By Jason Grunsell | 10 June 2021
I am in awe of military aviation, specifically military aerobatic demonstration teams. Last year it was my privilege to interview Lt. Col Bandet the Commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force aerial demonstration team, the Snowbirds. May is traditionally the time the Snowbirds team migrates from their home base of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Canadian Forces Base Comox on Vancouver Island to complete their pre-season training schedule. I had hoped to follow up my Snowbirds article with a visit to CFB Comox to meet the team, sadly Covid restrictions did not permit me to visit the base. I was scratching my head trying to come up with a follow up article without being able to meet the team or take my own pictures. Then it hit me why not ask if it would be possible to interview one of the solo demonstration pilots and get some GoPro footage from inside the cockpit. Thanks to the generosity of Captain Gabriel Ferris the Public relations officer of the Snowbirds I was able to interview Snowbird 9 the Opposing Solo and to get a few minutes of in cockpit footage.
During my initial contact with Captain Ferris he asked me what pilot I would like to interview. My first thought was to look for a pilot native to British Columbia, of which there were several candidates but then it occurred to me to take a look at the two solo pilots on the team. When I noticed that Snowbird 9 had participated in an exchange tour of duty with the US Navy that culminated in his qualifying to fly off a US aircraft carrier I knew I had found my man. I am fascinated by naval aviation. One of my favorite documentaries is called Carrier which is a 2005 PBS documentary series that over the course of ten episodes followed the six month deployment of the US nuclear aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Interestingly one of the aviators that was featured in the documentary was Commander Dave Fravour the commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron VF-41 Black Aces who has since come to prominence as a witness to the famous TikTok UFO video on a training run over the pacific.
In a stroke of serendipity, Snowbird 9 has a rather unique call sign. For those unfamiliar with the term a call sign is given to a military pilot and is a specialized form of nickname that is used as a substitute for an aviator’s given name. Call signs are bestowed by fellow aviators at the end of training usually relating to some event or behavior exhibited by the aviator. So you don’t get to chose your call sign and be a real cool dude like Maverick and Iceman from Top Gun fame. I only found out Snowbird 9’s call sign when I came across a YouTube video of him giving the USAF F-35A 2019 season demo pilot, Major Andrew ‘Dojo’ Olson, a flight with the Snowbirds. Snowbird 9 is Major Taylor Evans call sign ‘McLovin’. For those familiar with the 2007 coming of age teen comedy movie Superbad the name “McLovin” is synonymous with the character of Fogell who gets a fake Hawaiian driving license with name ‘McLovin’ in order to purchase alcohol for a house party. Indicative off my juvenile sense of humor I found this movie hilarious. It was icing on my cake that the solo pilot I chose to interview has this particular call sign, clearly a good omen that this article was meant to be.
So what is the story behind Major Evans call sign? Well when Major Evans went to fighter pilot training he was was of the youngest trainees in the class and as the Major recalls he looked even younger when he had a full head of hair. He looked so young that he was constantly being asked to show his identification when he and his squadron went out to the bar. People could not believe he was flying a CF-18 Hornet fighter jet let alone being the age to legally consume alcohol. During the review boards one of his fellow pilots yelled out ‘McLovin’ and everyone thought that was an appropriate call sign for Major Evans. During his exchange tour with the US Navy, Major Evans had the distinction of meeting up with a US naval aviator who also bore the ‘McLovin’ call sign. These days only an older generation recognize the call sign from the movie, while a younger audience think it has something to do with McDonalds.
Prior to becoming a Snowbird Major Evans had the opportunity to participate in an exchange program with the United States Navy. Major Evans had no idea if he would be accepted into the program or where he might go on exchange if his application was successful only that it would be outside of Canada. As luck would have it Major Evans was offered an exchange posting with the US Navy at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach Virginia as an instructor with VFA 106 Gladiators flying the legacy F-18A/B/C/D Hornet and the F-18E/F Super Hornet. The legacy F-18B model flown by the US Navy is a two seat aircraft and is used to train new pilots. It is very similar to the CF-18B model flown by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Major Evans had to learn to fly a whole new model with the F-18E Super Hornet (which is a single seat fighter aircraft), and the F-18F is a two seat version of the Super Hornet. While Flying F-18F Major Evans would instruct trainee Weapons System Officers (WSO). A by product of being dual qualified meant that Major Evans would fly a training mission in the morning in a brand new F-18E Super Hornet which still had that new car smell with only twenty hours of flight time on the airframe and then switch around in the afternoon to flying a thirty year legacy F-18B or F-18D model that needed some coaxing to fly. The highlight of his exchange came near the end of his tour when Major Evans was certified to land and take off from a nuclear aircraft carrier. The month and a half training was primarily carried out in simulators before commencing touch and go landings at an auxiliary airfield using the optical landing system (nicknamed the meatball or simply the ball) to give glide path information to pilots in the terminal phase of landing on an aircraft carrier. Major Evans qualified with ten daytime traps on the carrier, and four night time landings, these being the most challenging. Major Evans said the most exhilarating sensation was the three second catapult launch off the deck of the aircraft carrier. He especially remembers launching off the deck of the carrier for the first time all alone in a F-18C Hornet, “it was an incredible experience. The takeoff is wild, you can’t comprehend how fast you’re able to fly.” Upon completion of his three year tour Major Evans moved back to Canada and then in 2018 he joined the Snowbirds as the Opposing Solo. A position he once again occupies.
