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News Article / June 16, 2015

After 32 years at 410 Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta, Jim Belliveau is known as the man who brings the Demo Hornet to life, from concept to finished product.

By Lisa Gordon

Jim Belliveau has left his mark on Canadian military aviation. Quite literally.

As the graphic designer for 410 Tactical Fighter (Operational Training) Squadron at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, Mr. Belliveau is responsible for creating CF-188 Hornet program training aids. When he was hired in 1983, Canada’s Hornets were brand new. They had just begun arriving the year before, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was getting the Hornet's operational training program off the ground.

Now, 32 years later, Mr. Belliveau’s job has certainly changed with the times. But his full-time focus is still on supporting the squadron through the design of publications, training manuals, graduation programs, and the like. He is a one-man department, and it’s often a quiet, solitary pursuit – which is why he looks forward to what he calls his “part-time” work.

That part-time job couldn’t be more of a public affair. Chances are good that if you’ve attended an airshow in the last 23 years, you’ve seen the fruits of his labour on display.

And, like many great ideas, it all started with a doodle.

Demo designs

One day in 1987, Mr. Belliveau had some extra time on his hands, so he designed a striking red, yellow and white paint scheme for the CF-188 Hornet, complete with the stylized cougar head from the 410 Squadron crest. No one thought he’d ever get approval to apply it to one of Canada’s new CF-188 Hornets. Indeed, it took a few years before work began, and the scheme only survived for a week or two in 1990.

But in 1993, the decision was made to seek authorization for another design, this time just on the tails, to mark the 10 years the Squadron had been flying the CF-188 demonstration aircraft. What better way to celebrate than with an eye-catching customized paint scheme? And so, a tradition was born.

“I’ve been designing almost all the demo paint schemes from 1993 onwards,” Mr. Belliveau says. “There are only a couple of seasons I have missed. I design it from concept to finished product – I even help paint it.”

He notes that 410 Squadron has always been a huge supporter of airshows, believing they provide an excellent platform to showcase the squadron’s capabilities to the public. Mr. Belliveau explains that, originally, 410 Squadron provided the aircraft and pilot for all airshows, up until 2003. Then, the squadron began alternating with 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec. The squadron that supplies the aircraft also supplies the demo pilot.   

“It’s funny how things change,” Mr. Belliveau says. “The demo painting was a natural extension of my job, but it went from being in support of our unit to being in support of a national demonstration team.”

Indeed, the Demo Hornet has become a well-recognized symbol of Canadian military excellence. It performs across Canada and at airshows in the United States, and has gone as far afield as Colombia, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic.

Choosing a theme

Mr. Belliveau’s creations begin with the selection of a theme for the coming year’s paint scheme. “Sometimes,” he says, “themes are determined by history, such as this year’s jet commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Other times, they are chosen as part of Canada’s national communications strategy.” He began planning the 2015 design in October 2014.

“For example,” he goes on, “I’m given a theme—like ‘Canada’s North’ in 2012—and I must figure out how to express that through paint. In that particular case, I seized on the idea that each snowflake is different, and I extrapolated that to include different stories from the North. We had the environment represented by a polar bear stepping from a big piece of ice to a smaller piece of ice. We had the northern lights, a canoe, whaling, the Chilkoot Pass and the gold rush, etc.”

Mr. Belliveau remembers the 2012 demo jet as a lot fun but a “frightful” amount of work. “That’s the thing; you can have an idea and it’s easy to draft it, but then you have to figure out how to get it on the airplane,” he says. “It becomes a team thing. I remember we had the whole team including our pilot and public affairs officer picking out all the little tiny pieces from the snowflake stencils we used!”

Many times, demo pilots take an interest in the painting, and Mr. Belliveau welcomes their participation in the creative process. It helps prepare them for “a thousand questions about the design while on the road,” he says.

Preparing the “canvas”

Each year, Mr. Belliveau gets into the paint booth at either Cold Lake or Bagotville to perform the fine detail work that brings a Demo Hornet to life. But there is much work to be done before he even arrives.

The 2015 Demo Hornet comes from 3 Wing Bagotville, where a crew of aircraft component and structures (ACS) technicians got started on the project in mid-February, Mr. Belliveau says. The first step in the process was sanding off the plane’s top coat, right down to the yellow primer, or “trace coat,” which is applied directly over the resin or aluminum structure.

During this stage, there would have been about eight people sanding at any given time. “Sometimes you need to sand by hand to get into tiny crevices,” he explains. “But most of the time, you’re sanding using a random orbital sander and 220- to 280-grit sandpaper. The sanders are noisy, and you have to pour oil down them to keep them happy. You get a great big roll of these sanding discs, and you peel them off one at a time, and slap them on the sander.”

A crew member can actually go through a roll of sanding discs every day, because each one lasts only about 10 minutes. In addition, it’s hard, demanding work.

