November 19, 2022
On July 6, 2022 I received a very special telephone call. It was Dan Dempsey, a former Snowbird Solo Pilot and Commanding Officer/Team Lead of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
I have known Dan since June 1990 when I met him at the London (ON) International Air Show. Five weeks later I was strapping into a Tutor to go flying with the Snowbirds at their base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. More on that later.
Dan and I have stayed in contact ever since that fantastic experience and we have crossed paths at many air shows and aviation events over the years. A phone call from Dan wasn’t unusual, but this one seemed a little different. We chatted about a variety of things, and then Dan told me the reason for the call. He wanted to advise me that I had been selected as Honorary Snowbird! I was stunned! What an honour—and a total surprise. To make the news even more exciting, as an Honorary Snowbird, I was invited to attend the Snowbirds 50th Golden Anniversary Celebration in Moose Jaw from October 20 – 23, 2022.
My road to becoming an Honorary Snowbird began in June 1990 at the London International Air Show in London, Ontario. I had just watched the Snowbirds complete a media ride for nine lucky passengers. I wondered how I might be able to get one of those rides myself. The people who got media rides usually worked for local newspapers, radio, and TV stations. Many of them had very little knowledge or interest in aviation. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I worked for Transport Canada, but I was very interested in military and civil aviation. The opportunity to fly with the Snowbirds quickly moved to the top of my bucket list. I began devising a plan to secure a future media flight with the Team.
Making a deal
Later that day, I approached Major Dan Dempsey, the Squadron Commanding Officer and Team Lead who was also known as “The Boss.” I introduced myself and described my background. I brought up the topic of media rides and advised him I had an offer for his consideration. I told Dan, “If I’m offered a seat on a Snowbirds media ride, I guarantee I’ll get a factual and entertaining article about the Team published in an aviation magazine.”
Dan listened to my offer and said he would consider my request. I felt good that I had made my offer to the Snowbirds Commanding Officer in person. If I didn’t get a flight, well, at least I had tried.
I headed back to Winnipeg after the air show and got back to work. Two weeks later, I got a call from CFB Moose Jaw, the home of the Snowbirds. It was Capt. Jeff Hill, one of the Snowbirds Team Coordinators who asked me if I still wanted to go flying with the Team. I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” (Additional adjectives were definitely used.) Jeff advised me that if I could get myself out to CFB Moose Jaw, I could have a ride on Friday, July 6, the day before the upcoming two-day Saskatchewan Air Show. He didn’t have to ask twice!
My first flight
The flight was fantastic. I flew with Captain Steve Will in Snowbird Number 3. The weather cooperated and we flew a number of formation fly-bys over Regina, Moose Jaw, and the surrounding area. The team split into an “en route” formation and Steve let me fly the Tutor briefly to get a sense of how much stick pressure had to be applied for some of the maneuvers. The Boss called for a squadron rejoin and following two more formation flybys over Moose Jaw, we lined up for a formation landing. We had been in the air for about 1 hour and 15 min. What an incredible experience.
Following the media ride, I kept my end of the bargain and wrote an article about my flight. It was published in Canadian Flight Magazine and in our regional and national Transport Canada newsletters. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of a side gig that would provide me with the opportunity to experience flights in a number of other Canadian military aircraft.
I’ve attended air shows regularly in the years following my flight and always talked with members of the Snowbirds at air shows where they have performed. I have stayed in touch with the pilots from the 1990 Team. Steve Will, the pilot I flew with, became the Team Leader from 2002-2004. I have gotten to know a lot of Snowbird team members over the years.
Who are the Honorary Snowbirds?
The Snowbirds have been extremely grateful for the tremendous support provided to them from communities across North America. In 1995, they introduced a new Snowbird category to their organization. To quote Dan Dempsey from his outstanding Keynote Speech at the Reunion, “There is another group we introduced to the Snowbird family starting at our 25th anniversary in October 1995. They are a disparate group. Fellow performers, airshow organizers and producers, musicians and composers, some senior air force leaders, and some of the best aviation photographers in the world. But in spite of their varied backgrounds, they all have one thing in common—they have been wonderful supporters of our team for many years. They are known as our Honorary Snowbirds.” Since 1995, 141 people/groups have been selected as Honorary Snowbirds. It is a true honour to be selected to join this group.
The Golden Anniversary Reunion was outstanding. It began on Thursday afternoon, October 20 with a meet-and-greet at the Grant Hall Hotel and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. On Friday morning the Snowbirds flew formation fly-bys over the City of Moose Jaw. Later, the Snowbirds Hangar and Lounge were opened up to Reunion attendees. A Flight Suit party took place Friday evening with alumni in attendance from each of the 52 years that were represented.
On Saturday evening, the Gala Dinner took place. It was a spectacular event with the keynote speech given by Dan Dempsey. Following the speeches, the RCAF Band Jet Stream played some great dancing music that got alumni on the dance floor. Sunday morning’s Farewell Brunch provided one last chance to say goodbye to friends and colleagues before everyone headed back home.
What an incredible weekend. And what a fantastic experience for me to attend the 50th Golden Anniversary of the Snowbirds as an Honorary Snowbird. I’ve been attending airshows and working or volunteering in the air show industry for more than 45 years. It was great to reconnect with some of the Snowbirds, performers, and colleagues throughout the anniversary weekend.
I will wear the title of Honorary Snowbird proudly, and I look forward to attending the upcoming 55th Anniversary.
This post was graciously written and submitted by RAMWC volunteer Ron Lapp