WORDS & PHOTOS: CLAUDE LAFRENIERE
The venerable Canadian International Airshow (CIAS) returned for its 74th annual Edition from the 2nd-4th September 2023 Toronto. Renowned as Canada’s premier aviation event, CIAS not only holds the distinction of being the oldest but also commands the largest attendance in the country, with more than a million spectators enjoying the three-day showcase.
This year’s edition showcased an unparalleled international lineup featuring two illustrious headliners. The Blue Angels, the esteemed U.S. Navy’s demonstration team, celebrated their 77th season in grand style, dazzling the Toronto crowd for the first time since 2009. Alongside them, the beloved Snowbirds demonstration team from the Royal Canadian Air Force enthralled the audience despite an unexpected absence within their formations for a part of the season.
At the heart of Marilyn Bell Park lies show center, offering exclusive spaces for enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the action. The Flight Deck, priced at $275 per person, treats attendees to a full buffet, an open bar, and exclusive meet-and-greet sessions with the performers. Alternatively, the General Admission section, at $80, offers reserved seating sans additional perks.
Photographing the Canadian International Air Show (CIAS) is a true art form, requiring photographers to navigate and adapt to a series of unique challenges. Against the picturesque backdrop of Lake Ontario, the spectacle unfolds at a considerable distance (1 km) from the spectators, demanding long lenses to capture the action up close. This is compounded by the additional challenge of shooting against the sun. Adding to the complexity was an abnormal September heatwave, bringing with it heavy atmospheric haze.
The show commenced promptly at noon and concluding around 3 p.m. across all three days, comprising 14 aerial demonstrations. The United States Navy Blue Angels stole the show, marking a triumphant return to Toronto with their sensational aerial prowess. In perfect synchronization, the Blue Angels executed meticulously precise, high-energy maneuvers, including crossings at combined speeds of up to 1,800 km/h. Their iconic Diamond and Delta formations were the highlights of their demonstration, earning them immense admiration from the Canadian public. The Blue Angels’ show also featured their C-130J-30 support aircraft, known as “Fat Albert”.
Captain Aimee Fiedler took the skies with the USAF F-16 Viper Demo Team, showcasing the remarkable capabilities of the Lockheed-Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon Block 50. Her breathtaking performance over Lake Ontario illustrated the F-16’s versatility and power, demonstrating mastery through vertical climbs, high-speed rolls, tight turns, and incredible aerobatics. The F-16 then joined up with Jim Beasley Jr. piloting his P-51 Mustang “Bald Eagle” for a Heritage Flight.
CIAS 2023 bade a fond farewell to famed airshow pilot Gordon Price. Now 80 years old, and a 47 year veteran of the Canadian airshow circuit, Gord was performing at an airshow for the final time in his Yak-50, marking the end of an era in the airshow world. Also demonstrating solo aerobatic prowess was Mike Tryggvason in the Extra 330LC, Trevor Rafferty in his Pitts Model 12 and Ken Rieder in the Van’s RV-8. Rieder’s unwavering dedication to aviation excellence was unmistakable as he effortlessly shuttled between the Canadian International Air Show in Toronto and the Wings Over Batavia Air Show in New York State, about a 20-minute flight away, and Ken shuttled back and forth between the two events throughout the three days.
CIAS featured two RCAF helicopter contributions, one being a frequent sight at Canadian airshows and the other being far rarer. A CH-146 Griffon helicopter, hailing from 8 Wing’s 424th Transport and Rescue Squadron in Trenton, Ontario, staged an impressive display of its search and rescue prowess. During the demonstration, SAR divers conducted a staged rescue of an individual feigning distress, highlighting the helicopter’s agility and precision in facilitating such critical missions. The flying display also featured a CH-147F Chinook from the 450th Squadron at Petawawa CFB in Ontario, piloted by Major Steve Pellerin, who showcased the aircraft’s maneuverability, power, and stability, the Chinook showcased its multi-purpose capabilities for transportation in various operational scenarios.
Despite its age, the CF-18 Demo remained a highlight for Toronto audiences, albeit without its thematic painting – a decision influenced by the need to allocate resources to operational support by the RCAF command. Limited to 10 events for the 2023 season, the CF-18 demonstration, led by Captain Jesse Haggart-Smith, not only performed its solo display, but also joined up for CT-133 Silver Star “Ace Maker III” flown by Rob Mitchell for a heritage flight, honoring past and present RCAF members.
The Snowbirds, iconic symbols of the Canadian Armed Forces since 1971, brought the curtain down on the show, captivating the Toronto audience with their timeless aerial performances aboard the venerable Canadair CT-114 Tutor aircraft. However, this year presented unforeseen challenges that prompted adjustments within the team. Since mid-June, the Snowbirds adapted their aerial demonstrations, reducing their formation from nine to eight planes due to a delicate situation involving one of the pilots facing criminal charges. This pilot was reassigned to non-operational roles, grounding his aircraft (Solo #9) pending the investigation’s outcome. Replacing this pilot mid-season was not possible, forcing the team to fly an eight-ship display with asymmetrical formations and – most notably – the opposing passes being reduced to solo flybys.
Despite these challenges, 2023 stood out as a remarkable year for the Canadian International Air Show. The event featured two internationally renowned military aerobatic teams, complemented by a pair of fast jet solo displays.