“You can only do this for about an hour at a time, particularly when sanding the underside of the jet,” Mr. Belliveau says. “You need to wear shock-absorbing gloves, be in a Tyvek suit, using a breathing apparatus and cartridges. This is because as you sand through those first few layers of paint, you’re actually reactivating the paint. You have to be well kitted up – it’s dusty and dirty and incredibly noisy. It’s very lonely work, too, because it’s too noisy to talk with anyone.” The initial sanding process may take as long as eight days.

Next, crews will prime over any areas where the jet’s base material is visible. Once that step is completed, it’s time for a full coat of primer over the entire aircraft, followed by the base grey.

“And then comes the longest part of the process—the stenciling,” says Mr. Belliveau. “Most of this takes place before I even get there. There are the access panels, the national markings, the false canopy on the underside – there is a ridiculous amount of stenciling on the bottom side. And, sometimes, you have to do that when the gear is down, which makes it harder. But most of the time they’ll bring it in and put it on jacks with the gear up.”

A performer takes shape

After the standard stencils are applied, Mr. Belliveau joins the painting party.

“I will come in and work with the core design team,” he explains. “When I got into Bagotville this year, the base grey was already painted.”

Much of his work must be done before he steps into the paint booth. In the case of the 2015 Hornet, he designed and printed the camouflage stencils for the top of the jet, which are electronically cut onsite and must be applied in the correct order.

“My designs take a lot of pre-planning,” he says. “When I got to Bagotville in mid-March, I gave them the stencils to print for the top of the airplane. We chalked out where the first colour would go, and rough-sprayed it in. Then, we masked off that colour and sprayed the next one right up to it.”

He and his team were replicating the standard earth tone and dark green camouflage scheme for all Allied Commonwealth Hawker Hurricane Mark IIs and Supermarine Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. It’s called the disruptive camouflage scheme, and it’s never been worn by the CF-188 before.

During the war, Mr. Belliveau says, the camouflage paint was applied right in the factory. Thick rubber mats were cut out and placed on an aircraft, and then paint was sprayed right up to the mats, creating a solid line between colours.

Today, much of the detail work on the Demo Hornet murals is done freehand. Mr. Belliveau prints the murals out on large rolls of paper, and then cuts out small pieces to get a ‘chalk line’ outline. That is taped onto the side of the plane, and colour is blown through. The resulting outline is then filled in by Belliveau, using a detail air gun. Although it’s painstaking work, it must be done fairly quickly, for the aircraft-grade paint is only good for about 30 minutes. At that point, it begins to cure and must be exchanged for a fresh batch.

“As the paint particles get bigger as it cures, the touch-up guns will gum up,” says Mr. Belliveau. “It means you have to work a lot faster than you would with a large spray gun.”

The 2015 Demo Hornet is a tribute to those who fought in the Battle of Britain, which raged from July to October 1940. Ultimately, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, failed to gain superiority over Britain’s Royal Air Force and the pilots and aircrew who joined the fray from Commonwealth nations around the globe. The battle was a turning point in the Second World War.

The detail work on the Demo Hornet’s tail pays tribute to those who fought in that legendary conflict. The monochrome roundels and murals focus on specific aspects of the Battle of Britain, incorporating what Mr. Belliveau calls “some really good, solid, Canadian content.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s sombre countenance peers from the tail of the jet, which also displays an aerial view of a German Heinkel He 111 bomber flying over the London dockyards. The likeness of Flight Lieutenant Gordon Roy MacGregor, a member of RCAF No. 1 Squadron who earned the title “Ace” during the battle, is also incorporated into the scheme, as is St. Paul’s Cathedral seen through the smoke of the London Blitz. Mr. Belliveau also included an iconic German fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 109.

“The work goes from big to small as it gets more detailed,” he says. “There is a lot going on with that tail. While I was working on that, the team was prepping – three to four people could spend six hours masking for a 15-minute paint job. But you have to get that paint on, and it’s got to dry overnight, because another coat goes on the next day.”

Formidable challenges

In his 23 years of painting demonstration aircraft—during which he has sometimes led the painting process for multiple aircraft in a single season—Mr. Belliveau has come up against a few formidable challenges. Everything from “crew flu” to equipment malfunctions to sudden temperature shifts in the paint booth has threatened to derail even the best-laid plans. And when you’re on a tight schedule to create an airshow jet, every day counts. Just days after the plane’s unveiling each year, the CF-18 Demo Team is due in Comox, British Columbia, for spring training, so he and his crew must stay on track.

“If the atmosphere changes in the paint booth, if the humidity drops, it will alter the paint cure time by five to six hours,” he says. “The worst is, if you’re halfway through and the temp drops, it won’t cure. You have to wipe it off and start again. So, the paint schedule has to be very fluid. You try to be one step ahead; you try to get a day in the bank.”

All in all, Mr. Belliveau says, the entire process of creating a Demo Hornet takes about five to seven weeks from start to finish, depending on the intricacy of the design. Some demo birds have been a lot more work than others.

“One of the most popular we ever did was the Tiger Jet for the 2003 airshow season,” he remembers. “It was a staggering amount of work and it was done in a very short time frame. It was a very involved process, and it wasn’t a lot of fun, frankly. Luckily, I was working with some exceptional painters. To lay out the colours for the black, I had cut out paper stencils in one-foot blocks. It took us four days to mask for the final colour, which was the black. But, it remains many people’s favourite design.”

