Article by Rich Thistle ©

Flying the Flag by Rich Thistle © Below is a very full report of our trip to the Snowbird’s 30th Anniversary and 4th Aerobatics Pilots Reunion held in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, October 19-22, 2000. For those who don’t need all the details, we drove all the way, carrying our show display with us. We had a great time while there and we drove home safely. If you need more details, I’m afraid there is no middle ground. I realize the following is at least novella length and represents extreme -some might say psychotic - self-indulgence on my part. Grab yourself a cuppa and be prepared to spend some time. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

Here we go.....
As we backed out of the driveway my first thought was, “Thank goodness it’s not snowing”. In fact it was a beautiful, calm, warm October Sunday morning. The sun shone cheerily on the autumn colors which still festooned our little Wasaga Beach. I quietly hoped it was a good omen.

My second thought centered on our distant destination, Moose Jaw. It suddenly seemed very far away, certainly farther than we had ever driven. I privately wondered if my bottom could take it. After all, it had been more than fifteen years since a much younger and more intrepid Rich and Jay had set out by motorcycle to circumnavigate Lake Huron. Way back then we had considered that trip a feat of superhuman proportions, right up there with Radisson and Champlain. Would we be in shape at the end of our current voyage of discovery to enjoy the reunion we had been invited to?

Almost at once I pushed these little niggling worries to the back of my mind. After all, we were safely ensconced in our big, comfortable truck. We had packed almost every worldly comfort we could think of to take with us. It was really like having a steering wheel in our living room. I felt ashamed! What a softy I had become!

Double Diamond Radical Twins by Rich Thistle ©
 
Then I thought - for the first of many times during the trip - about Paul Kane, the Canadian artist who set out in 1845 from Toronto on his two-year epic adventure to the west coast and back. Ford truck was not in his vocabulary. Canoe was. So was York boat, horseback, ox-cart and dog sled. Even walking! Here we were, almost effortlessly eating up the first few kilometers. Hey, my accelerator foot wasn’t even tired yet. And, of course there was always cruise control! What did I have to worry about?

Well, I did think of something. We were traveling with a very heavily loaded truck. It certainly felt as if we had reached the ½-ton limit all right. Our whole display, which we usually take to air shows, took up most of the box. Piled in with it were boxes of prints and posters, several originals and display easels, as well as all those aforementioned worldly comforts. Even the space behind the front seats, the usual domain of our Airedale, Robin, was stuffed with clothes, suitcases, snacks and the over-stuffed cooler. The truck’s center of gravity was way up there in the stratosphere. I thought of all those hills and curves north of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. Yes, if there were something to worry about I could think of it! And, by the way, how could we ever have even dreamed about taking Robin with us? She and her paraphernalia would have put us over the ½ ton for sure! Nevertheless, we were successfully underway. We verbally went through the checklist. Moose Jaw was too far to come back for some forgotten necessity of business or some personal comfort item.

Checklist complete I felt somehow better. I even began to relax a bit. Cruise control on, my thoughts became much more positive. This wasn’t so bad. There seemed to be much more autumn colour to enjoy than we had predicted. In fact, autumn was still hanging on in most places for the duration of our trip. BONUS!

Then, almost before we knew it, we had reached Sudbury. It all looked a bit familiar. The motorcycle trip, remember? But this time, no bugs in the teeth! We came upon our first visitor’s info center. A new Ontario road map I thought, and a leg stretch. Closed. I guess you’re not supposed to travel in October and on Sunday. Come to think of it, there’s probably some rule about after-September travel. In fact, on our whole journey, we found only one travel info center open in any of the three provinces. I guess we were lucky the gas stations were still open!

We traversed the top of Georgian Bay without incident. Past Espanola, past the rapids on the Serpent River where we had stopped on the motorcycle trip to add to my photo resources, past the highway to Elliot Lake, (we couldn’t imagine retiring this far from everything!) and on to Sault Ste. Marie. Turn right instead of left. We were boldly going where no Rich and Jay had gone before! North of Superior.

At the risk of sounding a bit teenage, there is only one word for the drive north of Superior. Awesome! Visual drama at every corner. No wonder these were among the favorite haunts of Tom Thomson and the painters of the Group of Seven. The Algoma district, the Montreal River, the Magnetawan. These were places I had experienced only through their paintings. It was somehow very special for me to see them with my own eyes, to finally experience them for myself. Mind you, most of these deep experiences took place at 110 kph. We did actually make notes about where to stop on the return trip. Good intentions!

