She didn’t want to work for the new base commander. But it was a good thing they got past that, because Lois Boyle never would have wanted to miss the chance to be in on the ground floor of creating Canada’s beloved and long-lived air demonstration team, the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.
As Colonel O.B. Philp tells the story in his book, Snowbirds from the Beginning, “[My]reputation as a hard taskmaster ... had preceded me.” This dismayed Boyle. “She had already trained four previous base commanders and was apparently not in the mood to tackle me.” Though they’d never met, Philp didn’t want to lose Boyle, since “she was known throughout the service as a first-class individual and invaluable as a base commander’s secretary and aide.”
During his initial tour of CFB Moosejaw, Philp noticed several CL-41 Tutors that had previously served the Golden Centennaires, an air demonstration team formed especially for Canada’s centennial two years earlier. Philp had been the Centennaires’ commanding officer, and finding some of his planes here inspired the dream of creating another team. This dream infected the whole base, and flight instructors trained as demonstration pilots in their spare time.
In those pre-computer days, Philp’s every piece of correspondence and announcement regarding the team went through Boyle’s hands. So did ideas. “She was a great thinker,” remembered retired Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Dempsey, who flew a Snowbirds tour in the early 1980s. “It didn’t take very long for OB to take her into his confidence.” Despite her early misgivings, she wasn’t afraid to tell him if she thought he was wrong. Like his predecessors, he came to greatly respect and trust her.
Philp tasked Boyle with naming the team. The flight school commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Reid, suggested a contest, which would also build public support. So Boyle took it to the local elementary schools. The winning name, “Snowbirds,” evoked both the then-popular Anne Murray song and Canada’s very first demonstration team, the Siskins.
Their maiden season of 1971 began while the contest was still running; they first flew under the Snowbirds name on July 11, at the Saskatchewan Homecoming Air Show. They were a huge popular success.
Gaining official approval was another matter. The Snowbirds were seen as an expensive frill, and had to go on a year-by-year basis for seven years. At one point Boyle accompanied her boss to Ottawa to fight for their existence.
Philp had long since been transferred by the time the Snowbirds received permanent squadron status in 1978; Boyle and other supporters on the base carried the torch to keep them alive then and for decades after.
Said retired Major Tom Griffis, team leader for 1979-80, “As the leader of the Snowbirds I knew where the power was on the base and it always stopped at Lois’s desk. If you didn’t get by Lois you didn’t get what you wanted, and of course she was a fantastic supporter of the team throughout her time at the base.” More than a gatekeeper, he said, she offered sage advice.
Lieutenant-Colonel Maryse Carmichael, current Snowbirds Commanding Officer, said at Boyle’s funeral that “she will always be remembered by the squadron as a bearer and a source of the Snowbirds’ culture and traditions.” Indeed, retired Captain Eric Fast, a team member in the mid-70s, called her “the mother of the Snowbirds.”
Boyle began honing those mothering skills early. Born June 8, 1932, to John and Marjorie Cairnie, she enjoyed happy early years in Shellbrook, Sask. However, her father was ill, which forced her mother to go away to work and her older brother to go out as a labourer. Ten-year-old Lois looked after her five-year-old brother and kept house.
Having completed high school and business college, she got a job, married, moved away, and had children. The end of her marriage brought her back to Saskatchewan, where she began work at CFB Moose Jaw in the late 1950s, working her way up to base commander’s secretary. By 1967 she had made herself sufficiently valuable that she was one of only two civilians on the base to receive a Centennial Medal.
After 25 years she moved on to Fairford Industries, and then to the Saskatchewan Water Corp., serving both companies as executive assistant to the president.
Even off the base she remained devoted to her Snowbirds. When the Society of Honorary Snowbirds was formed for the team’s 25th anniversary, she was among the first people nominated; and in 41 years she scarcely missed a show. Even shortly after cancer surgery this past October, with drainage tubes still beneath her jacket, she came out, smiling, to see them.
She passed away on Jan. 5 at the age of 79. Uniformed and honorary Snowbirds formed an honour guard at her funeral; and a line of seven Snowbird jets, smoke on, performed a flyby. Her two daughters and six grandchildren were deeply touched.
Special to The Globe and Mail