This article originally appeared in Airforce Magazine Vol 47 No 2
Airforce Magazine Nov. 2023 I believe the vast majority of Canadians would have heard of the Snowbirds, even if they have never seen one of the team’s aerial displays. Some of us may remember the Centennial Aerobatic Team, which featured the Golden Centennaires. There may even be a few of us who reminisce about the Golden Hawks and were a bit teary eyed when Vintage Wings of Canada sold their “Hawk One” F-86 Sabre in 2018. But could you ever image any of those teams performing a display in Birtle, Manitoba, (Population 642), Plenty, Saskatchewan, (Population 164) or Woody Point, Newfoundland/Labrador, (Population 244)? Small communities like those could never have hoped to attract a visit from one of the larger RCAF/CAF teams. Yet there may still be some people from those places who remember the day the Red Knight came to their town, village or hamlet.
That is part of the reason the Red Knight holds such a special place in Canada’s aeronautical history. The RCAF’s solo jet aerobatic display thrilled airshow audiences throughout North America from 1958-1969 – spanning the eras of the Golden Hawks (1959-1963), the Golden Centennaires (1967) and leading up to the Snowbird era. The origins of the Red Knight can be traced to the Canadian International Air Show at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on the Labour Day Weekend in 1958. The Red Knight ranks third in RCAF history in terms of longevity and number of performances.
All of the Red Knight pilots were flying instructors; the forty hours of practice required to reach maximum performance levels had to be flown after regular working hours or on weekends. Being selected as a Red Knight was a two-year commitment; the first year was spent as the alternate pilot, flying the spare aircraft, acting as commentator, or standing-in for the Red Knight in times of illness or when scheduling conflicts occurred. Once they were “on the road”, these small Red Knight teams, consisting of from two to five men, received very limited support.
In recognition of the program’s importance, Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame honoured the Red Knight with their 2020 Belt of Orion Award for Excellence. Unfortunately, COVID 19 delayed the Red Knight’s Induction Ceremony until June 23, 2022. Accepting this award on behalf of Red Knight personnel and their families was Bill Fraser. Bill was the alternate Red Knight pilot in 1962, assuming the role of lead pilot in 1963. What follows is an excerpt from Bill’s Belt of Orion acceptance speech:
“In accepting this award, it is my privilege to act and speak for all Red Knight personnel; the administrators, the publicists, the commentators, the crewmen and the pilots. We are all very honoured and proud that the Red Knight has been selected for Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame’s – Belt of Orion Award for Excellence.

“I was Red Knight number five. One out of seventeen pilots. The Red Knight was a single aircraft aerobatic display. Our shows were designed to be flown close to centre stage, to always be in view of the crowd. There were a lot of G forces involved with those tight loops and turns. But, at the same time, smooth flying was emphasized over yank and bank to make it look easy. All the maneuvers demonstrated both the capabilities of the aircraft and the skill of the air force pilots.

“We thrilled and entertained hundreds of thousands of people during our displays. We flew shows across Canada from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, to Powell River, B.C., from the Bahamas to Alaska and in many other American States. On the ground we were ambassadors; to the mayors of towns and to sick kids in children’s hospitals. In 1962, when Dave [Barker] and I toured a children’s hospital in the States in our red flying suits, he was a marvel! Dave got down to the kid’s level and visited with them, played and signed autographs. The tour took about twice as long as programmed.
“At major air shows we were the opening act for the teams; the Golden Hawks and Golden Centennaires. But our forte was flying show at smaller out of the way places where some of the spectators may never have seen an aircraft flying up close before, let alone a red one doing aerobatics.
“I did one show over RCAF Station Ramore, a Radar Unit with a few personnel in the Northern Ontario bush. We based out of a small civilian airfield nearby. We arrived the afternoon before and towed the aircraft to parking with a pickup truck and a rope around the nose oleo. Next day, after the show, we topped off the fuel with AV gas – no jet fuel was available. Did a “not recommended start” on aircraft batteries and pressed on to the next venue. It was quite satisfying to be able to operate in those “out of the way” conditions.
“Flying the Red Knight required dedication. We put in many long days, flying a practice routine after a day of instructing. And during the show season we were away from home days at a time. Our wives deserved much credit for supporting us. They were at home, running the house, raising the children and living with that small extra fear of a black staff car pulling into the driveway.
“And, if after one of those performances in one of those out of the way places, one child looked up and said, “Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a pilot”, that perhaps was the Red Knight’s real contribution to aviation in Canada.”
In 2022, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a Red Knight commemorative coin. It is a wonderful tribute to the pilots and crewmen, for those thrilling displays performed wherever they travelled. According to Dan Dempsey, “Throughout its 12-year tenure, the Red Knight was an inspiration to countless millions of spectators, its striking paint scheme a magnet to young and old alike. Many budding aviators like myself who marveled at the Red Knight eventually joined the Snowbirds or performed as CF-18 demo pilots to carry on the legacy of Canada’s rich airshow heritage.”
The Red Knight continues to inspire today. Visitors to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa will find Red Knight T-33 #21574 proudly displayed in its original Day-Glo red paint. The only other surviving Red Knight T-33, #21630, is a gate guardian outside the RCAFA’s 602 (Lynx) Wing’s club house at the John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatoon. The lone remaining Red Knight Tutor, #26153, is at the Base Borden Military Museum in its Golden Centennaires colour scheme. Travel to the Jet Aircraft Museum in London and you will find Canadair T-33 #133573 painted as the Red Knight. This aircraft has performed at the London International Air Show. You can go for a flight in it, if you are so inclined. Other T-33s that have been painted like the Red Knight and mounted on pedestals can be found at Fort Erie’s Sugar Bowl Park (#21373), Camp Borden (#21100), and Winnipeg’s Woodhaven Park (#21232).
Currently, the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton has a display dedicated to Canada’s Military Air Display teams, which includes Red Knight memorabilia.