WORDS & PHOTOS: CLAUDE LAFRENIERE
In an exciting return, Canada’s newest major air show, the Volaria Aeronautics Festival, soared from the 9th-10th September, 2023, headlined by the renowned Thunderbirds in their only international airshow appearance of the year. Drawing in nearly 50,000 enthusiastic visitors, this year’s extravaganza aimed not just to celebrate aviation but to forge connections between families, aviation aficionados, and industry trailblazers. It was an event meticulously crafted to blend entertainment, exploration, career prospects, and an adrenaline rush.
Building upon the triumph of its inaugural edition, the organizers utilized their prior experience to fine-tune the event’s structure, elevate the venue and address most of hiccups from 2022. Using the vast expanse of the “ICAR” complex, they orchestrated a seamless space to accommodate all festival elements.
The festival unfolded with an impressive array of family-centric activities, thematic exhibitions, and a sprawling job fair, catering to diverse interests and passions. Responding to the concerns of the previous year, the careers fair was housed in an impressive 150-meter-long marquee at the heart of the showground, attracting crowds of visitors to the exhibitor stands. Learning from past weather-induced disruptions, this year’s Volaria also shifted its dates forwards by two weeks, and enjoyed generally more favourable conditions as a result.
Volaria offered various access rates based on zones: General Admission, Premium Zone, Premium Lounge Zone, and the Chalet Engel & Volker. Prices ranged from $45 to $1,500 per day, with weekend packages available at attractive combined rates from $99 to $2,000. Parking was available for $15 per day. This range of options allowed every visitor to select access that suited their preferences and budget.
Once more, the absence of a dedicated photo pit area at Volaria left seasoned photographers disheartened. Unlike traditional air shows, this event lacks a ticket option granting access to an exclusive space along the flightline, crucial for capturing unobstructed and high-quality images. This shortfall not only disappointed photography enthusiasts, but also hindered media outlets seeking precise visuals for their coverage.
Volaria’s static exhibition presented a diverse array of aircraft, albeit with a relatively limited display of military planes. Notable highlights included RCAF CF-118s, Nolinor Aviation Boeing 737s, an Air Inuit Dash 8 and several HéliCraft Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters. The standout of the static display was Pratt & Whitney’s monumental Boeing 747SP, dubbed the 5-engine Jumbo Jet, making its public debut. This aircraft can be fitted with a fifth engine installed on a nacelle on the right side of the cabin and serves as a flying testbed for engine evaluations.
Volaria’s ground exhibition prominently featured the 34th Brigade Group of the Canadian Army Reserve. Alongside an array of military vehicles, visitors witnessed a remarkable demonstration of hostile territory insertion and tactical extraction by soldiers rappelling from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter. Soldiers also hosted an exhibition booth, offering hands-on experience with equipment and engaging attendees with a shooting simulator for the C7 assault rifle.
The flying display program included 13 performers, which took to the air throughout the day and into the evening. It kicked off with flypasts by two F-35A Lightning IIs from the Vermont Air National Guard, Burlington. While scaled down due to operational constraints (two jets instead of the advertised four), the low-altitude flybys offered a tantalizing glimpse of these future fifth-generation fighter aircraft intended for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 2026.
Returning for the second consecutive year, the AeroShell aerobatic team stole the spotlight. These four highly skilled pilots maneuvered the historic North American AT-6 Texan with precision during the day program. Their nighttime performance, illuminated by spotlights in the engine exhaust, stunned the audience with its intensity and beauty. Other civilian performers included Pete McLeod in the Extra 300LC, father-and-son duo Ken and Austin Rieder of Redline Airshows and Kyle Fowler in the Long-EZ.
The Canadian Forces contributed several acts, including the SkyHawks parachute team in their 50th anniversary season and a solo display in a CF-118B Hornet. Directed by the RCAF command to focus on bolstering fighter force operational readiness, the CF-18 demonstrations were limited to 10 events in 2023, with Volaria fortunate to host one. The demonstration team also opted out of their usual thematic painting this year, disappointing enthusiasts craving their artistic touch; the demonstration used a regular fleet aircraft, in this case an ex-Royal Australian Air Force CF-118B twin-seater.
The 34th Brigade Group and the skilled 438th Tactical Helicopter Squadron from Saint-Hubert delivered a gripping flight demo with a CH-146 performing a simulated hostage extraction from a secure building in hostile territory. The helicopter swiftly approached the extraction point with a rapid, low-altitude tactic. It paused precisely 20 meters above ground for 4 to 5 seconds and six armed infantrymen descended swiftly, securing the building and freeing the simulated hostage. Maintaining a secure perimeter, the infantrymen ensured safety for the CH-146’s swift return.
The famous US Air Force Thunderbirds made a sensational appearance at Volaria, seamlessly blending four- and six-jet formations with solo maneuvers.
As dusk dell, Volaria’s night show made for a mesmerizing experience. AeroShell, Kyle Fowler and Redline Airshows delivered spellbinding aerial displays against a canvas of vibrant skies, complemented by a ground presentation featuring music, lasers, visual projections, and light shows, merging technology and artistry.
The Volaria Aeronautics Festival reached new heights this year, making successful logistical adjustments, including relocating the Job Fair to the heart of activities, significantly improving the visitor experience and streamlining parking management. Amidst this laudable progress, only a few final areas of improvement have emerged. One of the most important is the implementation of a comprehensive sound system covering the entire flight line, ensuring clear narration and audible soundtracks from the artists throughout the venue. Audience feedback reporting inadequate sound coverage beyond 50 meters from the main stage highlighted its impact on the overall experience. Finally, a designated photo pit could enrich the experience for photography enthusiasts, echoing the trend seen at major aviation shows where these areas are in high demand and frequently rapidly sold out.
With nearly 50,000 participants coming to celebrate aviation, Volaria once again demonstrated its undeniable appeal, positioning itself as a beacon among Canadian aviation events. All eyes now turn to the 2024 edition, as we eagerly await details of next year’s line up to see if it can match this year’s high calibre. However, concerns loom over the weather conditions as the 3rd edition returns to its previous slot on the 20th-22nd September 2024.