brentonians take to the skies
A conversation with ian McPherson
I imagine that what the Japanese call “satori” is the feeling of flow that you experience when you disconnect and time no longer matters and you fly with your best friends in these evolutions in the sky—that feeling is incredibly intense. - Marco
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. Officially known as 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, it is the military aerobatics or air show flight demonstration team of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Snowbirds' official purpose is to "demonstrate the skill, professionalism, and teamwork of Canadian Forces personnel". Since the name Snowbirds was adopted in 1971, the team has been thrilling audiences with their aerobatics in their iconic red and white Canadair CT-114 Tutor jets. For generations, the Snowbirds have been an iconic symbol of Canada and the Canadian Forces across the country and the globe.
The School has a strong relationship with the team and has been the fortunate recipient of several campus flyovers that delighted staff and students alike. We sat down with three alumni who have witnessed first-hand the dedication, skill, teamwork, and trust that working in the Snowbirds team demands. Old Brentonians Chris Van Vliet ‘81, Damon Brad Wintrup ‘83, and Marco Rusconi ‘97, graciously joined us for a conversation about life with the team, their Brentwood experiences, and the parallels between them. The following are excerpts from what was an engaging, insightful, and thoroughly enjoyable two-hour conversation.
The Brentwood Experience
Marco: Brentwood was a phenomenal process for me. Being away from home and able to discover my teenaged sense of being and say, “Hey, is this something that I want to do with my life?” That and being exposed to all the amazing opportunities and skills that the school offered me. They rounded me out as a human being and I continue to use them. It’s amazing, when I think of my public speaking abilities, being on stage, theatre productions … all of that. They’re basic skills that I keep going back to, not just weekly, but daily, and so I’m incredibly fortunate.
I left home when I was 14 because I had these crazy dreams of joining the Canadian Air Force. I grew up in Italy, and I was in Grade 11 and Grade 12 at Brentwood. I was in Ellis House and graduated in 1997. I regret not being there longer, once I had the experience. I was so fortunate. I think it was three days after my Physics 12 exam. I still remember—that is when I joined military basic officer training.
Brad: I was at Brentwood from ‘79 to ‘83; grew up in Edmonton. I started in Grade 9 in Privett House. I was given an outstanding opportunity to be the House Captain of Privett House, and I always kind of … you know, the IKEA commercial with the lady, she's got a huge number of shopping bags and she calls ahead to her husband, “Start the car! Start the car!” Seriously. I thought I had no business being here because I'm not super smart. I just felt, wow, this place is... Even as a kid, I realized this place is a privilege. To have the opportunity to participate in any way that I could. The fact that you got to choose what you wanted to do. I had some interest in music and fine arts and sports, all three, and I got to do all of it.
Before I arrived at Brentwood, growing up in the public school system, I learned how to settle for doing the minimum acceptable level at anything I did. There was no incentive to do anything really well. In fact, there was a disincentive because, if you stood out in any way, then people would either beat the crap out of you or it just never really worked out. I got used to that mentality. Then I get to Brentwood and it's not like that here. Everybody's trying hard because they want to try hard. I'm thinking this is cool. Making that observation as a kid I think was instrumental. That probably changed the course of my life. I would have ended up much different, and I never forgot that.
You have to take advantage of it and try something and, if you like it, try it again. Maybe try a little harder. And it always works out. It works out 100 per cent of the time. It's amazing. I learned that. Even though your environment presents you with opportunities, there are also going to be challenges. People need to recognize that they have challenges and some of those challenges are going to get in the way but you still have to decide if you're going to take the opportunity and make something out of it. I think that is what I carried forward. I took that to university with me, where it was no longer OK just to meet the minimum acceptable. I actually tried hard. I was not afraid to get involved in stuff. I think about a month into my first year, I joined the Reserves and joined the Calgary Highlanders as an infantryman, and became a bagpiper. By the time I graduated, I was a full-time guy and I was recruited as a pilot. So it was a side story in that not many pilots drive boats. I thought I was going to be a pilot but ended up driving a destroyer instead for about eight years. But eventually, I got around to flying airplanes.
