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Snowbirds fly over Nova Scotia to mark naval helicopter crash, mass shooting

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HALIFAX — The Snowbirds aerobatics team flew over Nova Scotia communities Sunday in remembrance of the victims of a mass shooting and six deaths in last week's navy helicopter crash.

On a warm, clear day over the East Coast province, the red, white and blue Tutor jets performed above the 12 Wing Shearwater air base in Halifax, home to the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter that crashed off Greece.

Six members of the Canadian Forces died Wednesday in the incident, which is now under investigation by the military.

The loss of life came in the wake of a mass shooting by a gunman, who took 22 lives on April 18 and 19, beginning in the coastal community of Portapique, where 13 people died.

The nine-plane formation began at the Greenwood air base, travelled over the communities affected by the mass shooting, flew over Shearwater and downtown Halifax and then returned to the base during the afternoon.

The day began with performances over Saint John, N.B., Fredericton and Kentville, N.S.

Capt. Joel Wilson, a 27-year-old pilot participating in the flights, said in a telephone interview from Greenwood, N.S., that the team hoped to provide relief and inspiration for Nova Scotians at a difficult time.

"The first word that comes to my mind is that I'm honoured," said the captain, who is in his first year in the unit.

"It's been tragedy after tragedy for Nova Scotia."

"It's one little thing we can do during what's been a terrible month for the province as a whole." 

The aerobatics team planned to fly in its usual diamond shape over most areas.

However, Wilson said the team planned to fly a special pattern over Shearwater in honour of the air crew and the Royal Canadian Navy personnel lost in the Cyclone crash.

He described it as the "missing man" manoeuvre, where one of the jets flies off the formation to symbolize personnel who have died in the course of duty.

The native of Brantford, Ont., said there are members of his unit who have connections to the Canadian Forces members who died, giving the flyover added meaning to the pilots and the technicians. 

The performance is also part of a cross-country tour which the military says aims to boost morale as the country continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilson said the unit encouraged the public to maintain social distancing while observing the planes, even as municipal parks in Halifax were reopened to the public after weeks of lockdown. 

"We're at about 1,000 feet, which can be viewable from a further distance than usual," he said.

Exact details on when and where the Snowbirds will next perform will be posted online, but it's expected they'll focus on flyovers over hospitals and neighbourhoods.

Some Canadians took to social media last week to ask whether the flyovers are necessary, given many people are continuing to struggle and die from COVID-19.

Caryma Sa'd, a Toronto lawyer, wrote: "Is it too late to call off the whole Snowbirds thing? With many people cooped up and sheltering in place, the sound of military jets overhead will be anything but comforting."

That was similar to criticisms of the U.S. military's decision to deploy its Blue Angels and Thunderbirds teams.

"We would be flying regardless,'' the Snowbirds wrote on their official Twitter account last week in response to the various concerns.

"Now we're just spreading the love (from a distance of course) instead of saying hello to the same farmers around Moose Jaw.''

The Snowbirds initially paused their training in March because of COVID-19 and delayed the start of their flying season, which was to begin in June.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press