Capt. Scott Schrubsole

Tuesday 1 July 1997

A dream will come true over Ottawa today

Nervy Snowbird pilot will race to wedding after buzzing the Hill

Michael Woloschuk
The Ottawa Citizen

At noon today, Capt. Scott Shrubsole of Nepean will strap himself into his CT-114 Tutor airplane, thunder into the sky with eight other Snowbirds for their hair-raising fly-by over the Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill, land at Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, slip into a tuxedo and then race to the Wesley United Church on Main Street, where he will marry the woman he loves.

"I might have time for a shower," says Capt. Shrubsole with a wry grin as he contemplates his exhausting schedule. Shower or not, it won't likely make a difference to the rookie Snowbird pilot, because this is the day for which he has waited his entire life.

Ever since he first watched the Snowbirds perform their annual Canada Day fly-by over Parliament Hill in 1987, he has dreamed that he too would fly with Canada's elite aerobatic squadron.

And ever since he met Michelle Walsh, an airline attendant from Halifax, a couple of years ago, he has dreamed of marrying her.

His first goal came true in November, when he was finally named to the Snowbird team. And when he discovered that he would perform his first-ever flight over his home town on Canada Day, he decided that marrying his sweetheart on the same day was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"I thought we could do it on Canada Day," he said. "I love Canada Day, especially in Ottawa. It's a great time, a great place. It'll be an amazing day."

Born in Nepean in 1969, Capt. Shrubsole was raised in a family where his passion for speed and adrenalin rushes was allowed to blossom. As a goaltender for a local hockey team, he delighted in stopping pucks that burned towards the net. And while at Merivale High School, he excelled at the breakneck sport of downhill skiing. In his final years at high school, he took up skydiving.

"You could see there was always that need for adrenalin there," said Capt. Shrubsole's brother Sean, a computer systems manager for the Ottawa Senators. "Scott has that need for speed. I think that really sums it up."

His desire for speed notwithstanding, he shocked everyone when, as a chemical engineering student at the University of Ottawa in 1989, he announced that he was joining the air force.

"We always thought he was going to go into medicine, so flying was a surprise," said his mother, Diana Nicholas.

While his immediate goal was joining the air force and getting his wings, his ultimate aspiration was much loftier: He wanted to hook up with the 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Snowbirds.

His infatuation with the aerobatic team had never waned since he first saw them perform over Ottawa 10 years ago.

"I thought it was so cool, so amazing what they did," he recalled. "After I saw their performance, I whipped down to the airport -- I wanted to meet those guys."

He never did meet the pilots, but his wish to fly with them remained.

"I didn't know how I would go about becoming a Snowbird, but it was a dream," he said. "And the further I got along in my career, the more and more tangible it became. When I got to Moose Jaw for training, I wanted to be an instructor because I thought that was the quickest route to becoming a Snowbird. I'd instruct in the same planes that they fly, get my hours relatively quickly, apply and move right over there. Luckily, that's the way it worked out."

As thousands of spectators will discover as they look up at the Snowbirds when they zoom low, in the tightest of formations, over Parliament Hill at 1:15 this afternoon, Capt. Shrubsole's acceptance to this elite squadron has little to do with luck. It is all skill.

Formed in 1971 at Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan, the Snowbirds remain one of the world's premier aerobatic squadrons, drawing talent from the best of the Canadian Armed Forces' pilots.

Indeed, only eight of 100 applicants get an invitation to try out for the team each year. Just four will be asked to join the squadron.

Once they are accepted, the pilots begin a gruelling, six-month training schedule that includes many 14-hour days as the team perfects its precision manoeuvres.

Capt. Shrubsole demonstrated his own skills at an air show at CFB Borden, near Barrie, Ont. recently.

Strapped into a CT-114 Tutor with a relatively low top speed of 750 km/h, but capable of performing the most precise turns, he flew the plane as if he and the machine were one.

