Military pilots the world over study the extreme art of flying and fighting their aircraft to the absolute maximum of their capabilities. Competition is the lifeblood of the Canadian Air Force pilot—to be the best, they have to best the best. But when the flying is over, what then? Competitiveness does not have an off switch. If they are not serving up someone a hot dish of defeat at the crud* table, they continue to hone their competitive edge in one of the most creative, sneaky, humorous and often morale-building pursuits—the fine art of “zapping.”
A “Zapper” is a simple squadron crest or patch made in the form of an adhesive sticker (only lesser humans call them stickers.) Every squadron in the free world has them made and distributed to their pilots and ground crews. Then it is the duty of squadron members to “distribute” them in the most creative and hopefully devious manner possible. This ranges from handing them out to hero worshipping children, sticking them on the derrières of professional dancers or placing them in the hardest possible spot to reach on an adversary’s aircraft. Then there are those instances of zapping which transcend the ordinary.
Visiting squadrons delight in zapping another squadron’s aircraft where it will not be noticed until it gets home. Here, 408 Squadron CAF, a helo unit, sticks it to the fighter boys inside the gear door of a CF-18. Photo by WireLizard at Flickr.com
In some squadron hooches, the vending machines are victimized by visiting units to the point where one probably cannot see what one is buying. Creative, but with no risk attached, the zapping of vending machines has a degree of difficulty of less than zero. Photo by exostratics at Flickr.com
A door of a Coupeville, Washington restaurant frequented by military aircrew is festooned with zappers—a great way to mark your territory, but again, a low degree of difficulty. The photographer Robyn notes that there is everything from Grateful Dead (bottom right) to US military squadrons (mostly Navy and Marines.) The Naval Air Station Whidbey Island just down the road would account for the plethora of zappers. Photo by Robyn Hanson at Flickr.com
My first experience with the science of zap-ology was after a post-National Capital Air Show party at my home in 1989. About 4 AM, after I had poured my guests into a crew bus and cleaned up the dead soldiers, I brushed my teeth, washed my face and when I lifted the toilet seat, there it was—a 424 Squadron Tiger zap under the lid. Busted!
The following year, I witnessed a mass-zapping of two Soviet MiG-29s visiting Ottawa from the Mikoyan Gurevich Design bureau in Moscow. The two MiGs were still ticking with heat when every Canuck and Yankee airman with a pulse was lining up to slap-a-zap on the side of the mythical enemy fighter. With every zap applied, the “perp” turned and grinned like a school boy for his comrades as they captured the moment on film. The three MiG pilots stood back with weary and trapped smiles as their Fulcrums were tagged by the brutish, running-dog lackeys of the western imperialist regime. Inside a half hour, the MiGs sagged under the weight of imperialist stickers on their arses. This was the height of squadron zapping witnessed by the author for decades… until 2007 when the Great Grey Cup Zap was heard around the world.
For our non-Canadian readers, the Grey Cup is the glory-plated trophy awarded to the national champions of the Canadian Football League for the past 97 years. Canadian football fans are divided between two camps—those that follow the CFL like a religion, and those who have been sold on the big-money NFL game south of the border. For a couple of decades the CFL lost many fans to this onslaught, but in recent years has surged in popularity because of its exciting wide-open offensive nature. The resurgence is due in part to the rebirth of the Montréal Alouettes and the working man teams like the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the great prairie-based team known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders from Regina.
The Green Riders, as they were once called when Ottawa had a franchise also known as the Rough Riders (hard to believe that in a pro league of just nine teams, two had the same name,) are the Canadian equivalent of the Green Bay Packers—community owned with passionate fans, not taken to being shy. Like his Cheesehead neighbours to the south, the Rider fan is prone to costume wearing, spirit drinking, flame throwing, cape wearing, face painting and camera baiting. If, as I said earlier, the CFL is a religion, then the Saskatchewan Roughrider fan is a druid, a cult worshipper bent on human sacrifice, strange, terrifying behaviour and even cannibalism… well sort of, you know what I mean.
Like Green Bay, Regina is only the place where the fans congregate on game day. They come from hundreds of miles around—from places like Weyburn and Southey and Moose Jaw, the home of the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds Air Demonstration Team.
The Saskatchewan Roughrider fans are, if anything, the most creative costumers in the league. Many sport hollowed out watermelons on their heads as homage to the team’s green helmets. This trio of Rider fans wears homemade John Deere wheat combines—the better, I suppose, to mow down the competition. Photo by gore84 at flickr.com
While the members of the Snowbirds come from every flying regime in the military and from every province and territory and bring with them their own CFL allegiances, they are, for the duration of their stay in Saskatchewan, Roughrider fans when their home team has been eliminated. In addition, the Snowbirds have had a long relationship with the Grey Cup Game, performing a formation flypast prior to many of the games, much the same way that the USAF Thunderbirds might overfly during the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
Rider Pride—at the 2007 Grey Cup, Snowbird technicians could not help but let folks know where their allegiances lay. Photo by Ken Lin
From above, Snowbirds’ photographer Ken Lin snaps a shot of a CT-114 Tutor trainer in Snowbird markings that was brought to the SkyDome as part of a Canadian Forces appreciation display. Photo by Ken Lin
On Grey Cup Sunday, the Snowbirds line up on the taxiway between outgoing flights as they prepare to make a gorgeous, smoke-trailing flypast of the Grey Cup festivities outside the SkyDome stadium in Toronto. Photo by Rob Piercy a.k.a. Contrails on Flickr
Earlier in the day, from high atop the CN Tower, Ken Lin captures the Snowbirds as Rob Mitchell leads them across the festivities below. Photo Ken Lin
The Snowbirds sweep across the city and head for the airport. The team can now enjoy the game, but Lead Mitchell has one more task to perform. Photo Ken Lin
In 2007, the Snowbirds were invited to perform a pre-game flypast of the SkyDome in Toronto. This became a perfect Saskatchewan Storm when the Green Riders made the final and then won the cup. Like many Rider fans, Snowbirds Team Lead Rob “Scratch” had a very special way of celebrating the Saskatchewan win. He would, with only seconds to go before handing over the Grey Cup to the Captain of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, perform the zap heard around the world.
