Last Sunday, I went down to the northern part of Stoney Creek to pick up a kit from a porch of precut fabrics to make masks, scrub caps, headbands, and scrub bags. I timed this with a chance to see the Snowbirds fly past as part of their ‘Inspiration’ tour. I found a spot along the lakeshore, and was able to spot them as they wheeled over Burlington, making a tight turn east over Hamilton, but I was just a bit far north to see them up close.
While the Snowbirds have never been the main attraction for my husband and me to attend an air show–we prefer WW2-era warbirds–I’ve always enjoyed seeing them, flying in their nearly-60-year-old Tutor airplanes. When I’m doing my tour guide gig at Canadian Warplane Heritage, it’s always fun to show our own Tutor to visitors as “the plane the Snowbirds fly.” We let them climb in to the side-by side seats, and let them see and try the two sets of controls–the planes were originally trainers, and the plane can be completely controlled from either seat. We let them push on the pedals or pull on the stick so that they can see the rudder or ailerons move, and talk about how they control the aircraft. We explain that when the Snowbirds fly, the pilot chooses which seat to sit in depending on the position in the formation. And we show them the handles that control the ejection seats, explaining how they would work in an emergency.
But sometimes there are two people in the plane. Yesterday, Capt. Jenn Casey, a public affairs officer, was likely sitting in the right-hand seat beside pilot Capt. Richard MacDougall when the team took off from Kamloops. She had posted a number of photos in previous days of the team in formation in the air, although it’s not clear whether she always flew with MacDougall. Shortly after takeoff, something happened. Casey and MacDougall ejected at low altitude. The plane then dropped quickly and crashed, barely missing a house. Casey was killed and MacDougall was injured in the accident.
We’re often asked at the museum why the Snowbirds are flying such antiquated aircraft. My answer has always been that the aircraft are much like classic ’60s sportscars — think a Jaguar E-Type–eminently maneuverable and suited to tight formation flying. The fleet of Tutors are meticulously maintained, but what they do is inherently high-risk. Depending on the reason for the crash, I’m sure the question will come up again–should the Tutors be replaced? That will remain to be seen, but the mere fact that they are old is not in itself a good reason for retiring them. For now, the feeling is sadness that such a positive gesture by the Canadian Forces has ended in tragedy.
Today in history, two events with special importance to me.
At 8:32 local time, a peak in the Cascades range in southern Washington State known as Mt. St. Helens erupted. As this article mentions, St. Helens had been singled out as a possible candidate for a future eruption–possibly by the end of the century–in 1969. Monitoring equipment had been installed on the mountain in March, 1980, just in time to catch increasing activity–first, growing seismic shocks, and later, an ominious growing bulge on the mountain’s north slope. The area was evacuated, which probably kept the death toll down to 57–some of whom had refused to go, some of whom were scientists studying the mountain–including geologist David johnston, whose last recorded words were caught on a transmission to his command post in Vancouver, WA: “Vancouver, Vancouver…This is it!” NPR has this excellent article about the eruption.
The eruption was triggered by a landslide and, unusually, exploded out of the side of the mountain (think of a bottle of champagne, tipped partly on its side, and then the cork popped.) Because it was so widely documented, it taught scientists quite a lot about how to study active volcanoes. St. Helens itself has been quiet since 2008, but is still considered to be active.
For me, the eruption was crucial in cementing my fascination with geology, particularly with volcanoes (but also with earthquakes and continental drift.) Iwrote extensively about the eruption last year, including about a relic of the eruption in my own collection.
Earlier the same day, another tragedy, one I did not know of at the time. Post-punk band Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis, took his own life at his home in Manchester, UK, at the age of 23. He had been struggling with a diagnosis of epilepsy, which required taking incredibly powerful drugs to control, and his marriage was breaking down. The band had been preparing to leave on its first North American tour, its second full album (Closer) scheduled for release by the end of that month of May. Joy Division did not survive the death of Curtis, but reformed slightly afterwards as New Order, adding Gillian Gilbert (although not as a replacement for Curtis).
I was a New Order fan in the 80s, but it took me until the aughts to fully appreciate Joy Division. Curtis’ lyrics are incredibly literate and intense–many are based directly on particular books or stories, although a few–such as She’s Lost Control and Love Will Tear Us Apart–speak to his own troubles. It’s been said that Joy Division is the soundtrack of urban decay, all blacks and whites and greys, lights and deep, deep shadows, and that listening to their music is like taking a walk through Manchester in the late 70s. It’s this precise thing that has always drawn me to their music.