical skill on display, Maj Dupont remembers thinking how fun the formations and maneuvers looked.

Still, joining the Snowbirds was not something that Maj Dupont planned for his career, at least not initially. But when the opportunity arose to join those who took to the skies with such awe-inspiring maneuvers, he decided to put his name in for consideration. It was almost a natural flow from flight instructor to the high-skill piloting of a Snowbird, and that launched the first three seasons (2010-2012) that Maj Dupont had with the Snowbirds.

Following the 2012 season, Maj Dupont made a switch to search and rescue, flying the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter out of 19 Wing Comox on Vancouver Island for three years. The job was rewarding and exactly what Maj Dupont said he needed to be doing at the time—navigating difficult skies, hoisting people to safety and, ultimately, helping people in need. The major said it is “one of the best jobs in the Air Force, for sure.”

When he was presented the opportunity to join the Snowbirds again, Maj Dupont returned to 15 Wing Moose Jaw. He spent a year as the Deputy Commanding Officer for 431 Sqn and has been Snowbird 1 Team Lead since 2019.

Photo credit: DND / MDN

Who are the Snowbirds?

431 Air Demonstration Squadron is made up of approximately 80 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel. The roles involved with the squadron span include pilots, technicians who keep the Snowbirds’ iconic CT-114 Tutor in pristine condition, operations personnel and public-facing positions.

The Snowbirds play an important role in Canada. With every performance, they are acting as ambassadors between our Armed Forces and the rest of North America. Through the actions of 431 Sqn—both in the sky, on the ground and behind the scenes—the professionalism, skill and dedication of CAF members is on display for the world to see.

This year is a historic one for 431 Sqn, too. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Snowbirds, who have flown every year since 1971. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the celebrations initially planned for this notable season have been limited. A normally busy early season has been padded with training as event organizers across Canada and the US were uncertain about restrictions and budgets.

Luckily, as things are continuing to improve, the remainder of the season is looking closer to normal, getting the Snowbirds to fly across the country and into the US.

In celebration of their 50th season, the Snowbirds are mixing some old moves with new ones. Past maneuvers and music are mixed with the new, resulting in shows that have the appropriately named 50th Split and classics like the Double Diamond Roll, the Concorde Combo and other formations that are nothing short of astounding feats of piloting.

One of the lesser-known changes has been a subtle addition to the appearance of the Tutor jets. Amongst the classic blue stripe is a brand-new gold stripe in commemoration of 50 years of the Snowbirds.

Photo credit: Cpl Sebastian Boucher

As Team Lead, Maj Dupont is the one heading formations, but he emphasizes how critical every member of the team is. They could not be successful without the expertise of a solid core of pilots. Inner Right and Left Wing, and First Line Astern are pilots who are the epitome of smooth, precise flying to maintain that strong core.

Lead and Opposing Solo roles are, for the most part, more aggressive when flying by themselves while adopting that smooth control when part of the formation. According to Maj Dupont, these are the pilots who “want to be beat up by Gs (gravitational forces) on a daily basis.” Definitely not a role for everyone!

The Second Line Astern is at the back of the formation. This role is less about fine-tuned movements and more about making your plane work. Because this role is so far back and moving more slowly than the others, the plane sometimes runs out of power. Maj Dupont says that these pilots “have to cheat a little bit,” which is a different way of saying they must keep a plane in the air that no longer wants to be up there.

Ultimately, every Snowbird pilot has to use their well-trained skills to make sure their plane is where it needs to be, when it needs to be there.

Snowbird Training

Every season sees at least some new Snowbirds in the air. When it comes to training, the pilots of 431 start from scratch every year. Each summer, Snowbirds-to-be arrive in Moose Jaw to be trained for performances starting in the following season. Just as Maj Dupont was, these are all accomplished pilots within the CAF, but they might have little-to-no experience flying in formations.

Training takes place daily, starting with small formations and gradually getting bigger, though the planes are spaced widely apart. Once those are mastered, they return to small formations but fly tighter this time around. Then, it’s back to the big formations with tight spacing.

Once formations have been mastered, loops and rolls are added in for basic maneuvers, gradually reducing the space between planes throughout the winter. Toward the end of training season, integrated moves like splits are added in.

Somewhere along the way, Maj Dupont says, “Magically ... we put everything together and it just clicks.”

That magic has happened for half a century now, since the same method of rotating new Snowbirds in every year is the way it has always been done.

Photo credit: DND / MDN

Training moves to Comox towards the end of winter, where the weather is near-perfect for flying. The focus becomes more about how routines look from the ground, where countless Canadians will watch in awe from, since the technical skills have already been turned into habits. Once in Comox, the Snowbirds also practice flying over water and up in mountains, where the pilots can’t use the horizon as a reference point.

The Snowbirds’ Plane: The CT-114 Tutor

Designed and built in Canada by Canadair, the CT-114 Tutor is the iconic plane flown by Snowbird pilots. The Tutor has been used for all 50 seasons by the Snowbirds, keeping the tradition alive to this very day.

A relatively light plane, the Tutor is still kept in excellent condition by the skilled technicians of 431 Sqn. Whether that means repairing, maintaining, adding new parts like smoke streamers or basically rebuilding the entire aircraft, the CAF personnel responsible for the Tutors do an amazing job keeping the jets in perfect working order.

Though the Tutor was originally introduced as CAF’s primary jet trainer, it was replaced in 2000 by the CT-155 Hawk and the CT-156 Harvard II. These days, the Tutor only sees use in the expert hands of 431 Sqn.

Up in the air, the lightweight nature of the jet makes flying upside down and other maneuvers easier than with other aircraft, but its flat-wing design also means that more precision is needed to stop the audience from seeing the Snowbirds bobbing while flying in a straight line.

Perception is everything, and everyone on the ground knows that the Snowbirds are flying side-by-side. What not as many people know, however, is that the planes fly as close as six feet to one another. In some maneuvers, the wings of the planes actually overlap each other by a couple feet, with nothing but a mere four feet of height separating the two jets.

The control that Snowbird pilots have over their Tutor jet cannot be overstated.

Photo credit: Patrick Cardinal

A Career in the Skies

Despite the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, the Snowbirds are still flying 30 shows across Canada and the US this season. Whether acting as ambassadors to our own citizens or south of the border, Maj Dupont and the Snowbirds love talking to people after the shows. It’s one of the reasons that the major prefers smaller shows to larger ones—you can really connect with the audience, answer questions and get some great feedback.

Being from Québec City himself, Maj Dupont always considers flying out of CFB Bagotville a highlight, too. Internationally, he also recounted being able to fly between the famous bridges of San Francisco.

For those thinking about a career as a pilot—whether as a Snowbird or flying something else—Maj Dupont says to set yourself a goal to be a pilot and just work hard towards it. Don’t get discouraged by failure, since everyone has ups and downs in their career. For kids, school is a must in order to become a pilot.

While many of us still look at Snowbird pilots with a sense of awe as they pull off the impossible, Maj Dupont reminds us, “We’re not superstars or superhuman. We love to do our job and do the best we can ... We strive to do better every day.”

For those of us who will get to experience the spectacle that is a Snowbird show this season, it’s hard to imagine that it can get any better.

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