In the words of LCol Rob Mitchell (Ret’d), 7th Dan Zap Master, the story unfolds:
“I was asked to escort the cup onto the field following the game, along with two RCMP officers and another member of the Canadian Forces. With myself in tow behind the two Mounties, and all eyes forward in anticipation of the entrance to the stadium just minutes prior to the last seconds, I reached forward and placed the Snowbird “zapper” under the bottom lip of the cup—thinking it would be an innocuous location… On the podium, centre field, as the cup was presented to the team captain, he promptly hoisted the cup above his head with both hands, exposing the bottom side… and the stowaway Snowbird sticker. To my horror, a camera crew zoomed in on it, out of curiosity I suppose, to have it not only revealed to the millions of television viewers, but as a 50-foot image on the Jumbotron to the stadium folks… I grinned reluctantly as I looked over to the Minister of Defence, who was standing beside me—he nervously grinned and I could finally breathe again… ‘perhaps I still had my job’… I then felt a 20-minute constant buzz from my Blackberry as e-mail after e-mail, phone calls and texts flooded in. The team, who was watching in an upper box, went crazy—which when I found out later made my day! I even heard from the troops in Afghanistan, who reveled in the Snowbird Zap.
Well I guess the Riders had a sense of humour, as they left the zapper on for months, apparently. We heard tales of the cup making appearances at schools throughout Saskatchewan, still bearing the hitchhiking sticker. I received hundreds of emails and letters from Rider and Snowbird fans congratulating the team on bearing its mark and wishing the Riders good luck (the message that we immediately placed on our website)… Of interest, there were thousands of Google hits for the event including, for a while, Wikipedia using it as the example of “Zapping.”
It was a great weekend for the team! In addition to the sticker, I was tasked to fly the team in amongst the buildings of Toronto for the pre-game events. “Who gets to do that” I said to myself. I felt like I was navigating the death Star—very cool it was… And of course there were the many cheerleaders who needed to have pictures taken with us following the game—shucks!”
Moments before the Zap-to-end-all-Zaps was delivered, the members of the Grey Cup’s military and police escort pose for a picture taken by the Cup’s security guard. Photo via Rob “Scratch” Mitchell.
Rob Mitchell stands on the podium as the Cup is raised by the team captain. Jolted by the confetti cannons exploding behind him, it was then, and only then, that he thought perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. Photo by sjgardiner at flickr.com
With Green and White Rider confetti raining down around him, Rob fought off thoughts of escape. Photo by sjgardiner at flickr.com
In this view from above, a dozen or so cameramen focus on the bottom of the cup and Mitchell’s tour de force. Photo by gore84 at Flickr.com
Saskatchewan lineman Mike Abu-Mechrek hoists the cup high with the zapper in plain view—the Snowbirds were cheering equally loud in their Skybox. Photo by Harry How via Rider Nation at flickr.com
A Roughrider lineman lifts the Zapper, supported by the Grey Cup, to the zapper gods. Photo by Lauren Roberts on Flickr.com
The Squad meets The Squadron. The team reluctantly obliges the Roughrider Cheerleader squad by posing with them after their winning performance at the sidelines. Photo via Scratch Mitchell
After the game was concluded, the same CN Tower that Mitchell had brought his team past earlier in the day is lit with green and white lights in honour of their win. Photo by sjgardiner at flickr.com
Rob Mitchell has achieved much in his career as a military aviator—thousands of hours as a fighter pilot, Snowbird Lead, CF-18 Demo Pilot and a Masters in Flight Safety, but his finest hour was the swift and elegant zap move he put on a Canadian institution nearly a century old. The act in no way denigrated the history of the Cup. Rather, it had the opposite effect of making it even more Canadian, more “of the people” and more fun than ever before. It made folks like me stand up and cheer from Tuktoyaktuk, North West Territories to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Above all, it brought joy and a connection to their homeland for our fighting men and women half a world away in Afghanistan.
Two days later, the Saskatchewan Roughriders make a Papal-style appearance from the central balcony of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly building in Regina. With happily frozen Rider fans cheering wildly, team members raise the Grey Cup so that fans can see the famous sticker. Photo by computer_saskboy at Flickr.com
The beauty of the Saskatchewan Roughriders is that they are “every man’s team” and they shared it with every man—or at least the ones who came out to hoist the Grey Cup (with the Zap still attached) above their heads. Not sure who this fellow is, but the pride is written all over his face. Photo via Scratch Mitchell
By Dave O’Malley with Rob Mitchell