The military's aging fleet of Tutor jets flown by the Snowbirds demonstration team could remain in flight until 2030 — two decades past the scheduled retirement date.
Documents obtained by CBC News under an Access to Information request show the Department of National Defence is studying the feasibility of keeping the Canadian-built CT-114 Tutors in operation until 2025 and 2030, despite some "significant concerns" about the aircraft.
The aerobatic show team thrills spectators by swirling the skies in precise formations, demonstrating the superior skills of pilots commanding the planes. But there have also been serious safety incidents in the past, ranging from seatbelt malfunctions to fiery fatal crashes.
The 1960s-era jets were set to retire in 2010, but that date was extended 10 years, despite an internal 2003 report that warned of escalating technical, safety and financial risks and urged the fleet be replaced "immediately."
Little progress in replacement
More than 13 years later, there has been little progress in procuring new planes.
A report from the fall of 2014 cleared the fleet as "technically airworthy," but noted "significant" concerns, including some caused by financial restraints.
"Repairs have been reduced to bare bones (one year support) necessitating to put main items in repairable reserves and depleting our stock levels to nothing," it reads, adding this has the effect of creating "more robbing actions and additional maintenance costs."
It also noted a "lag in data analysis/reporting" was causing the Snowbirds 431 Squadron to continue flying aircraft "with an unknown condition."
A briefing note for the air force, also released under Access to Information, said the department is carrying out a robust life-expectancy extension study to "validate" the option of using the Tutors beyond 2020 to ensure an "uninterrupted" capacity.
"Maintaining a military air demonstration team is considered to be a government-mandated requirement," said the memo, written when the Conservatives were in office.
Pushing the retirement planes to 2030 would make some of them roughly 67 years old at that point.
The life-extension study is expected to be complete by the end of 2016, but the most recent Defence Acquisition Guide, a public listing of anticipated procurements, suggests the contract award and replacement delivery could be between 2026 and 2036.
Tutor 'extremely reliable'
Retired lieutenant-colonel Dan Dempsey, a former Snowbird pilot who has written a book about Canada's military air show history, said the Tutors have proven extremely reliable over the years. The planes, used as training aircraft until 2000, are tested by technical experts who leave "no stones unturned" to ensure structural integrity, he said.
While Dempsey would have liked to see earlier steps to replace the fleet — and have it in place for Canada's 150th birthday next year — he suggested 2025 is a "reasonable limit" as budget cuts pushed the procurement behind other operational priorities.
"I'm not surprised this has happened. It's a little disappointing, but I think the main thing is that everybody recognizes the importance of the Snowbirds to the country, to the Canadian Forces, to the RCAF," he said. "And therefore the desire is to keep these flying as long as necessary until a new aircraft can be purchased, and I think that's a very positive thing."
Kim Nossal, a professor with the Queen's University Centre for International and Defence Policy, sees no problem with extending the lifespan, since most accidents involving Tutors have resulted from risky manoeuvres or pilot error, not aging parts.
"As long as the aircraft has updates and refits, you can extend the life of an airframe however long you like," he said. "The real risk for the demonstration team is what they end up doing — the kind of performances they put on."
Retired colonel Paul Maillet, a former RCAF planner, says the concern is less about safety than value for money.
He doesn't believe the demonstration team adds to the operational capacity of the military other than to entertain and help recruit — functions other military planes could fulfil, he said.
At a time of tight budgets, he questions if the Snowbirds should remain a funding priority.
"You start to cut non-essential things to fund essential things," he said. "Basically, it's recruiting, it's public relations stuff.… and does the taxpayer want to pay for that?"
According to figures provided by National Defence, hourly operational costs are $14,350 and the total annual cost to run the squadron is $4.3 million.
Retired lieutenant-general Lloyd Campbell, former chief of the air staff, said the fleet is relatively economical and he believes Canadians would be disappointed if the Snowbirds were grounded.
"They're a tremendously unifying national organization that Canadians find appealing," he said. "They're a great recruiting tool, but the whole question of should we keep them, can we afford them … that is really less military in nature and more political and national in scope. Is this something Canadians want? If so, how do we make it affordable, how do we make it safe?"
A spokeswoman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Liberal government remains committed to the Snowbirds, noting the life-expectancy study will help guide the decision-making process for a replacement fleet.
"We have full confidence in the RCAF's ability to ensure aircraft reliability going forward, while our government will continue to build Canada's defence capabilities to ensure our men and women in uniform have safe, reliable equipment," said Renée Filiatrault.
'Safe and effective' aircraft
A RCAF spokesman said the number of aircraft grounded due to safety or maintenance concerns varies from day to day and is managed by maintenance crews to meet airworthiness standards.
"The CT-114 is a safe and effective aircraft," Maj. Scott Spurr said in an email. "DND is dedicated to ensuring that the fleet will remain effective until the fleet is retired. The Snowbirds, and the entire RCAF, maintains a robust flight safety and airworthiness program to ensure the safety of the public, as well as our personnel and aircraft."