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The air force was urged in no uncertain terms four years ago to quickly replace the aging Tutor jets belonging to the prized Snowbird demonstration squadron.

The study by the Defence Department's director of major service delivery procurement warned that the life expectancy of the 1960s-vintage aircraft was 2010, but could be pushed out for another decade if absolutely necessary .

"With each passing year, the technical, safety and financial risk associated with extending the Tutor into its fifth decade and beyond, will escalate," said the review, written in August, 2003. "These risks are significant, however they are not easily quantified."

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Ideally, the report said, the air force should replace the CT-114s with British-built CT-155 Hawk trainers beginning in 2008, but to meet that deadline, the procurement process should have started years ago.

"Replacing the Tutor is a question of when, not if," the report said.

The 2003 analysis recommended that the Defence Department proceed "immediately."

A complete, uncensored version of the report was obtained by The Canadian Press and follows the death last month of Captain Shawn McCaughey, 31, in a crash in Montana. Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the accident.

In 2002, the former Liberal government promised a $600-million replacement project for the Snowbirds' aircraft, but the money was not scheduled to be spent until 2009. With the war raging in Afghanistan and billions about to be spent on urgent purchases, such as heavy- and medium-lift aircraft as well as battlefield helicopters, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been silent about the future of the Tutors.

The air force is conducting a study that includes among its options a proposal to keep the old jets flying until 2020. The analysis also looks at whether the Tutors could be replaced with an aircraft in the air force's existing inventory - or by something entirely new, a military official said.

"The Tutor is still a safe and effective airplane to fly," Captain Jim Hutcheson said.

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"We do acknowledge that to fly it into the future beyond its current life expectancy, which I believe is 2010, that we would have to do some minor modifications to the aircraft."

The modifications, according to the 2003 study, would cost about $32-million.

From the 1960s through to the 1990s, the CT-114 did yeoman's service as the military's principal jet training aircraft. The advantage of the Tutor is that the air force has a number of them in mothballs, affording an ample supply of spare parts and airframes, Capt. Hutcheson said.

"They are a relatively inexpensive fleet to operate and maintain. It still remains economically and operationally viable to fly."

Last fall, the air force received an unsolicited proposal from Venga Aerospace Systems offering to provide the Snowbirds with 18 Hawks in a lease arrangement. Capt. Hutcheson acknowledged the proposal, but said over the years a number of bidders have thrown a variety of ideas at the Defence Department.

Investigators are looking at three possibilities in the crash that killed Capt. McCaughey: equipment failure, pilot error, or a bird strike. The accident happened during a rehearsal before the team's first air show of the season.

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Capt. McCaughey is the third Snowbird pilot to die since 1998 and the sixth in the squadron's 35-year history.

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