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Red Knight — program cancellation preceeded by another fiery crash
Jan 05, 2017

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

An RCAF board of inquiry investigated the 1963 crash that killed Morin, who had only been a Red Knight pilot since May that year, and decided to continue the Red Knight program after making some safety recommendations. The major recommendation that was approved involved ending the practice of co-ordinated displays, which had never been officially sanctioned in the first place.

“The Royal Canada Air Force has started painting a new ‘Red Knight’ jet, less than two weeks after an air show crash at Gimli that killed the former stunt flyer and destroyed his aircraft,” wrote Fred  Cleverley (Free Press, September 5, 1963).

“RCAF authorities in Winnipeg, when asked whether the air force considered the presentation of air shows worth four lives in three years, said such a question involved air force policy and would have to be answered in Ottawa.”

Two years earlier, aerobatic displays over built-up residential areas adjoining Winnipeg’s Red River Exhibition in St. James were prohibited by the federal department of transportation.

During 1963, Red Knight pilot MacLellan continued the schedule of performances. In the fall, Bill Slaughter, a Winnipegger and new instructor at Portage la Prairie, volunteered to be the alternate Red Knight. All together, the two pilots participated in 90 performances, although never together.

The end of the Red Knight program came in 1969. Its cancellation was proceeded by yet another fiery crash involving a young aerobatic pilot.

Lieutenant Bryan Alston, 23, of Calgary crashed his Tutor jet at CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Moose Jaw while practicing for an air show. The July 14, 1969, Brandon Sun reported that Alston’s aircraft burst into flames on impact with a runway.

It was only through happenstance that Alston became the Red Knight in 1969.

In 1968, Dave Curren had volunteered to be the Red Knight, but in 1969, he received word that he was to be placed on loan to the USAF (United States Air Force).

Former Red Knight pilot Jack Water said in an interview (Red Knight Air Shows website) that he and Curren attempted to find a replacement, “but found that the volunteers were few and all too young and inexperienced, with no operational background. As I recall, it was against our judgement that headquarters in Winnipeg designated Bryan Alston to be a Red Knight.”

It was their belief that Alston, the youngest flyer ever selected to be a Red Knight, was a talented pilot, but too inexperienced to be a Red Knight.

“In a recent interview he (Alston) said he got his kicks from rocketing his bright red aircraft in low, screaming passes, flipping it belly-up and snapping into the clouds,” according to the Sun.

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said in a Sun interview. “You just can’t put it into words.”

Alston admitted there was “a certain amount of risk” involved in aerobatics.

“You have to be darn sure what you’re doing when you start a manoeuvre.”

Alston had only been a Red Knight pilot for about a month prior to the fatal crash.

It was reported that the accident cause was engine power failure. The T-33 Silver Star had a single Rolls-Royce Nene 10 turbojet power plant that produced a maximum speed of 920 km/h (570 mph).

Just a year earlier on May 22 at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Portage, Captain John A. Reid, an understudy to the Red Knight, was killed in a crash. Reid had made several low-level passes over the airfield for publicity shots in preparation for the coming aerobatic display season.

“On his third pass, he pulled his aircraft into a loop (U.S.-based Red Knight Air Shows website). In attempting to complete the loop, his aircraft struck the ground and exploded. Reid was thrown from the wreckage and was found alive; however, he was gravely injured and died five hours later in a Winnipeg hospital.”

Alston’s death caused the cancelation of Red Knight shows for the entire 1969 season.

The end of the road for the Red Knight’s solo displays of precision aerobatics was officially announced by a defence department spokesman, according to the February 13, 1970, Sun. It was said to have been an economy decision rather than the result of the fatal crashes involving Red Knight pilots over the years.

The Red Knight program had begun in 1958.

Rick Brickert resurrected the Red Knight as a private show in the United States, flying between 1990 and 1993 in a restored Lockheed T-33 (not a Canadair T-33). The private showings ended when Brickert died in a crash of the Pond Racer experimental twin-boom, twin-engine piston aircraft during the 1993 Reno Air Race.

The T-33 sat idle until it was acquired by Red Knight Air Shows, LLC, in 2003. The company uses the T-33 in air shows across North America.

Although the RCAF Red Knight program ended in Canada, the world-famous Snowbirds aerobatic team, flying Tutor jets, was officially established in 1971.

“The T-33 jet has had its share of glory with the Canadian Forces’ Red Knight at the controls. Thousands turned out to watch the luminous red plane put through its paces in low altitude aerobatic manoeuvres at displays throughout the province. Last fall, after nine years, the Red Knight changed over to the new training jet the Tudor (Winnipeg Free Press, July 5, 1969, article by Frances Bidewell).

“But during the nine-year period the stunt show took four lives, one a civilian.”

A T-33 Silver Star is on static display on a pedestal on First Street in Gimli’s downtown as a commemoration of the time when the community had an air force training base (1943-71). It was one of the last T-33s used at the base and had been in use as a trainer for 17 years.

“Col. J.F. Dunlop, the former base commander, said it was given to the town as a reminder of the close ties which have existed between the town and the base for 28 years” (Free Press, July 21, 1971).

Another Silver Star is on static display in Woodhaven along Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.