The 2012 CF-18 Demonstration Team wrapped up this year’s show season at the Fleet Week Air Show in San Francisco, California, in early October.
It was no coincidence that the team began and ended its season outside of Canada. Throughout the 2012 season, the Royal Canadian Air Force made a deliberate effort to connect with both national and international audiences.
The season was marked by a series of firsts. Captain Patrick “Paco” Gobeil – the 2012 CF-18 demo pilot and team leader, whose home unit is 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., – flew an estimated 85,000 kilometres between April and October. This earned him the distinction of being the most extensively travelled CF-18 demonstration pilot in the team’s history.
The 2012 theme
Each season, the CF-18 Demonstration Team features a unique theme; this year’s was The True North, Strong and Free. The Demo Hornet was custom painted with tail and dorsal art capturing the Arctic landscape and its people. It also featured 13 distinctive snowflakes – representing Canada’s provinces and territories, as well as the 13 RCAF Wings – scattered across a dramatic Arctic blue background.
Operation Southern Reach
The team blazed an extraordinary trail across North America this summer.
After completing annual training in April in Comox, B.C., the team deployed on its international adventure, dubbed Operation Southern Reach, from May 5 to 26. The operation saw almost the entire demo team – 11 of 13 members, including both ground crews – form the nucleus of a modest detachment of personnel and aircraft that travelled to Brazil, Chile and Jamaica. The southern detachment also included two additional CF-18 Hornets along with a CC-130J Hercules aircraft to transport personnel and equipment and a CC-130 Hercules air-to-air refueller.
The RCAF sought to increase its bonds with the partner air forces of these nations, and give them an opportunity to work with and learn about the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The transit from Comox to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, took several days and was highlighted by a flight in formation across the equator on May 8. Led by Capt Gobeil in the Demo Hornet, it was the first-ever cross-equator flight for a Canadian CF-18. He was flanked by Captain Denis “Cheech” Beaulieu of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., in a second CF-18 and followed by the two Hercules.
The team performed its first show in Brazil at the Brazilian Air Force’s Smoke Squadron’s 60th anniversary celebrations in Pirassununga. Despite the less-than-perfect weather (each morning started with a heavy downpour of rain), tens of thousands of spectators came out over the weekend and showed overwhelming enthusiasm.
In Chile, the team met with their air force counterparts in an exchange that gave Capt Gobeil and the other CF-18 pilots the opportunity to fly an exercise with Chilean pilots in their F-16 fighter jets.
In Jamaica, Capt Gobeil performed over the Kingston waterfront to the delight of thousands of people who assembled on the shoreline to get what may have been their first-ever glimpse of a fighter jet. Some were even a little bit frightened by all the noise coming from above.
“Most Jamaicans have never seen anything like this before,” said Captain Bruce Ehmann, the team’s safety pilot and show narrator. “It was amazing to be able to perform here, to share that experience with them and to witness the crowd’s varied reactions. What a great show!”
Back home to Canada
Demonstrating the RCAF’s capabilities to our partner air forces was a priority this year, but it is always a priority at home.
Back in Canada, the team wasted no time launching its national show schedule – starting with Waterloo, Ont., from June 1 to 3. More shows followed: Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont., Hamilton, Ont., and Mont-Laurier, Que., near Montreal, as well as Capt Gobeil’s hometown of Ville de la Baie, Que.
This particular venue was special for several reasons, not the least of which was its twilight show – an infrequently scheduled event performed just before dusk – where the full effects of the jet’s afterburners were evident to all. Over the town’s waterfront with the beautiful Saguenay fjord in the background, the brilliant orange and pink glow could clearly be seen coming from the CF-18’s engines in the low-lit evening skies. The show’s location gave Capt Gobeil and his east crew a tremendous opportunity to perform for their families and friends, as well as colleagues from nearby 3 Wing.
Operation Northern Reach
After a brief break, the team embarked on the first-ever Operation Northern Reach, which was conducted from July 12 and 18 and showcased the RCAF’s fighter capabilities to Canada’s northern communities. With its vivid – and most appropriate – True North, Strong and Free paint scheme, the Demo Hornet dazzled audiences at air shows in Yellowknife and Inuvik, N.W.T., and performed flybys over many smaller communities such as Norman Wells, Fort Simpson, Wrigley and Tulita, N.W.T.
“I particularly enjoyed the flypast I did for the remote communities of Wekweti, Gameti and Whati, north of Yellowknife,” said Capt Gobeil. “They are in the middle of vast country with no nearby major cities.
“After 15 to 20 minutes of flying, a few buildings with a small gathering of people would start forming on the horizon. It was special to fly over these communities knowing that the vast majority of the people there had never seen an Air Force [aircraft] flying so close and just for them. With no major roads leading to those communities, it made me realize how important the Air Force has been for the development of their infrastructure.”
After the show in Inuvik on July 17, the team continued with a dozen more shows at communities across Canada, including Lethbridge, Alta., Saskatoon, Sask., Val d’Or, Que., and Summerside, P.E.I.
The team achieved another first in September when it performed at two air shows over the Labour Day weekend. Capt Gobeil delivered his full CF-18 tactical demonstration at two separate venues in North America in a single continuous flight. Operating within a mere two-hour window each day, and with the assistance of a Hercules air-to-air refueller, he represented the Canadian Forces over both Toronto and Cleveland, Ohio.
The secret to success
There is no question that the success the team enjoyed that weekend – and over the entire summer – was achieved with the dedicated efforts of the team’s east and west maintenance crews, hailing from 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta., and 3 Wing Bagotville, Que.