Does Mr. Belliveau himself have a favourite? “Well,” he says hesitantly, “I’m like a dad; I’m not supposed to have a favourite. But if I was to look at one paint job and say it’s my favourite, it would be the snowflake one from 2012. We had some new members on the crew and we had a lot of fun that year. The Discovery Channel crew was there; the pilot was a big part of the process. We had a nice unveiling in the hangar and the paint job was very well received.”

End of an era

It’s fair to say that Jim Belliveau’s custom aircraft designs are recognized and admired not just within the RCAF, but in the civilian world as well. Including the 2015 jet, Belliveau has designed 25 Demo Hornets over the years.

“I’ve done tons of others for both the military and the civilian world,” he says. “I think this year is number 46 in all, meaning 46 individual paint schemes, and I have assisted with the painting in all but four of those. That doesn’t include a number of logos and motifs I’ve done for the Snowbirds over the years, including their 2015 Battle of Britain logo.”

Mr. Belliveau, who has also operated a home-based design business since 1999, says winter is his busiest time. “I do designs for a lot of teams and businesses, and I’ve also done several local tourism guides. I started doing all of this stuff on the side, and the nice thing is that the two worlds are very different. I also do work for the commercial aviation world, including aerobatic teams and some overseas clients.”

Recent high-profile jobs have included the exterior paint on Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris’ Gulfstream G650; the high-profile red, white and blue livery created for the Government of Canada’s Airbus CC-150 Polaris VIP transport aircraft; the paint scheme for Team Rocket Aerobatics; and the truly memorable golden paint of Hawk One, the Canadair Sabre owned and operated by Vintage Wings in a tribute to the Golden Hawks aerobatic team. 

Social media has brought a whole new element to sharing his work with the public, Mr. Belliveau says. “The unveiling of the Demo Jet is always exciting – there’s really no equivalent in the Canadian military. Now, with the advent of social media, we see a whole new side of it. In that case, you’re dealing with the general public and I find them to be more engaged and interested, and less critical. Most people who go to an airshow are just happy to see planes fly. Truth be told, that’s really nice. We don’t look at what we do with a lot of wonder anymore.”

Every year, he tries to get out to an airshow to connect with the public. “In 2012, I wanted the Yellowknife show, because I wanted the reaction from the northerners,” he recounts. “But I couldn’t just do that, because everyone was going on to Inuvik as part of an exercise. So I went; we stayed in quarters on the base and I rode in a Hercules from Yellowknife to Inuvik. The people were awesome! We spent some time with the folks at Buffalo Airways, too; Joe [McBryan] took us for a ride in his Noorduyn Norseman.”

It was a big highlight in a parade of proud moments for Mr. Belliveau, who is set to retire from his position at 410 Squadron in 2016. He has no plans to leave Cold Lake, however. With a two-year-old granddaughter in town and a coveted berth in the local marina for his sailboat, he says, his golden years are looking very good indeed. For his military swan song, he’s hoping to work on the 2016 Demo Hornet. After that, he’s planning to retire, although he’ll keep up his home-based business.

Given that Mr. Belliveau’s a one-man show at the squadron, who will pick up where he leaves off? “I’m not really sure what will happen in the future,” he says. “The one thing we have to remember is that at the end of the day, I am a civil servant. I have a collective agreement, and the HR management of my position is the same as it is for everyone else. So, bringing in an apprentice may not be in the cards.”

In the meantime, he says, he has appreciated the chance to get away from his desk and into the paint booth on a regular basis. In addition to the creative challenge, he has also loved the chance to enjoy the camaraderie of teamwork, and to share the feeling of a job well done.

And he’s quick to share the credit, too.

“Painting a demo jet is a big story; there are lots of people involved,” Mr. Belliveau says. “While I go in there as the artist, the aircraft structures technicians are the people who are responsible for the way the paint is applied, and for ensuring nothing is damaged during the painting process. It’s a great responsibility.”

In addition to Mr. Belliveau himself, this year’s Demo Hornet design and paint team included Sergeant Stéphane Hamelin (supervisor); Master Corporal Éric Fortin (supervisor); Corporal Steeve Martel-Vallée (crew chief); Master Corporal Claude Houde (painting); Corporal Matthew Chiasson (sandblasting and painting); Corporal Jean François Côté (prep and painting); Corporal Guy Lanteigne (prep and painting); Corporal Jean Simon Thibeault (prep and painting); Corporal Johan Bertrand-Major (prep); and Corporal Pierre-Luc Martin (prep) – all from 3 Wing Bagotville.

The opportunity to make his mark on Canadian military aviation has been pivotal for Mr. Belliveau. “It’s certainly challenged me,” he says, “and it’s vexed me at times, but I really couldn’t imagine my career without it.”

This article was originally published in Canadian Skies magazine (www.skiesmag.com - available in English only) and is translated and reprinted here with permission.


 

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