In addition to his call sign, Major Evans also holds a unique place within the history of the Snowbirds. Snowbird pilots usually undertake a two year tour of duty with the team before transferring to other duties. Major Evans joined the team in 2018 and was selected to fly as the Opposing Solo. The Opposing Solo will then transition to Lead Solo (Snowbird 8) in the following year which Major Evans did before leaving the team at the end of the 2019 season. The Snowbirds experienced a turbulent 2020 with the pandemic and the tragic loss of Public Affair Officer Captain Jennifer Casey in an accident in Kamloops. As a result of this several members of the Snowbirds left the team which necessitated bringing back several previous Snowbirds to fill in the gaps. Major Evans was one of those ex Snowbirds who was brought back into the team, ironically he was asked to fill the position of Opposing Solo. The Snowbird pilot who was the Opposing Solo when Major Evans was the Lead Solo is now the Lead Solo which is certainly a first time experience for the Snowbirds.
It is fascinating to glean insights into the world of military aerobatic flying. The concentration required to stay in formation often precludes the pilots from viewing some of the spectacular scenery or events they are flying over during the display. Major Evans recalled a particular moment where this happened while flying with two other military aerobatic teams, the USAF Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels. Having all three display teams flying together is a rare event, and a heavily choreographed one. Major Evans recalled only seeing the Thunderbirds from his side of the formation for a few seconds before the teams re-joined and then he was on the wrong side of the formation. “I knew the other teams were out there, but I couldn’t see them.” When I spoke to members of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, about their historic flight down the Hudson River in formation with the Thunderbirds, two F-35 Lightnings and a pair F-22 Raptors they could only recall brief moments viewing the iconic skyline of New York. Somewhat ironic that military display teams are given permission to fly over unique venues and they are not always be able to take in the splendor of their surroundings during the display. Teams get to enjoy the scenery when they are transiting to their next show venue.
The two solo performers on the Snowbirds team fly some of the more dynamic aspects of the display. A crowd favourite is the head on pass where two aircraft appear to be on course to collide before veering away at the last moment. This is an optical illusion intended to make the audience gasp when in fact the pilots aim for the planes to be approximately thirty three feet away from one another during the pass. The most challenging/dangerous area of the solo demonstration is applying low level aerobatics where the hard deck is three hundred feet above the ground. The solos are forbidden from descending below this height during the display. The danger in low altitude aerobatics is the limited time to safely avoid an accident such as flying into the ground. Even more challenging is flying upside down and staying three hundred feet above the ground. Major Evans is rather fond of the mirror roll maneuver, which can be seen when two Snowbirds fly cockpit to cockpit, with one aircraft flying horizontal to the ground and the other aircraft flies upside down above the horizontal aircraft. Major Evans is looking straight up into the cockpit of the the Lead Solo Snowbird 8. The two Snowbirds then perform a barrel roll as both aircraft rotate through three hundred and sixty degrees. The trick as Major Evans puts it is to match the roll rates of the other pilot so the aircraft appear to be a match rather than being out of sync with one another. Training, training and more training enable the Snowbird pilots to perform these dangerous maneuvers. The solos begin training at a higher altitude and gradually working their way down to the three hundred foot hard deck. It is crucial both pilots are very consistent in how they fly the maneuver.
When flying in the Big Diamond formation. which comprises all nine Snowbird aircraft Major Evans is on the far left of the formation. His primary reference point is Snowbird 1 or the ‘Boss’ who is at the front of the Big Diamond. The ‘Boss’ flies out in front of every formation. Major Evans is constantly watching the Boss’ for movements in his wings, and control surfaces , while at the same time using his peripheral vision to scan for Snowbird 3. in addition to using reference points on each other’s aircraft to remain in formation the eight Snowbird pilots are also listening to the cadence of Snowbird 1, Major Jean-Francois Dupont, as he leads the team through the various aerobatic maneuvers. Aerobatic displays are a set of carefully choreographed maneuvers that demand specific timing, spatial awareness, hand eye coordination, and precise flying behavior. This is brilliantly demonstrated by this amazing in cockpit footage (provided by Captain Ferris) of Major Evans as he practices with the Snowbirds in formation above CFB Comox. What an absolute privilege to be given this footage and to be able share it with my readers.
Major Evans and the rest of the Snowbirds are looking forward to a full display season here in Canada and the United States in 2021. Personally I cannot wait until July 18 when the Snowbirds will be doing a flyover over my home town of Vancouver. I will be paying particular attention to Snowbird 9. I want to thank Major Taylor ‘Mclovin’ Evans for taking the time to talk to me and to Captain Ferris for making this interview possible and for providing me and my readers with the out of this world cockpit footage of Major Evans and the team practicing over CFB Comox. It was a thrill and honor to share the cockpit with McLovin himself. The Snowbirds truly are Warriors of the Air (Hatiten Ronteriios).