Chris: I remember - very much in line with what Squid was talking about - that feeling of wide-eyed wonder at Brentwood, a lot of the time when you're going like crazy because there's never a dull moment and there are all these new things that you're trying. So you're busy trying yourself out on yourself and other people and trying to figure out what it's all about. But the entire time you're there, you have a sense of belonging and you have a sense of everybody moving in the same direction and you have a sense of awe in what is being created.
There was a sense of wonder that you got at Brentwood from being a part of something that was bigger than yourself. Although we're all individual members of the school—you were not the school and the school was not you—you were both a part of each other. That was really important. I carried that right through my military career. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Canadian Armed Forces (and later it became the Royal Canadian Air Force) again because I felt a sense of pride in being there. I was fortunate to be doing what I wanted to do—most of the time—pursuing a goal of aviation and being a part of a team that was focused, and being proud of the fact that you could accomplish things as a team. You could accomplish things as an individual, too. And we always strive to do so. But I was very proud of the fact that we were accomplishing things as a team.
Making the Team
Marco: I graduated from the Royal Military College in 2001, and I started flight training in 2003 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. My first assignment was as an instructor, and I was so fortunate to be selected onto the team right after that. So fortunate. And unlike the average Snowbird, I was a bit of a longshot in the team. I was very inexperienced. For me, it was a hey, toss my hat in and see what happens. I felt honoured and so fortunate to be selected for the team and I served for four years after that.
Brad: Logistically, in the best-case scenario, keeping the math simple, it was always best to change half the team every year. The guys will probably attest that being away from the family for an extended period repeatedly, year after year, can become tiresome. It’s exciting, but it’s tiring, and it’s difficult for the families, as well. To create a bit of normalcy for everyone, the ideal situation would be to change half the team every year, therefore everyone gets a two-year tour.
Sadly, it has not been a two-year tour for quite a number of years now, for probably closer to about ten years. For the same reason, we’ve got demands on the individual groups, so our pilots all start at the same place, but from there, they disperse and become specialists in different areas, helicopters, transport and fast jets. We did see that we were going to hit critical mass at a point where we would not be able to service the requirement for replacing the team on a two year sort of contract basis, just because it was not feasible for the individual groups (Helicopter, Multi-Engine, and Fast still remain responsible for their regular mission sets as providers of air effects in all of traditional military roles ). We've been leaning heavily on the Fast Jet guys because they're the easiest to convert to the Demonstration Jet Role and they seem to be the most interested and/or available from the parent communities. There has been an ever-increasing appetite from the Government to participate in global efforts in coalition and allied missions. But in my last year as a skipper, half the team's parent communities were seeking less time commitments which meant we recently relied overwhelmingly on the maritime helicopter community: half of the 2017 team was from the Maritime Helicopter community. However, that hurts that community in the end because they still have their regular missions to service and they have career progression planning, succession planning and they have to balance those types of considerations as well.
Chris: At school for AP exams or some of the heavy exams, you're under pressure and you step up and you perform. You learn to do that and you learn to do that at different stages through your military career, too. But nowhere was that quite the same as the Snowbird tryouts for me. All through your military career, generally—not always—you're up against a standard. The standard might be very high, and you're with a lot of talented people. For the most part, everybody manages to achieve the standard, sometimes with help from their peers. It's great. Snowbird tryouts were the first time where you were in there with a group of your most respected peers. These guys and gals have all been hand-selected to go to the tryout for a number of reasons—not just flying ability; they are generally really sharp people. I felt a little under-qualified in some ways to be in that room with those people in tryouts. But you put your head down and you focus and you do your best and you support each other because that's what it's all about. But the clincher is that you look around that room and you know that half of the people are not going to make it.
Even though these are all people who could probably make the standard, they're only going to pick half of the people in that room for the tryouts. I ground my teeth at night, and I was really feeling a lot of pressure there. But you manage to make it through and then the team is announced and the most amazing feeling of both elation and deflation occurs on that day. You are elated, having made the team, but you are completely deflated because you didn’t make the team with everybody. You also know that those who didn't get selected are going to be carrying disappointment, for a while until they do start to put that whole experience in perspective, themselves.
