Hot Wings

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Although not as well-known as the Blue Angels or the Snowbirds, there are other military demonstration aircraft that fly in air shows throughout North America. The Canadian Air Force's F-18 Hornet is one of them, and this one has a feline paint job.

Photos by Kirk Webber and Maria Rieger


It is midmorning on what is shaping up to be a hot, sunny day at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta. Members of the public are beginning to gather at the end of a runway at Canada's busiest fighter base, hoping to catch a glimpse of the "tiger."

It is the first time the 2003 CF-18 West Coast Demonstration aircraft will be on display, and the pilot and crew are getting ready for a short show for the hometown crowd. While members of this military community are used to seeing painted aircraft, this one is bolder and brighter than any of the others. The jet features bright orange and black tiger stripes over the entire fuselage. The vertical stabilizers have identical murals -- the head of a cougar superimposed upon the head of a tiger.

(Click photos for larger versions)
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The 2003 CF-18 West Coast Demonstration Hornet in flight.

It was painted to resemble the fierce feline to promote the fact that 410 Tactical Fighter Operational Training Squadron, located at the Western Canadian base, will host "Tiger Meet of the Americas" in September 2003. The event features squadrons from around North America named after tigers or felines competing in various air exercises.

Rock Star

Capt. Travis "Brass" Brassington has been chosen to fly the 2003 color bird. Brass is comfortable around aircraft -- he has over 2000 hours of military jet experience, with more than 1400 in the CF-18. Brass loves his job, and being a demonstration pilot is the icing on the cake. "I remember as a kid as an air cadet going to air shows, and it's sort of something all of us as pilots and 'wanna-be' aspiring pilots would love to do," he says with a smile. "You know, get the opportunity to strut their stuff, to show their capabilities and to share with the Canadian public what they were generous enough to give me in my flying training over the years."

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Capt. Travis "Brass" Brassington.

Not just anyone can become a demo pilot. Brass applied for the job a couple of times before he was finally selected. He says, "The formal process started in about September of last year. The Commanding Officer solicited requests to present applications for people that were interested in the job. So I put together essentially a resume and a package detailing my career and some of the things I thought would make me a reasonable or effective demonstration pilot for the year. One very small portion of it being the flying portion and the greater overall portion of the demonstration pilot being the ambassador to the Canadian Forces and a showcase of the Canadian Military and the fighter force and the CF-18 in general."

As Brass walks to his plane, preparing for his first show, the crew teases him about being a "rock star." While rumors about the reputation of a fighter pilot may suggest a cocky attitude and playboy ways, Brass is good-natured and obviously a family man. His wife and kids are amongst the crowd, with his two boys waiting to see "daddy's airplane" take flight.

Behind The Scenes

The pilot and plane may be the most visible part of the Demonstration Team, but the crew may be the most integral. It takes a lot of work to keep a 20-year old Hornet airworthy.

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Master Cpl. Dave Asbury cleans the canopy.

Master Cpl. Dave Asbury is an aviation technician with the team. He is part of one of the two crews that will split up the air show season with the West Coast team. The first thing the crew does to get the aircraft ready for flight is a "B" check -- a pre-flight inspection.

Asbury says, "Basically, that's just checking panels for security. Our tire pressures, our hydraulic system pressures, any fuel tank leaks and the basic security of the aircraft structure up top and on the bottom. We check the cockpit and make sure the seats are checked for safety, and all the switches are in the right positions."

After the flight, a more detailed inspection is conducted. Asbury says, "We check all the oil levels for the engines. We crawl the intakes and we do a more close inspection, plus fueling and we service the LOX [liquid oxygen system]. At the end of the day, we do a daily inspection, which is the most in-depth inspection we do on the flight line."

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Master Cpl. Bill Pinch during a pre-flight check.

The crew will travel with Brass to the 15 shows he is scheduled to perform in this summer, including several in the United States. But they don't get the luxury of flying to these locations; they have to drive in a military van.

Asbury says, "Some of the larger demo teams like the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds have quite a large number of people on their team and they have specially designed aircraft that fly them around. We drive in our van. Its kind of nice because we will get to see a lot of the United States too, so I am looking forward to it." The first long road trip for the crew will be from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. They plan to drive the 2000-plus miles in two days.

Asbury says, "We usually leave anywhere up to three or four days ahead of time. We have a van with all our spare parts and tools in it. We arrive at the show site usually a day ahead of the aircraft. We check with the air show organizers and find out where the aircraft should be parked. We make sure our equipment is on site, then the pilot will fly in and we will take care of his aircraft, do our checks, clean up the aircraft and be ready for the show the next day."

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The 2003 demo team (L-R): Master Cpl. Dave Asbury; Cpl. Sonia Vautour; Sgt. Brian Thili; Capt. Travis "Brass" Brassington; Sgt. Ike Blum; Master Cpl. Bill Pinch; Pte. Matt Dubois.

Public relations are a big part of the job too, according to Asbury. "Ninety percent of what we're doing is P.R.," he says. "That's another exciting reason why I wanted to be a part of the team, because I like to get out in the public and this is the first time in my career that I have been able to do this. I am very proud of this team. I would like to make sure the people around the country know that they have a very viable Air Force, that they have some excellent people working here and they should be proud of what they see."

