“You’re in the danger zone,” aviator Jasmine Francoeur said as she tried her hand at disc golf for the first time.
“I don’t know what the par was — because I didn’t make it,” her peer, Maj. Kyle Pilatzke, said with a laugh after finishing his turn.
The clanging of goal posts echoed around the McArthur Island disc golf course on a sunny, Thursday afternoon as Francoueur, Pilatzke and about 18 other members of the Snowbirds maintenance crew enjoyed a friendly team-building game.
Whether throwing a laser beam to the goal or sending the disc listing to the left, the two shared smiles, laughs and some good-natured ribbing in their group as they made their way through the 18-basket course with avionics mechanic Cpl. Kate Ballard and public affairs officer Lieut. Becky Major on a much-deserved day off.
The members of the grounded Snowbirds squadron have been in Kamloops for about a week, performing maintenance work on the jets, which are expected to leave Kamloops for their home base in Moose Jaw within the next two weeks now that the Royal Canadian Air Force has lifted an operational pause for the fleet.
The red and white planes have been sitting at the airport since mid-May.
On May 17, a CT-114 Tutor Snowbirds jet leaving Kamloops Airport en route to its next stop on the cross-Canada Operation Inspiration Tour crashed into a Brocklehurst neighbourhood, killing military public affairs officer Capt. Jennifer Casey and injuring the pilot of the aircraft, Capt. Richard MacDougall. The jets were then grounded while investigators look into the cause of the crash. While the investigation continues, preliminary findings point to a possible bird strike shortly after takeoff.
Francoeur, 27, is an aviation systems technician with the Snowbirds, responsible for changing out parts that need replacement. She was at her post in Moose Jaw when she heard about the crash.
“It was sad and very tragic,” she said, noting the entire squad is a tight-knit group.
Francoeur said the technicians and pilots work closely together and see each other daily as the Moose Jaw base is small.
Noting the tragedy has been a difficult to deal with, Francoeur said it will be nice to close this chapter when the planes return home.
“Even with COVID-19, it’s been hard not flying a lot and not working a lot,” she said.
Pilatzke, who is the squadron aircraft maintenance engineering officer, said bringing the jets home is a major milestone, enabling the crew to now plan long-term maintenance with the jets back at the base.
“We’re, geographically, very spread out right now as a fleet,” Pilatzke said.
Pilatzke recalls eating lunch at his home in Moose Jaw when he received a text about the crash.
“I grabbed my bag and I sent a couple of texts off and then I headed into the office,” Pilatzke said. “I saw two other people in the traffic line with me, all going into work as well, and I knew then it was more than just a little bit severe.”
Technicians have been coming to and from Kamloops on two-week rotations since the planes were grounded at the airport three months ago.
“We’ve had people coming out just to keep an eye on the jets and do daily maintenance that we need to do on them,” said Francoeur, a Comox native who joined the military in 2017, getting posted to the Snowbirds in 2018. “I grew up watching the Snowbirds and decided I wanted to join.”
She is on her second stint in Kamloops during this maintenance phase.
The 10 jets are checked daily to ensure there is no damage or parts missing, she said. Crew members also check tire pressure and oxygen levels to ensure they are topped up. If the weather is bad, the aircraft will be towed into a hangar.
Pilatzke is in charge of all maintenance activities on the aircraft. He told KTW all the work that’s been done on the jets since May is, for the most part, expired preventive maintenance that was to occur over these past three months despite the crash.
A military man since 2001, Pilatzke was posted to the Snowbirds in 2016 as a captain and promoted to major in May.
Snowbird pilots will arrive in Kamloops at a later date to fly the jets back, but it’s not clear when that will be, Lieut. Becky Major told KTW.