Enchanting more than 15 million Canadians and Americans during 317 performances, the Golden Hawks set the bar for their successor, the Snowbirds, all while inspiring countless young people to enlist in the air force.
Retired lieutenant-colonel Dan Dempsey, author of A Tradition of Excellence: Canada’s Airshow Team Heritage, was one of many Canadian adolescents inspired by the Hawks. During his career he led the Snowbirds in their 20th anniversary and 1,000th official performance and he even flew an F-86 Sabre in Golden Hawks livery in 2009.
“What they were trying to do was inspire kids to do something special with their lives,” said Dempsey.Formed on March 1, 1959, to mark the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada and the 35th anniversary of the RCAF’s formation, the Golden Hawks were originally meant to last only until later that year. Due to their immense popularity, garnering $1 million worth of publicity in 1959 alone, the team continued performing air shows for half a decade.
One Toronto Star Weekly headline called them “The Glamour Boys of the Air Force.” Indeed, Golden Hawks pilots achieved celebrity status for their grace and skill in the sky.
But on Feb. 7, 1964, the Golden Hawks were disbanded due to budget cuts.
“It was like taking a spear through the heart,” said Dempsey.
By its end, the real star of the show became the aircraft. Dempsey attributed the Golden Hawks’ success to the “legendary” CL-12 Sabre.
“It was the best day fighter in the world,” he said.
The Golden Hawks rivalled the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
The CL-13 was a Canadian version of the North American F-86. When the federal government chose it for RCAF service, North American Aviation and Canadair joined forces to manufacture 100 F-86As, designated the CL-13 Sabre Mk 1.
The Golden Hawks initially flew Mk 5s, but ended up flying the superior Mk 6. With an Orenda 14 engine, 7,275 pounds of thrust and wing leading slats, the Mk 6 could easily perform the Golden Hawks’ trademark stunts.
Equipped with top-tier aircraft, pilots and ground crew, the Golden Hawks rivalled the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and never had a serious incident during a performance.
Said one Golden Hawks audience member: “[They were] the best team there was anywhere, full stop.”