Being a Snowbird
Marco: Not having grown up in Canada, but being a Canadian by birth through my mother, it was a confirmation—if not a reawakening—of my Canadian pride. I got to work with some phenomenal people, and waving our beautiful flag at home and abroad was something that I was incredibly humbled to be doing. I got to discover Canada in a way that I would have never been able to otherwise, and that reawakens that sense of pride in you. Being surrounded by professionals and top performers is phenomenal, and the beauty of being in a room of professionals creates an atmosphere where we can criticize each other for the sake of the improvement of the mission as a whole. So the process of checking our egos and attitudes at the door, and being able to focus on mission success rather than on an “I’m right, you’re wrong” type of thing, rather than what happens in boardrooms in the civilian world that I’ve been involved with so far. So that was a unique thing that I took with me. And when I’m surrounded by people that think as I do, it clicks into this beautiful … that’s what I take with me all the time.
With eight of the most professional people you've ever met, but knowing that you have 95 people behind you. And each one of those people has worked their hardest for months to get you to that moment. It is truly humbling when you think of that, and the beauty of it is that we never lost sight of it. It was a big thing for us to realize, first of all, it's got nothing to do with us. We're just lucky enough to fill the suit for those few years that we get to do it. But it was always about Canada as a whole, and about the team. It's about the team and what it stands for and what it represents and for the armed forces as a whole and for Canadians on a larger scale. And every single person that had a hand in that, and was with us in those cockpits.
When it all comes together
Marco: There’s a beautiful word, which is ‘elevate’. I'm not a musician. I’ve never played for a national sports team. I imagine that what the Japanese call “satori” is the feeling of flow that you experience when you disconnect and time no longer matters and you fly with your best friends in these evolutions in the sky—that feeling is incredibly intense. The amount of work to get there is absolutely incredible.
For example, the Toronto air show would normally happen towards the end of the season and is typically on Labour Day. By that time, the team is doing OK. So when you get a nice water show, when the weather is beautiful and nothing moves and you go through thirty-seven minutes of your performance and you land and you're thinking ... what the heck just happened? It’s pretty special, yeah. Chris, what would you do to feel that again?
Chris: It's the team and having all these people behind you and having everybody focused on the same goals. I was so fortunate to have the chance to experience that and to try it and to find out what gave you that feeling of flow and carry that through your aviation career. I think probably for most of us who've been on the Snowbirds, the feeling of flow that Marco described was the pinnacle of aviation, for guys who loved flying formation. And formation isn't for everybody. There are plenty of military pilots out there who went through their formation training, who hate flying formation. They are simply uncomfortable being close to other airplanes. They would far rather not have to fly formation ever, ever. But it is a military department. So we all do it. We all learn it. And then some of us are absolutely addicted to it. It's like a drug. It's adrenaline. It's pure adrenaline. And it's a form of high, I guess. And there's nothing quite like the feeling that Marco described where you are with a group of professionals who have been through the wringer to get there. That was something you saw in Brentwood, as well. And the more difficulty you go through as a group—it does one of two things, you know, it either rips people apart because you can see where people's limitations and lack of strength in their fabric are. Or it makes the group cohesive, and I have to tell you that the military, I think all militaries of the world, do a great job of selecting for the traits that give you the ability to become a cohesive group, and the same is true with the Snowbirds. Whether it's on-purpose or by accident, but you start to become a very cohesive group and you're very honest with each other. I wouldn't say to the point of being hurtful sometimes, but it can border on that, when you get told off. I had a strip ripped off me more than once, and rightfully so. But you certainly learn to have a thick skin and to strive for a high standard at all times.
You can't have a bad day up there. So you pull up your socks and you make sure that you have a good day every day and some are better than others. But then you get into those times where, as Marco says, late in the season. You can almost feel what guys are thinking when situations are happening and you get into some rough air and you can tell by the feel of the bumps who's going to make the call in the formation to loosen up a bit.