Wawa... Darkness fell pretty abruptly on the first day just as we reached it. Thank goodness! We had been warned by more than one of our friends not to drive after dark. “Moose: Night Danger.” We had seen the signs. There were lots of them. We must have seen hundreds (of signs that is). Luckily we met no moose for the whole trip although seeing one at a safe distance might have made a better story. But, having seen the number of big rigs with big steel moose catchers on the front, we feel fortunate just to have finished the trip unscathed. Thinking of the moose we didn’t see reminds me that the trip was not without other wildlife sightings: three bald eagles, two at quite close quarters, two red foxes seen by Jay while on “moose patrol”, and at least three fresh road-killed deer on the prairie as well as lots of ducks and geese, a formation of migrating blue herons and many big black-and-white magpies with their curious long tails and swooping flight habits. Upon our arrival home, we made up for our lack of moose and live-deer sightings, encountering two very alive white-tail does on our first walk in the forest behind our home. However, we did encounter another form of wildlife on our trip. More about the squadron parties later!

Wawa... Dawn. Remove our breakfast and lunch makings from the obligatory fridge in the typical northern motel room. Eat a portion of the breakfast goodies we brought (bananas, yogurt, vitamin C etc. you know, some of the worldly comforts previously mentioned). Say goodbye to Wawa. Another day of driving. More awesome Superior shoreline. A stop for our picnic (worldly comfort) lunch at a rocky, magnificent Superior beach. Thunder Bay. Dryden by supper time. Another motel room, another fridge. We were falling into the routine.

Next morning Kenora and Lake of the Woods, then across the Manitoba border. Almost immediately the landscape changed; first wooded and flat and then more open and flat. A taste of the prairie we knew was coming. Something else abruptly changed too. Regular gas plunged from 84 cents a litre to 67.9. It figures. We still had ¾ of a tank left. But I made a mental note to be more empty at this point on the return trip.

After the up-and-down driving challenges of northern Ontario, the straight flat of the Manitoba freeway was a definite relief. For a while. Actually we enjoyed our prairie drive. There was more variation than we had been led to believe. Skirting the southern edge of Winnipeg though, major land forms were definitely absent to be sure. In fact, one endless piece of plywood comes to mind, and we were traveling with the grain. I thought again of artist Paul Kane who, at this point of his journey joined a party of Metis on horseback and ox-cart to hunt buffalo south of the Red River settlement. I tried to picture the plywood covered with buffalo as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t.

Brandon. Mid afternoon. Stop and smell some roses. Take a breather. We were within an easy morning’s travel to fabled Moose Jaw. Another fridge in another motel. A walk along the winding Assinaboine River. Missing Robin the dog. Shirtsleeve weather. As Paul Kane noticed about his autumn prairie experience, “A curious, warm, blue haze hanging over the landscape.” Definitely Indian Summer.

Next day, shortly after lunch we walked into the banquet room at the Heritage Inn. Moose Jaw at long last! There were some very familiar faces. Snowbird pilots and techs. Preparing for their last flying show of their 2000 season you ask? Participating in a pre-flight briefing you speculate? Ironing out some complicated air force detail you wonder? No. Carefully applying self-adhesive labels to countless bottles of wine for Saturday’s banquet. Some friendly greetings and a few friendly jibes. I observed all this seemed somehow menial for such highly trained aviation professionals. I reminded them that the only redeeming feature was the repeated exposure to a great Snowbird image freshly printed on each label. It was my 30 th anniversary painting “Flying the Flag” living a different life which I could never have predicted while painting it in April.

Leaving them to their task, we settled into our room. The Inn was by far the nicest accommodation so far, but where was the fridge? Do no hunters and fishers frequent the Heritage Inn in metro Moose Jaw? Oh well, at least we were settled for the next few days. All events were to happen here or at the base. This helped us logistically as we would have to remove the part of our display we couldn’t leave unattended, haul it to our room and put it back up several times over the next days. We decided to set up the display early the next morning, and the rest of this day would be spent in relaxation.

