Operation Inspiration was launched earlier this year by the Snowbirds to lift the spirits of Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. The cross-country mission was a way for the Snowbirds to pay tribute to all Canadians for helping to prevent the spread of the disease and honour front-line healthcare workers.
But sadly that mission ended in tragedy on Sunday when one of the planes crashed in Kamloops, killing Public Affairs Officer, Captain Jenn Casey. The pilot of the aircraft, Captain Richard MacDougall, was hospitalized with serious injuries.
What makes this incident in central British Columbia even more painful is that 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Snowbirds.
During a year when Canadians are grounded by COVID-19 the Snowbirds soared. As our nation has struggled to navigate a pandemic that has made 77,000 sick and caused almost 6,000 deaths, Casey and the Snowbirds gave us a reason to look up, forget our troubles and smile.
Casey was born in Halifax. She joined the Canadian Armed Forces in August 2014 as a direct entry officer. Prior to enlisting she spent several years working in broadcast radio as a reporter, anchor, and producer in both Nova Scotia and Belleville, Ontario.
“The team is devastated by the loss of Jenn. She was the quintessential public affairs officer, a tireless and energetic officer with a social media network of contacts from her previous media career as a broadcaster,” said Snowbirds commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Mike French in a press conference earlier today. “Her loss is a serious blow not only to our team but to the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces as a whole. I’ve spoken with Jenn’s family and passed on our sincere heartfelt condolences. No words can comfort the pain that they are feeling right now and I’ve passed on that they are not grieving alone.”
I met Casey and the team briefly at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto last year as they were hosting the UK’s Red Arrows. It was an opportunity to see two impressive air demonstration squadrons up close and watch the Snowbirds wave the flag. It was also a chance to speak with the pilots and maintenance crew members who work tirelessly to make it all happen. One thing that I have always appreciated about the Snowbirds is they are always accessible to the public and willing to talk about their adventures. Casey helped make the team reachable to those of us in the media and she did her job well.
In the time that I had with the team, Captain Arpit Mahajan introduced me to a couple members of the air maintenance flight crew and spoke about the preparation that goes into a show. I joked with Captain Stephen McKeen and Casey that if they needed any help that I would be more than willing to jump into the cockpit and grab the “yokel bar”.
Jokes aside, what was evident in every member of the team was their passion for flying and love for Canada. It wasn’t just a job. Each member knows they are a part of a tradition that is a critical piece of Canada’s fabric.
It’s easy to sit spellbound by their performances without truly grasping the risk, skill, precision, attention to detail and preparation that goes into each and every flight. But in terrible moments like this we are all reminded that this is indeed dangerous work and it’s a sad fact that things can go wrong. These outstanding women and men know the risks all too well but that doesn’t stop them from taking to the skies on our behalf.
I am honoured to have met the Snowbirds and my heart goes out to Casey’s family and friends. Her hard work, sacrifice, and dedication will never be forgotten. Casey inspired us all with her commitment to the Snowbirds and there is no doubt in my mind that there are young girls out there who will choose a career in aviation or journalism because of her outstanding career.
The Snowbirds are Canada’s ultimate frequent flyers. When Canadians were unable to go out and see the world, Casey and the Snowbirds gave the world a wonderful reason to see Canada. When Canadians had to pause from travelling because of the pandemic, the Snowbirds took to the skies for us. We will always be grateful. And we will always remember Captain Jenn Casey.