On angels wings

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds Aerial Demonstration Team fly over Malmstrom in their "Big Wedge" formation May 18. The Snowbirds were the highlight performance for the 2008 Malmstrom Air Show and Open House. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Dillon White)

The Canadian Forces Snowbirds Aerial Demonstration Team fly over Malmstrom in their "Big Wedge" formation May 18. The Snowbirds were the highlight performance for the 2008 Malmstrom Air Show and Open House. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Dillon White)

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- One year after the accident that claimed the life of Canadian Air Force pilot, Snowbird 2 Capt. Shawn McCaughey, the Canadian Snowbirds Aerial Demonstration Team returned to us and they culminated their performances with a successful weekend air show in a tribute to their fallen friend.

Last year, during a practice session May 18, Captain McCaughey lost control of his aircraft and subsequently crashed. It would later be determined that a seat-belt malfunction was the cause of the accident.

His life was cut short, and the lives of many Team Malmstrom professionals would forever be changed.

That show was the first of the season for the Snowbirds in 2007, and the devastation of losing a teammate, a comrade in arms, was felt by many. Especially their new-found friends in Great Falls.

The local community, Malmstrom leadership and Team Malmstrom professionals rallied around the Snowbirds family to do whatever they could to help ease their pain.

Somehow, it continued to hurt us all, until the Snowbirds announced they would return for another show in 2008.

I witnessed the crash; was injected into the emotional roller-coaster that ensued, tried to overcome those feelings and put on a professional face to do what I could to help where I was needed. Everyone at Malmstrom and in Great Falls did, too.

It was tragic. Plain and simple.

I still feel a chill every time I walk by Captain McCaughey's photo on display in the Bldg. 500 showcase; I always stop for a moment to reflect on his fiancee's and family's grief.

No one ever wants to feel that pain and anguish again. No one.

But we were all about to feel the apprehension of the "what if."

Going to the practice session May 16 this year was an eerie feeling. A lot of the same faces watching that horrific scene last year were there again, prepared to do what they needed to, if necessary, and hoping fate wouldn't be tempted twice.

Our hearts were beating 10 times faster than needed, and our stomachs were in our throats. When the practice session was over, I think we all gave a collective sigh of relief and prayed the next two days would give us the same results. I am sure the Snowbirds, their families and friends, and all of us at Malmstrom felt the same way.

I believed that Shawn was going to be the "10th man." He wasn't going to let anything happen to his team he loved so much. He would guide them with angel's wings to a successful show at Malmstrom; they would complete the mission they set out to accomplish a year ago.

I think my gut was right.

I worked the Malmstrom Open House and Air Show May 17. I watched with much anxiety the awesome, successful performance of the Snowbirds, in a different way than many of the on-lookers, but in the same way as those who were there in 2007. I was happy when they finished and relieved that it was over.

I couldn't bear to stand the stress of watching the show again this year. Instead, I witnessed what I could from the deck of my home. I couldn't see much, but I saw what I needed to finally put closure to that tragic event of one year ago.

After finishing their show for the public, the Snowbirds made a final pass over Veteran's Memorial Park, where Captain McCaughey has a permanent symbol of his sacrifice and a place in the Great Falls community forever.

As they flew over in the missing-man formation, a chill overcame me in the more-than 80 degree heat, and my eyes filled up with tears. I stood up to watch those teammates of his overhead. I paid tribute to what they were saying by standing at attention, even though I am not military, just in the same way I would if the American national anthem was playing. And then I smiled.

Godspeed Captain McCaughey. You were with us this weekend; you guided your partners, helped us all overcome our fears; ensured a spectacular show and lifted those of us who miss you so much, to a new height.

Mission accomplished, Sir.