Marco: If I may add something to what Chris is saying, you could tell if somebody had slept well or not the night before, by the way their jet was moving and the trust that we would have in each other was so intense that with our bow wave, if somebody was slow moving in formation, we would actually push each other around. Occasionally you'd get one of the guys—especially when I was number four, and Chris, I'm sure this has happened to you where unsaid, unsolicited—you get one of the guys that was flying outside of you come over and just hand you a beer and be like, “Hey, this one's on me.” So I look at him, “How close did you get?” And he's like, “You don't want to know.” For me, it's a, “Don’t do that again. Let's move on.” We are human. And that’s a big part of the experience, too.
In the Community
Brad: It was such an honour to be able to meet some of the most interesting people, not just associated with the air show community. The Snowbirds have an official charity, actually in Nanaimo (on Vancouver Island), and they have a relationship with a school in Whitby, Ontario. Because of Woodboot, he was from Whitby. And there's a No. 2 VandenBos Whitby RCACS (Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron) that's been renamed after him. There's so much history and depth to the fabric of the squadron and what it means to Canada. It touches so many different people. It's amazing. I just genuinely wish that everybody had a chance to be part of some type of organization that was like the Snowbirds because it’s life-changing.
Chris: I second that remark, and I would add to that that if it were possible for everybody to have the opportunity to travel the width and breadth of the nation like we got a chance to do as part of the team, I mean, way up north, every province, every territory. Small towns. Huge cities. Marco, help me out here.
Marco: Yeah, I'd like to finish this thought by adding an anecdote, which I think encompasses it beautifully. And Brad mentioned the Whitby fly pass that we do every year in Whitby, Ontario to honour Captain “Woodboot” VandenBos, one of our fallen comrades, where he has a school dedicated to him. So that normally happens after we finish our show on the first day of school, and you can imagine, we send our coordinators with a handheld radio into the schoolyard to coordinate the timing and the airspace and all of that. And so we're out holding just south of Oshawa and as we run in, what the coordinator does, as we're in our nine-plane formation flying over, he clicks the mic to let us hear the cheers of the kids that are so excited [choking up]. I’m getting a little emotional about it—about the flyby, and so here you are, doing what you love to do and you're hearing that excitement, and it’s pretty... it's pretty, it's pretty special. That’s, I think, a good anecdote to finish that thought with because it's truly special. And I will remember for the rest of my life. It's so beautiful.
Chris: And we’re just up there doing what we love. Yeah. I'm kind of speechless after that.
Marco: I think if we were to sum it up, do I feel like Brentwood was a springboard for what followed? Obviously, and it's not blowing smoke. It's being truthful. For all the reasons that we've discussed, the teamwork, the camaraderie, and mostly the challenges. We never learn anything when things are easy. It's when you have to pull your socks up and you just failed the test, you've got to get that calculus thing going. So not only on the academic side for me, mostly for the whole human interaction, art side. The whole Brentwood experience beyond just the school portion. That's what I find myself reflecting on often is how much of those learned skills I either improved on but have a genesis at the School or I rely on from what I learned at the time.
Chris: I totally, totally agree with that, and I think Brentwood was the first place where I got the opportunity to engage a phrase that my grandfather gave me that I was then able to test out of Brentwood and use through my military career. My grandfather was a big sports guy in Edmonton, and his favourite saying when you're feeling like the chips are down or things aren’t going your way or you've got an impossible hill to climb, whether it's academic, or athletics, whatever it happens to be, he always said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That was one that I was able to take with me, starting from Brentwood, and all the way through and I think Brentwood gives you the, as Marco said, the opportunity to learn so much that you don't even know you're learning. Your turn, Squid.
Brad: I can't top that. I do want to go on the record and thank Ivor Ford for calling me out in Grade 9 English, that I didn't do my homework. I thought it was pretty clever, but he did not. And he was very vocal about that. So I learned early that you don't mess with the man. You just do what you're supposed to do. That was a great experience for me. I always did my homework after that in his class, for sure. And that helped me going forward. If I didn't know something, I said I didn't know it and I went to learn.