The Demo Hornet, often simply referred by its tail number – “781”, was a finely-tuned aerobatic machine. It encountered very few maintenance issues throughout the season, despite unusually long transit flights between shows, varying climates and, especially, the repeated stresses and high-G (gravitational pull) demands that Capt Gobeil put on 781 week after week.
With the crews spending so much time on the road, logistical planning this year was a major factor.
“Our success was a team effort,” said Capt Gobeil. “It was a difficult year for our crew chiefs and maintainers due to the large distances we had to travel. The logistics behind Ops Southern and Northern Reach were a real challenge since the team had never gone that far before.”
“Maintenance on the road can be a bit of a challenge,” explained Master Corporal Sarah Nantel, western crew chief. “For starters, it is impossible to bring a spare of every part on the aircraft because we travel with a trailer. We were very lucky this year, but in the past, if anything broke, the jet would have to stay behind and wait for a mobile repair party to arrive and bring the required part and tools.”
With this in mind, planners took extra care in selecting the spare parts, tools and equipment to bring on the two deployments, given the space restrictions on board the Hercules.
But the maintenance team had the advantage of concentrating on the maintenance of the same aircraft. Having an intimate knowledge of the aircraft’s flying and maintenance history made the job a little easier.
“Compared to working [on several different aircraft back home], we only had to concern ourselves with one or two planes at a time, one of which is always the same, being the Demo Hornet,” explained Sergeant Stéphane Rhéaume, the eastern crew chief. “After some time, we got to know all of its little quirks and peculiarities.”
Sgt Rhéaume’s crew also had the advantage of coming from the same squadron as the demo pilot and aircraft. Between shows they returned to their home, making it possible to complete paperwork and conduct inspections or scheduled maintenance tasks.
“I was lucky to have both of these crews on the team; each crew member is professional and takes great pride in what they do,” said Capt Gobeil. “Ultimately, it allowed me to do my job without any worries, and I always knew the jet was in the best condition it could be.”
Having 781 in optimal condition made the summer exceptionally productive; not a single show was missed for maintenance issues. The weather cooperated as well, and gave the spectators the full experience during almost every show.
"I don't do low shows!" Capt Gobeil joked more than once, but his claim was well substantiated by the fact he flew 37 “high” shows and only seven “low” shows.
(The CF-18 high show or “full show” is performed when the cloud base is at a minimum of 5,000 feet above ground level with a minimum visibility of three miles (4.8 kilometres). This allows the pilot to perform manoeuvres such as the vertical climb. The CF-18 low show’s cloud base minimum is 1,500 feet. These conditions limit the aerobatic manoeuvres that the pilot can safely perform.)
Connecting with Canadians
Ultimately, the mission of the CF-18 Demo Team is to demonstrate the professionalism, skills and teamwork of the Canadian Forces and to educate Canadians – and citizens of other nations – about the RCAF. To do this, the Demo Team tries to participate in as many community events as its busy schedule will permit.
“It was important for us to make ourselves available to the maximum extent possible at every event,” said Capt Gobeil. This year the team visited schools and hosted youth groups – such as the Boys and Girls Club and cadet organizations – on the tarmac, giving kids, parents and group leaders the chance to see the Demo Hornet up close and ask questions about the aircraft and the RCAF. Capt Gobeil also paid a visit to some special kids at the local hospital while the team was in Gatineau, Que.
Another important aspect to the Demo Team’s public relations activities was the “community personality” flight program. By connecting with community leaders and media, television, film and sports personalities, the program gave the RCAF the opportunity to showcase the team’s mission and share the experience of high performance flight with the public.
With the Canadian Football League (CFL) celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup this year, 2012 was a great time to advance the Canadian Forces’ longstanding relationship with the league. Andrew Harris of the B.C. Lions, Eric Fraser and Jon Cornish of the Calgary Stampeders, and CFL Commissioner Mark Cohon all became honorary team members for a day when they accepted invitations to fly in a CF-18 this summer.
Canadian film and television star Adam Beach was another honorary member; he joined the team for a ride in Abbotsford, B.C. in August. Other passengers were Frédéric Plante, co-host of the show, Le 5 à 7, which is broadcast on Réseau des Sports, and Mikey McBryan of the History Channel’s popular show, Ice Pilots NWT. Mr. McBryan’s ride will be featured on an upcoming episode of the show.
Teamwork spells success
The team enjoyed many successes over this past summer; but one in particular stands out for Capt Gobeil.
“The team itself!” he said. “I think everyone felt like they were part of it, and they had the power to help make it even better. We treated every air show as if it was our first, and put on the best show we could.”
In fact, with the team’s travels taking it to so many places, its members became extremely tight-knit and esprit de corps was at an all-time high.
“This experience allowed me to meet many people, who I now see as very good friends,” said Sgt Rhéaume.
In the end though, what the CF-18 Demo Team offers is an up-close view of some of the best capabilities the RCAF has to offer: a highly skilled pilot in an effective aircraft maintained by exceptional technicians.
Spectators regularly expressed their appreciation of Capt Gobeil’s performance, but what they were really witnessing was the product of years of training and experience. Each and every member of the team – from the pilot to the maintainers who keep him flying safely, to the coordinators who provide support the ground – is a product of the remarkable training and opportunities that the Canadian Forces provide.
The team hopes this is the lasting impression that Canadians take away with them and hold onto long after the season is over.