Snowbird Down

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The Pop-Tart Whisperer
Feb 19, 2007
Southern New Jersey Snowbird crash investigation off to slow start

Snowbird crash investigation off to slow startSquadron grounded for now as Canadian officials scour wreckage site where pilot killed in Montana

With a report from Canadian Press

May 21, 2007

CALGARY -- It may take a year to determine the cause of the crash that killed a 31-year-old Snowbird pilot with investigators struggling to understand why Captain Shawn McCaughey's jet mysteriously tipped away from formation before hurtling straight into the ground just 100 metres below.

Very little wreckage was left after the incendiary impact on Friday afternoon at an air force base near Great Falls, Mont. Capt. McCaughey's family simply wants to know what went wrong as they try to come to terms with the disaster that killed the pilot three weeks before he was to be married.

A memorial service is being planned for Friday in Moose Jaw, where the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, officially known as the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, are based.

"We know that Shawn was an expert pilot, according to the guys in Moose Jaw. Just for my own and my wife's satisfaction we would like to know exactly what happened," Ken McCaughey, the dead man's father, said in an interview yesterday from his home in Candiac, on Montreal's south shore.

Canadian officials arrived in Montana on Saturday afternoon, about 24 hours after the crash, and took over the investigation from local personnel at the Malmstrom Air Force Base, where the Snowbirds were practising before a weekend performance, their first public outing of the year. The squad is now grounded and a show this week in British Columbia has been cancelled.

Major Ken Smith, the lead investigator, said things had started slowly and estimated that they would be in the field collecting evidence for two weeks, before further work that will include lab analysis and reports and that could take as long as a year.

"We really haven't discovered much. So we're just at this point securing the site and starting to collect evidence," Major Smith told CTV.

The other pilots have been interviewed and Major Smith said they saw nothing out of the ordinary until seconds before the crash.

There are many possible causes of such crashes, including engine failure or even a pilot suffering a heart attack. Often, however, the answer is human error, as there is a slim margin for mistakes in the realm of flying jets in complicated loops and twists at 500 kilometres an hour in close proximity to other jets.

The other Snowbirds are tight-lipped about the crash. Reached on his cellphone, Captain Jody McKinnon, a pilot and a team co-ordinator, said he couldn't comment because of the investigation. "You can imagine our thoughts are with our friend's family."

An eyewitness to the crash saw Capt. McCaughey's jet in a group of three or four before its nose tipped up and his jet rolled away from the formation. It then plummeted straight into the ground, sending up a plume of black smoke.

No parachute was pulled and it is possible Capt. McCaughey had little chance to react.

The Department of National Defence did not return calls for comment yesterday. In a statement on Saturday, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor extended his sympathies to Capt. McCaughey's family and described the Snowbirds as renowned.

Capt. McCaughey received his commercial pilot licence in the 1990s and, with a goal to become a Snowbird pilot, he joined the Canadian Forces in 2000. Like many Snowbirds pilots, he served time at the Canadian Forces flying training school in Moose Jaw before joining the elite demonstration squad, where he was in his second year. He was one of nine main pilots, although he had the least hours of military flying time with about 1,400.

He was to be married to Claudia Gaudreault of Chicoutimi, a social worker who lived on the base in Moose Jaw. Her bridal shower had been planned for Saturday, which was also her 29th birthday.

Ms. Gaudreault spoke to a Regina television station yesterday. "It's unreal to me, it's like a dream," she said.

"But I have this thing inside me that I cannot describe. It's like a spiritual thing that fills me ... Shawn and I -- it was love that was the basis of our relationship."

She said she has received an outpouring of support, including the comfort of someone who knows her pain firsthand -- Julie Selby, the widow of Captain Miles Selby a Snowbird pilot who died in a mid-air collision in 2004.

Aerial squadrons

Canada's Snowbirds are among several such "air demonstration" squadrons. The spectacular but dangerous flying has resulted in deaths since performance planes gained popularity after the Second World War.Snowbirds, Canadian Air Force

Formed: 1971

Years in service: 36

Deaths: 6

Plane: CT-114 Tutor, made by Canadair

Blue Angels, U.S. Navy

Formed: 1946

Years in service: 61

Deaths: 26

Plane: F/A-18 Hornet, made by Boeing

Thunderbirds, U.S. Air Force

Formed: 1953

Years in service: 54

Deaths: 20

Plane: F-16C, made by Lockheed Martin

Sources: Department of National Defence, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force
the results are in
The crash that killed a Snowbird pilot in Montana last May occurred when his seatbelt came unfastened during an aerial manoeuvre, an initial safety report on the Quebec native concludes.

Capt. Shawn McCaughey, 31, was killed May 18 when his jet crashed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
(Department of Defence/Canadian Press)
The report, released by the Canadian Defence Department on Monday, says Capt. Shawn McCaughey was steering his plane through a roll in northern Montana when his lap belt opened, causing him to fall out of his seat and lose control of the plane.

Once the buckle became unlatched, the Quebec native fell out of his harness and was not able to reach his controls or eject, director of flight safety Col. Christopher Shelley said.

"He's upside-down, the seatbelt comes unlatched, the harness comes loose, he falls out of his seat," Shelley told CBC News in a phone interview from Ottawa.

Col. Robert Mitchell, commanding officer of the Snowbirds, said a pilot outside of the lapbelt is no longer attached to the ejection seat.

The plane, which was 230 metres above the ground, crashed. McCaughey, 31, died on impact.

Practising for air show
The crash occurred in the afternoon on May 18 as McCaughey, who was originally from Candiac, Que., and other Canadian Forces Snowbirds were practising for an air show at the Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, Mont.

Reached at his home in Candiac, Que., McCaughey's father, Ken, told CBC News that the although the news gave them some insight into what happened, it brought no comfort to the family.

"I'm not pleased, but at least we knew at the time that it was not probably our son's fault," he said.

However, it remained unclear whether the seatbelt came undone due to mechanical failure or because McCaughey had failed to fasten it properly himself.

It was also not the first time a Tutor jet pilot's seatbelt came undone during a stunt. In 2002, another seatbelt became unfastened when the plane went upside-down, except the pilot was able to reach the controls in time and steer himself back to safety.

Another seatbelt jammed 2 weeks before crash
There was another problem with a Tutor jet seatbelt that jammed just two weeks before McCaughey's crash.

McCaughey was a member of the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, based in Moose Jaw, Sask. One day after the crash, the commander, Col. Richard Foster, described McCaughey as a "very professional pilot" with 1,400 hours of flying experience.

McCaughey, who fulfilled a childhood desire to be a pilot, was with the Snowbirds for two years and was supposed to get married just three weeks after the crash.

Monday's report was prepared by the Defence Department's Force Directorate of Flight Safety.

Modifications to seatbelts
The organization will undertake further investigations to examine why McCaughey's seatbelt came undone.

Since the crash, some modifications have been made to the seatbelt and restraint systems in Snowbird planes, and there has been enhanced training for pilots and passengers, the Defence Department says.

The commanding officer now also radios pilots before take-off, reminding them to check their belts.

The Snowbirds perform aerobatics in single-jet Tutors. Six Snowbird pilots have died since 1972.

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