After the Snowbirds had taken off one by one from a relatively short airstrip (all nine Snowbirds normally take off, in tight formation, at the same time) the Nepean-born pilot rocketed low and fast over the treetops to join his team over Lake Simcoe.

Suddenly the speedometer approached 400 km/h and the G-force meter read 3.5 as he sped into a vertical climb. He raced to the rest of the Snowbirds, directly overhead, already in a diamond-shaped formation.

As he quickly approached the red-white-and-blue Snowbird pack, he levelled out his plane and applied a speed brake, suddenly slowing down.

"This is pretty difficult when all you have is air to brake against," he said as he manoeuvred his airplane into the position assigned to him, on the outer right wing of the pack.

At 300 km/h, his airplane sat only a few metres from the other Snowbirds flying in a tight grouping around him. They were so close, the formation occupied the same space as a Boeing 747.

When the team leader, Maj. Darryl Shyiak, calmly called out instructions into his headset, he and the other Snowbirds moved in unison. In the next hour spectators watching from the ground witnessed formations with names such as Big Diamond, Big Arrow, Maple, and Big Goose.

Although the show appeared dangerous from the ground, Capt. Shrubsole is so adept at his job that he carried out a conversation while making his pinpoint manoeuvres.

"For someone looking at our show from the ground who is not familiar with what we do or how we train, it's going to appear to them to be a lot more dangerous than it really is," he said. "It's not really dangerous. We practise it so much. We train from November until our first show in the middle of April. We train five to six days a week, two to three trips a day.

"It becomes pretty standard. It looks dangerous to the average spectator -- and that's what we're trying to achieve: the appearance of danger. It's the same thing when the solo pilots do their passes -- it looks dangerous; it looks like they're going to hit and they're going to just miss each other, but they've done it so many times, so it minimizes the risk to a comfortable level for us."

As much as their training minimizes the risk of a disaster, there is, nonetheless, real risk every time the Snowbirds fly.

In 1989, Capt. Shane Antaya died after his CT-114 Tutor crashed into another Snowbird at an airshow in Toronto.

Capt. Shrubsole is aware of that risk -- but he is also comfortable living with it.

"I've always been into what other people consider high-risk activities," he said. "But I think if you're smart about it, you can get through life doing risky activities without ever getting hurt. I've never been seriously hurt doing anything in my life. I've never even broken a bone. And I think it's because I've generally been smart about what I do."

Even his mother, who will watch her son perform with the rest of the Canada Day crowd at Parliament Hill this afternoon, is aware of the potential for tragedy in her son's occupation, but is confident of his abilities.

"The chances of something happening to him are less than they would be in a motorcycle or a car," she said. "And I have full confidence in Scott."

In fact, the Snowbirds' fly-by at Parliament Hill today will be short and a lot less risky than their normal aerobatic shows.

At 1:15 they will approach the Parliament buildings in their Big Diamond formation, fly past, and come back again from Hull. At their second pass over Parliament Hill, the Snowbirds will shoot up in vertical formation and perform a spectacular Canada Burst.

Perhaps the least worried spectator today will be Capt. Shrubsole's fiance, Michelle Walsh.

"Michelle is pretty much a risk-taker too," he explained. "She'll do pretty much anything. She wants to start sky-diving. She loves motorcycles. We're pretty similar in that sense."

After the Snowbirds land, he will have about an hour to change and drive to his 3:30 wedding at Wesley United Church at Main Street and Graham Avenue. The entire Snowbird team will be attending, dressed in their trademark red flight suits.

If all goes according to plan, the Snowbirds will perform a traditional military-style sword ceremony at the wedding.

"If I can find some swords," said Capt. Shrubsole.

Given the determined attitude that brought him from Nepean to the country's elite aerobatic squadron, there is a good chance that Capt. Shrubsole will indeed rustle up the swords.

"He's very strong-minded," said his mother. "When he sets his mind to something, he'll do it, no matter what."