Building For The Future

The Canadian Demonstration jet may be used to showcase the Air Force, but it's also a recruiting tool. The man in charge of the Canadian Base, Wing Commander Col. Bill Cleland, is proud of the jet. Cleland says, "We get a chance to show that we are as good as we say we are. People get a chance to see their Air Force in action, and to see the capabilities of the F-18. There is a high demand for us to participate in air shows and I know my guys like going out, doing it. They are proud of what they do and they like to be able to show the Canadian public their skills."

Capt. Brassington knows he may be partially responsible for recruiting. He decided he wanted to fly jets at an early age. "I remember watching 'Top Gun' and phoning 1-800-327-NAVY afterwards, just from watching that movie. It's amazing what a recruiting tool that was. I would love to see how many people we sign up, just based on the demonstration the CF-18 puts on and wanting to be a part of that. Maybe not necessarily wanting to be a pilot, but wanting to be part of what the fighter force is all about and the Canadian Forces and the Air Force in general."

The Show Must Go On

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Brass on a practice flight.

Another responsibility that falls on Brass' shoulders is planning an air show routine. Not an easy task when you think about the power of this plane. The twin F404 engines produce a combined thrust of 32,000 pounds in afterburner, and the plane can fly at nearly twice the speed of sound, over 1100 knots.

During some maneuvers, Brass will pull 6 Gs. Toward the end of the routine, he approaches show-line center at more than 600 knots. Brass will then pull 7 Gs as he disappears into the clouds at a rate of 50,000 fpm. To make things even more interesting, there are over 500 switches in the cockpit to contend with.

He says, "The routine itself is very similar from year to year. The airplane has certain characteristics that we like to showcase, so I don't think you are ever going to see a CF-18 demonstration that doesn't have a square loop, or a really slow-speed high-alpha fly-by, because that's one thing the airplane is really good at."

"Its up to us to try to inject a couple of different maneuvers -- how you would like to get from point 'A' to point 'B' -- but there's kind of a core group of maneuvers." Brass says, "[The CF-18] doesn't have as much thrust as an F-15, so it doesn't have the brute strength on the field that an F-15 may have, or the F-16 or some of the other airplanes. We try and showcase the capabilities of this airplane as far as its nose position and capability -- you know, the famous Hornet dirty roll on takeoff that we can do with the airplane."

The dirty roll is a maneuver unique to the F-18. Brass says, "The highly effective flight controls allow us to pull it off. You won't see an F-16 or F-15 do it. It is very dramatic and captures the attention of the crowd immediately."

Flying Colors

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Capt. Doug "Dewey" Clements performing in the 2002 demonstration jet at the Abbotsford Air Show.

One of the big attractions of Canada's Demonstration Hornets is the color scheme. This year's jet will tear up the skies with the tiger paint scheme, but they weren't always that colorful. Jim Belliveau is the graphic artist at 410 Squadron. He designs the paint schemes for the planes. His first design back in 1993 was a small, stylized cougar head that was painted on the vertical stabilizers.

Color over the entire aircraft was added in 1999, and the 2002 jet was made to look like its insect namesake. The "bug jet" was painted red, blue, white, orange, yellow and black, and featured a likeness of a nasty-looking hornet on each of the vertical stabilizers. Even the underside and part of the fuselage was colored to look like the underside of the insect. The paint scheme honored the 20th anniversary of the F-18 aircraft.

The man who flew last year's jet, Capt. Doug "Dewey" Clements, says, "There's mixed reaction as to whether we should paint the airplane, you know, is it still a tactical airplane? ... The Canadians have always done it, and lately the whole airplane. At air shows, people sure do like it -- you know the color demo teams, The Snowbirds, The Blue Angels -- we got a lot of great feedback."

The 2003 tiger striped jet took quite a while to paint. The designer, Belliveau, says, "It took four of us over five weeks to paint. It took six solid days just to sand the airplane and get it prepared for the first shots of gray paint, which would form the base of all the specialty colors that go on top of that. Just to mask for the black tiger stripes all over the airplane took us four or five days of straight work."

All In A Day's Work

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Brass flying over the Rocky Mountains.

It will be several weeks before Brass has a few shows under his belt. Last year's demo pilot wishes he could do it again. Capt. Doug "Dewey" Clements says, "We had a great time all over North America, I have a lot of great memories. You make friends for life and it's a thrill to perform in front of all those people. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will be sad this year, not being a part of that, but I got to meet a whole bunch of new people."

As Brass gets ready for the hometown show, he walks over to the plane and puts on the G-suit. He climbs up into the cockpit and fires up the engines, while the crew does some last-minute checks. The oxygen mask goes on and the canopy closes as Brass slowly moves out onto the runway. The crew raises their fists repeatedly in the air and mouth the words "Pump it up!" Brass makes the same motions in the closed cockpit, gives a quick wave and taxis to the end of the runway.

For Brass, this is what it's all about: performing for the people. Not your average day at the office, but it beats paperwork any day.