George Miller and the Snowbirds

 

George Miller (right) with the Golden Hawks, 1962

The base commander of RCAF Moose Jaw, Colonel Philp began to search for a new aerobatic team leader, and knew exactly what he was looking for - another veteran pilot with a strong fighter background (and preferably aerobatic team experience) to take the Snowbirds to the next logical step - full aerobatic status. He knew most of the majors in the air force with suitable qualifications but wanted another opinion from a respected ally. He called on Major C.B. Lang for his thoughts. In reviewing the list of possible candidates, both came up with the same name - Major George Miller. A former solo with the Golden Hawks, Miller was highly regarded in the CF-104 community where he was employed at the time. Therein lay the problem - he had not been in the European theatre long and pulling him off of a highly sought after tour might be difficult. However, this turned out to be inconsequential as Colonel Philp was able to spring Miller with a phone call to the Commander. As for George Miller, he leapt at the opportunity and picks up the Snowbird story:
 
“I often recall the 1973 Snowbird experience and the thrill and challenge, as a team, of preparing a nine-plane display in a time span of seven weeks, that is from first pilots’ meeting to our first show. I arrived at Moose Jaw on March 12, 1973 having accepted the very honoured position of team lead a week prior in Germany via a conference call led by Snowbirds’ founder, Colonel O.B. Philp. From the moment I arrived, O.B., as base commander, offered the support, ‘open door’ and independence I needed to cover ground quickly. I still remember our first meeting in Moose Jaw which he summed up by saying, “Your first show is in Yellowknife on May 15. I don’t care if it’s a four or nine-plane and the speed you develop is up to you. Keep it safe and just let me know when you’re ready to show me something and I’ll be your eyes from the ground.” And that he was, and his observations proved a tremendous help and incentive to us as we cut corners to form and develop quickly.”
 
“Having never flown the Tutor aircraft, I had to quickly ‘check out’ and start flying with selected team members immediately. The eight pilots joining me were the best of the instructional staff that had volunteered. We wasted absolutely no time. I decided to assign team positions based on one interview, one formation trip and intuition. With exhaustive briefings and debriefings and all of us fully focused in max learn mode, we cut directly to four-plane formation and solo work at 500 feet. Every day was a three trip day if the weather allowed it. I quickly found we had strength everywhere. At the difficult outer left wing, Capt Bob Wade’s skill enabled us to rapidly develop the line-abreast work. Our two solos, Capts ‘Inch’ Illingworth and Tom Griffis, began building a safe but aggressive routine with no obvious sign of being tentative in the wake of the previous year’s solo fatality. I had no cause to develop any real concern.”
 
“We tried a lot of original stuff as our 25 minute routine developed and as we worked on whittling our ‘off stage’ time down to 10 seconds. We faced few restrictions and I imposed none outside acceptable boundaries of team discipline and safety. Organization of the season schedule and selection of showsites and promotion was done by the team. The going was not easy as we were so short staffed with so little time to organize the team and schedule from scratch. Evenings were spent on the telephone coordinating promotion and showsites. All of our team flight suits and social attire was voluntarily paid for by the pilots and groundcrew, as was a lot of our promotional material. O.B. provided great base commander support in the provision of assigned groundcrew and the dedication of rapid base response to team needs whenever required. He also provided financial support as best he could. His advice, moral support and his actions as intermediary with headquarters were invaluable.”
 
“Within a few weeks of our first show, 2 CFFTS adjusted its afternoon schedule to allow us to practice over base. This provided the valuable audience reaction and critique together with O.B.’s comments. I chose the nine-plane double loop entry with solo splits to open the show and chose a show ‘action’ highlight to close it. This involved putting three simultaneous manoeuvres on stage as part of the landing sequence that allowed a four-plane box landing followed immediately by the rest in trail. We included a four-plane loop to downwind, a three-plane roll-around break and solos’ low-level tuck-under break, all at the same time. It proved to be a real crowd pleaser.”

 

 

George Miller (front centre) with the Snowbirds, 1974

“Our opening show at Yellowknife went very well. It was the first of 38 in 1973, seven of which were in the United States. This took the team from coast to coast twice. The revival of a full aerobatic display team representing the air force, the Canadian Forces and indeed Canada, evoked a great response wherever we performed. On July 14, 1973, Capt Carl Stef had to eject from his aircraft following an engine compressor stall due to a bird strike. Due to the subsequent back injuries he received from a very hard parachute landing, he was unable to return to the team until September. To the team’s credit, it was able to modify its formations within a few days and carry on as an eight-plane team until Carl’s return. I was extremely proud of the 1973 team and how well it rose to the challenge in such a short time frame and under considerable financial and administrative restraints. It launched initiatives in every area of team operations and support and established standards and procedures that would enable the growth of a national team to achieve the vision foreseen by Col O.B. Philp in getting it all started a few years prior.”        George Miller 
 
For more on the Snowbird story see A Tradition of Excellence written by Dan Dempsey.