Those who know me best will understand when I say I decided to relax by washing the truck. Jay spent some time getting to know the two (new-to-the-job) banquet managers who seemed to need reassurance on an ongoing basis. One little crisis after another! They had both been just recently parachuted into this event due to a change in hotel staff. Most of you will know how organized and efficient is our Jay. By the end of the weekend these three were like long-lost buddies!

We manned our display, which we set up in one front corner of the banquet room, during the Thursday afternoon and Friday morning registration. Over this time hundreds of former Snowbirds and other military aerobatic pilots and their families and friends registered and picked up their packages of reunion goodies. Saturday’s banquet was to be set for almost 600 participants.

Thursday evening we were at a late supper in the hotel restaurant. We were both feeling a bit weary. Behind us was a couple whom Jay had briefly met as they registered late in the day. They asked if we were going to the first official event at the Base, billed as “Alumni Night”. We had heard there was to be a ribbon cutting to officially open the Birds’ new lounge which had been taking shape during this flying season. Not being an alumnus, I had decided to give this one a miss. But the couple were insistent. The gentleman turned out to be Bob Hallowell. He and his wife Joyce had come from Vancouver Island. Bob had been the first official Red Knight, one of several former Red Knights attending the weekend who had flown the famous Day-Glo red T-33 solo aerobatic display over the years. It turned out he had been a bit reticent to attend because he thought he wouldn’t know anyone. However, as we stood in the hotel lobby waiting for the shuttle bus, the first man through the space stopped to greet him. It was a fellow pilot he hadn’t seen for years. Getting off the bus at the base, the first two men he met were also well known to him. I think he was suddenly feeling better about being there.

Jay and I were pleasantly surprised as we reached the top of the stairs in an otherwise unremarkable military building. A Snowbird red-white-and-blue world greeted us. The entrance to the new lounge area was impressive with its inlaid carpet runway design edged by movie theatre-type ”landing” lights up each side. All the ceilings were dark Snowbird blue with starry lights. Every bit of wall space was taken up with framed photos of military aerobatic history. If it hadn’t been quite so crowded and loud, I would have enjoyed just that feature alone. Mid way down the lounge’s length was a gallery space where several original paintings were hung. Although I knew they were there, it was a positive jolt to see my two watercolor originals prominently on display: FLYING THE FLAG, the 30 th anniversary image that had brought me all this way, and the painting CANADIAN ICONS which had helped to initiate our Snowbird connection during the previous year’s flying season when they had flown a September show at Stratford.

Beyond the gallery section was a spacious bar and billiard area. The Snowbirds we talked to had only seen the new lounge at various stages of incompletion on their few visits to their base during their busy flying season. They were as impressed as we were. I think they were especially proud of the fact that their lounge, although serving several purposes, had a comfortable feeling of home. More than one compared it to the stiffly formal aura which precluded fun and relaxation in the Blue Angels’ inner sanctum. As we left the party, we somehow knew it would be rockin’ well into the night. Unfortunately, our morning would start much too early!

With Friday morning’s registration session over, Jay and I headed back out to the base for the Snowbirds’ final flying show of 2000. It was a beautiful, two-tenths cloud day with a stiff but steady westerly wind. We arrived just in time to see a demonstration of a pair of the British Aerospace Hawks warming up the gathering crowd. I use the term crowd loosely because, instead of the thousands (tens or hundreds of) who usually flock to a Snowbird show, this group was intimate to say the least. Some military and government brass, Snowbird families, and not least, many of the pilots who had, over the years, carried on the tradition of Canada’s proud aerobatic heritage. A few hundred to see the last performance of this year’s Team. But this was a tough crowd.

As Jay and I stood on the apron in the cool autumn wind and bright sun, we could pick out some of the former Birds standing nearby. Every once in a while a private identifying comment would drift our way. Major Tim “Timbo” Rawlings, Snowbird 5 and deputy commander of this year’s Team had confided in us that this show, in front of the home crowd, including the alumni, was considered their most difficult show of the year. And I knew they would be in for an especially bumpy ride in today’s wind.

As you might imagine, I have seen the Snowbirds fly many times over my aviation art career, and I admit I am the kind of guy whose emotions are usually close to the surface. Suffice it to say this was the most thrilling Snowbird show I had ever witnessed. Have you ever noticed how much tougher it is to focus your camera with tears in your eyes? It wasn’t the wind. I always react this way when I see the best aerobatic team in the world flying the flag of the best country in the world. And, as Jay puts it, knowing the team personally this year, and even developing brotherly feeling toward one in particular, gives the show a whole new dimension of tension mixed with pride.

