Aug 6-7: Precision, Pride and Patriotism in Saskatoon

While the Portraits of Honour National Tour has attended several airshows during the first two months of its national tour, its appearance at Saskatoon’s Canada Remembers Festival For Heroes was special.  More than an airshow, the annual Canada Remembers Festival For Heroes is designed as a tribute to our Canadian Forces and to all veterans, law enforcement and fire personnel. 

The Portraits of Honour trailer was located in the center of the Auto Clearing Speedway among other military displays including two Canadian Forces CH-146 Griffon helicopters and a patrol boat from the HMCS Unicorn.

The day commenced with an amazing and historic demonstration of military skill and precision by the United States Air Force Honor Guard.  This demonstration marked the first time the USAF Honor Guard has performed outside of the United States.

Normally these elite airmen and air women have the somber duty of conducting the ceremonial military funerals at Arlington National Cemetary.  There are typically twenty military funerals conducted at Arlington every day.  These men and women understand better than anyone the incredible responsibility that comes with honouring our fallen heroes.  They understood better than anyone the mission that our Portraits of Honour team has in honouring our soldiers, sailors and aircrew.

It was shortly after their performance that we learned of the tragic loss of life of 30 U.S. service members and 8 Afghan troops that occured when their Chinook helicopter was attacked by the Taliban with a rocket-propelled grenade.  22 were U.S. Navy Seals.  This Special Forces Team had been dispatched to assist a U.S. ground force that had come under attack by several insurgents.

Obviously saddened by this tragic news, the USAF Honor Guard remained stoic, continued to interact with the public and continued with their second performance later in the evening.  They are dedicated and resilient professionals.

Our own Canadian Forces Honour Guard marched in perfect step towards the main stage where they performed a traditional 21-gun salute in honour of our veterans.  The crack of each volley of gunfire seemed to pound on the hearts of the grateful Canadians who stood at attention in the audience; moving many to tears.

As with so many of our stops, we had the pleasure and priviledge of meeting the parents, siblings and friends of some of the fallen heroes whose portraits make up the Portraits of Honour mural.

We spoke with the proud parents of Sgt. Marc Leger.  The strapping 6’5” native of Lancaster, Ont. is known differently by the inhabitants of a small village near Khandahar.  There he is known as King Marco – the highest honour that the village elders could bestow upon him in honour of his efforts to help rebuild their community.   

The Legers were joined by the parents of Private Nathan Smith of Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.  It’s not unusual for the two families to travel together.  They’ve become close friends brought together by the bond of their sons who died together.

Marc, Nathan and two other Canadian soldiers – Corporal Ainsworth Dyer and Private Richard Green -- were accidentally killed in what is now known as the infamous Tarnak Farm Incident in which the four Canadian Forces soldiers were killed and eight others were wounded by a 500lb bomb that was dropped by a United States Air Force F-16 pilot who had mistaken a Canadian training exercise as the enemy. 

Beth and Gene Figley, mother and stepfather of Master Corporal Joshua Roberts also came out not just to see the mural but they are so proud of what Kin Canada is doing, they wanted to help and they spent the day helping the local Kinsmen to hand out brochures for their upcoming POH fundraising event.  They were joined by Josh’s sister.  To see them smile while remembering Josh helped lift the moods of our entire crew.  Giggles were shared when they told us Josh’s buddies called him “Sugar Hips” due to the candy that he constantly carried in the pockets of his combat pants.  

Following the opening ceremonies, the crowd was treated to an aerial show featuring everything from the loud roar of CFB Cold Lake's CF-18 fighter jets to the slow fly-by of a pristine WWII vintage B-25 Mitchell bomber, made famous during the 1942 Doolittle Raid in which it was dispatched off the deck of an aircraft carrier to attack mainland Japan.

The Canadian Army’s Skyhawks Demonstration Parachute Team entertained the audience with their precise and death defying maneuvers.  Several other aerobatic performances delighted the crowd including a wing walker standing on the upper wing of a biplane. 

The day was capped off with a flawless performance by our Canadian Forces Snowbirds (431 Squadron) in their distinictive red and white CT-114 Tutor jets.  The Snowbirds have become synonomous with precision and they continue to make their 9 ship formation look like one solid unit as they roll and twist throughout the skies often mere feet away from each other.

While one expects precision when they see the Snowbirds team in public, you might expect things to be much more relaxed behind closed doors.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Few get the opportunity to go behind the scenes with this elite squadron, but on Saturday a member of the Portraits of Honour team was invited to sit in on their private and secure briefing conducted prior to their show. 

The team sits around the boardroom table at the airport flight centre in designated seats with Major Chris “Homer” Hope (Snowbird 1) at the head of the table.  The Snowbirds call him “Boss”.  Snowbird 2 sits across from 3, 4 across from 5 and so on.

They run through everything from the weather (today would be bumpy due to significant gusting winds) to communication frequencies and they spend significant time during each briefing to role play through a “significant emergency” and an “aborted manuever”.  Today, it was what would happen if Snowbird 3 suffered a hydraulics failure.  Nothing is left to chance. 

Eventually they run through the entire show in their minds visualizing every maneuver and verbalizing every radio call.  Sitting in the room, you can’t help but realize you are amongst the best in the world.

At the completion of the briefing, each Snowbird is asked by Snowbird 1, “what are your operational goals today?”  The answers are crisp and unique as each Snowbird responds with what he will focus on to make the show better and tighter.  The answers vary from “not being late on the smoke” to ensuring precise wing tip to wing tip passes. 

For Public Affairs Officer, Captain Marc Velasco the answer is to “bring the bling Boss.”   And he does by ensuring everything is squared away at the performance site miles away.  He is often the first Snowbird that many meet and first impressions are everything.  He has a permanent smile on his face and is often seen handing out coveted Snowbird stickers or pins to a few lucky folks.  The bling comment also refers to one of Capt. Velasco's added responsibilities of using a handheld mirror to send a series of flashes to the team overhead so they know exactly where to focus their positioning for maximum crowd impact.  It may seem primitive in the high tech world of today's modern avionics but it works and it has worked throughout the proud 41 year history of the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

As the day wound down and attention started to focus towards the stage for a special evening concert, we had one more pleasant surprise as we caught up with Canadian Juno nominee Julian Austin who was set to perform.   Julian is a true friend of our Canadian Forces having performed for our troops in Kandahar several times. 

Wearing a rare camoflaged ballcap from the Kandahar Airfield Tim Hortons, Julian was escorted over to the mural and as big and tough as Julian is, even he couldn’t hold back a tear as he recalled the night he met Captain Nichola Goddard.  He was the last civilian to ever speak to her before she was killed in action.  Julian recalled several other soldiers that he had become friends with that didn’t return home alive. 

People often attend the mural and thank the POH team for what we are doing but it is Canadians who need to be thanked for they are the ones who come out to show their respect and their appreciation to our Canadian Forces and their families. Without their outpouring of emotion, the mural is simply a painting.

This weekend we experienced precision, pride and patriotism in so many forms.  Much of it was through performances in the air, some was through performances on the ground but most of it was in the audience through the hearts of normal Canadians.  We thank you for a great weekend!

Here is some video of our Canadian Forces Snowbirds during their pre-show briefing:

Please excuse the wind noise on this next video as we feature the precision of the USAF Honor Guard: