When the pandemic moves an air show over your house

Text and photography by Claude La Frenière
A CH-146 Griffin of 439Th Tigers flying over the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel in the old city of Quebec.
An airshow in pandemic time

On June 26, as it has done every two years since 1953, the 3rd Wing of Royal Canadian Air Force CFB Bagotville in Quebec presented its 2021 edition of the SAIB (Bagotville International Air Show), the largest Canadian military air show. In 2019, the SAIB set an attendance record with 143,000 spectators.

During normal times, the air show featured an impressive guest list and a lineup consisting of the main Canadian Forces demonstration teams, as well as many teams and performers from the USA and elsewhere in the world.

SAIB: the first carbon neutral air show in the world

In 2019, the SAIB was awarded the prestigious International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) Platinum Pinnacle Award and was recognized as a world leader in being the first carbon neutral air show in the world. In 2021, the SAIB committed to offsetting all greenhouse effect gas emissions emitted during the day.

Due to this international recognition, SAIB organizers were invited to present their structured approach to eco-responsibility at the European Airshow Council in Belgium in February 2020. They have also been invited to participate in a working group to help the French improve their eco-responsible process at their next post-pandemic convention in Lyon, France.

Things needed to be done differently

Nevertheless, in June 2021, we were still in the midst of a pandemic and SAIB officials needed to do things differently. Although the situation was increasingly considered under control, Canada still imposed severe restrictions on public gatherings and it was unthinkable to have an event with the public on the base.

It was not an option to cancel or skip the event and organizers had to modify their plans to ensure the air show’s success. With the theme of ‘Operation Good Neighbours’, the SAIB was taken to the people with the mission to bring hope, comfort and joy in the form of low-level flyovers over a dozen cities. To base commander Colonel Normand Gagné, a good neighbour is someone who cares, who serves as an inspiration and role model, and who goes out of their way to help others when they can.

As it was not a conventional air show, but a series of overflights of a dozen cities by RCAF aircraft, one might think that the event was easier to set up. In fact, logistics were complex, especially regarding the coordination of aircraft which arrived from bases around Canada, precise timing of their arrival and authorization for low altitude overflights.
The best planning in the world does not control the weather

Twenty-four aircraft from different RCAF squadrons flew at low altitude directly over people's homes in the nearby Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec City and Lower St. Lawrence regions during the day to demonstrate the capabilities and operational excellence that defines the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Unfortunately, gloomy weather moved in to spoil the party with grey weather and an overcast sky everywhere on the route of the aircraft. For the first part of the SAIB in the morning, starting with the flight over the old city of Quebec, with its world-famous panorama and the superb Château Frontenac Hotel, the weather was more clement and all the crews were able to fly over it despite grey skies and a light rain.

The Snowbirds, a formation of four CF-188s, a CC-150 Polaris, another formation of three CF-188s, a CC-177 Globemaster, the demonstration CF-188, a CP-140 Aurora, a CC-130J Hercules and a formation of three CH-146 Griffons flew over and made a large circle around the city.

For the second part of the initiative, which included flying over towns in the area surrounding the base, the weather took control of the operation. Crews had to juggle with thunderstorm cells, intense rain episodes and ceiling heights that varied every ten minutes and every ten kilometers. They had to adapt their flight plans and often did not pass exactly where they were expected.

Some cities were not flown over by all the aircraft. For example, the Polaris and the Aurora did not fly the second leg due to safety reasons. It was impossible to reschedule because many of the participants were operational crews who were expected elsewhere as soon as their participation was over. Despite the weather, there was a substantial number of people in public places to watch the flyovers in all cities.

Although the crowds were impossible to gauge along the entire route of the aircraft, SAIB officials told us that more than 645,000 people have visited the official website for SAIB 2021, and they promised that the 2023 event will be the most impressive ever.