But, they performed as they always did, with consummate skill and courage. Their line abreast formation (LA Combo 12367) looked like one plane. But don’t take my word for it. There was a group of “senior” aviators standing behind us, obviously former Birds. “We were good, but these guys are better.” was one comment which summed up the show nicely. Tim, who was flying his last show with the Team, dedicated an amazing 3 aircraft maneuver (Echelon in Review) to his wife and young son. That brought the tears rolling freely down Jay’s cheeks. As the pilots stepped down from their red white and blue Tutors, some for the last time, they embraced each other there in the distant sunlight. You could see the close bond of military brotherhood which would bring them back to future reunions. This was indeed their family. Jay and I felt intensely privileged to be there.

That evening, we went back to the base for yet another party - remember the other wildlife I mentioned. All pilots attending the hanger party were encouraged to wear their flight suits. On the shuttle bus we spoke to two pilots in blue Brazilian flight suits. We knew them to be members of the Esquadrilha Da Fumaca, the Brazilian aerobatic team. “The Smoke Squadron”. Of course it was the gregarious Jay who has an affinity to pilots, who spoke to them briefly on the way to the party. A few minutes later, having circumnavigated the table-filled hanger, we were looking for a familiar face to sit down beside, when Jay spotted the Brazilians sitting by themselves. At her suggestion, not wanting to see them alone at the party, we asked if we could join them. Turns out we spent the whole evening together. They were the only representatives from any of the foreign teams invited to the event. They had traveled thirty hours from home to Moose Jaw, about the actual driving time we had been on the road.

Lt. Col. Otto Voget was the team commander and Maj. Ricardo Ries the deputy commander. They had come all that way out of respect and friendship for the Snowbirds. We had a great time. By the end of the evening, they knew much more about us and the country we call home, and we the same about them. Otto spoke almost perfect English. Ricardo understood most but found speaking tough. We learned he wants to spend some extended holiday time in the US or Canada to work on his English skills for career purposes. By the end of the weekend, we felt a bond of friendship which we hope to continue.

Saturday. The main event. Jay and I spent some morning tourist time in beautiful downtown Moose Jaw. We don’t think there’s a definitive reason for the city’s odd name. A moose jaw lashed to a wagon to replace a broken wheel? Sounds a bit contrived to me. Where did the huge ungulate’s mandible come from anyway? Moose aren’t even indigenous to the prairie! Besides the Snowbirds, Moose Jawites seem most proud of their connection to the Chicago gangster Al Capone who, when the windy city became too windy for him, apparently took the train to Moose Jaw to cool his heels in some sort of underground tunnel complex. Apparently many tourists pay dearly to experience the Capone connection. We didn’t. Maybe next time.

The banquet. Tables set for 600. Each table with its own inflatable Tutor flying overhead, all appropriately lined up with each other in military precision. Good fellowship evident throughout the room. Our table. Maj. Tim Rawlings and his wife Andrea whom we had met at the banquet for the Barrie air show earlier in the year. Jay and Andrea, very much like two peas, had hit it off big time, no surprise. Also at the table were Tim’s parents Jim and Ginny from Barrie who had visited us in Wasaga to pick up their 30 th anniversary print. Jim is a former Tutor jockey now flying for Air Canada. And finally, Andrea’s parents, Sonny and Audrey Lefort. Think about this amazing coincidence! Sonny was Snowbird 5 in 1980-81. Andrea married Tim who later became Snowbird 5 almost twenty years later! What are the odds?

The eating part of the evening is punctuated with presentations and speeches, moving along in military precision under the confident and humorous guidance of master of ceremonies Dan McLaren (Mach 1 Productions) an honorary Snowbird. In one moving moment, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette has everyone wiping their eyes. She extols the patriotic virtues of the Snowbirds and her love of Canada before presenting the Team with yet another historic piece to be hung in their lounge, a Canadian flag and several pieces of Snowbird memorabilia which accompanied her on her space mission.

Sponsors of the event are recognized. Door prize winners are announced. This years “Honorary Snowbirds” are inducted. Ten of them instead of the usual two. One recipient of this great honor is Tom Lawson whom we have come to know through our connection to the Centralia air show. It is well deserved. Congratulations to Tom and all of those named. Then Tim gets up and heads for the microphone.

Of all the Bird’s we have met since last year we feel closest to Tim. Snowbird commander and Team lead, Maj Bob “Cowboy” Painchaud had put Tim in charge of organizing this 30 th anniversary reunion. We were in touch with Tim on an ongoing basis for this past year. He is a cheery, capable, affable young man. We always looked forward to his calls from the Team’s many show venues.

He begins his address to the assembly. Suddenly I realize he is talking about me, telling of our first contact a year ago September at the Stratford show and describing the Team’s reaction to my commissioned painting CANADIAN ICONS which they received as a gift from the organizers, the Stratford Kinsmen. He referred to the slide presentation about my work as an aviation artist I had made to the Stratford banquet as part of that evening’s proceedings. It had been one of life’s great moments for me.

Then he spoke of the passion the Team perceived I felt for Canadian flying, flyers and aviation history. I hardly knew where to look. Then he talked about FLYING THE FLAG. I knew they liked it, but the depth of feeling he expressed about it surprised me a little.

Just as I thought he might be finished he began to talk about Jay. Most who know me best realize that my career as an aviation artist probably would never have flown without her. I love painting. I am not fond of most of the business aspects. Tim knows the power of a good partnership. He asked us to stand. It was another of life’s great moments. I felt even more privileged to be there.

The formal part of the evening was nearing its completion. The main address was given by Lt-Gen (ret’d) F. R. Sutherland (Squadron Honorary Colonel) who delivered an upbeat historical view of the Snowbirds, full of thirty year’s worth of superlatives. He left us all with high hopes that the future of one of Canada’s treasures is reasonably secure. However we are all aware that unless we remain vigilant, political whims could, at any time, spell the end of any great institution, no matter how valued.

We were then treated to an incredible slide show blended with powerful music featuring this year’s flying season with images of the Team in the air, on the ground, with their families and having fun together. It brought cheers and tears from a very appreciative audience.

At that point the proceedings revved up a notch or two. Party time. Fantastic one-man band time. Dance time. Even Rich and Jay dance time. We came close to putting this party to bed, turning in at 2:30. We both knew the trip had been well worth it.

Up again to man the display by 10:00 for the last event, Sunday brunch. An artist’s work is never done! Four hours of sleep is definitely not enough at this stage. I could predict an afternoon nap! Said our good-byes to Otto and Ricardo with promises to stay in touch. There were lots of good-byes and best wishes all around.

Then, by 2:00, the event was over. Since we were not leaving until Monday morning, we took our time disassembling the display. A no-pressure take down for a change. No threatening rain clouds, looming darkness of nightfall, no security people looking at watches once again. I was extraordinarily relaxed. The truck loaded easily.

Tim and Andrea and their little son Jake were there. An organizer’s work is never done. We said our farewells. More promises. And that was it. Finito! We both felt suddenly sad!

Finito except for the trip home, that is. Now that I had a handle on the magnitude of the drive, I guess the same niggling worries stirred again. Jay could sense that looking forward to the trip home had been bothering me. We planned to compress the journey into three instead of four days. And we were really missing our dog Robin! But, not to worry, everything went just swimmingly. Good weather, almost all the way. A brief stop at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to relive the setting of a favorite Paul Kane painting. A huge “medium” ice cream cone at the gas station famous for its 67.9 cent gas. We almost needed a convertible to be able to eat it on the go! We make a mental note to come here again just to get another cone.

The appearance of fog on the last morning created a problematic drive from Wawa to the Sault and I missed some of the photos I had promised myself on the return trip. But it was a small price to pay for all the ideal weather which had followed us out and most of the way back.

We arrived home with a good feeling about all that had transpired for us over the last eleven days. We had experienced a part of Canada previously known to us only from photos, films, paintings and high altitude fly-overs. We had been privileged to take part in an important and very emotional Canadian event. We had initiated some new friendships and solidified some which we already treasured. And finally we were committed to maintaining a close relationship with the Team, committed to helping preserve, in any small way we could, their great tradition of Canadian excellence. I will always treasure the memories of this event as one of the defining moments in my career as an artist. Thank you Snowbirds.

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