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The Snowbirds, Canada's world-renowned air force aerobatics team, may be forced to find a corporate sponsor if they want to fly past the budgetary ax due to fall on them by the end of next year.

The Snowbirds, which utilize 14 Tudor jets for their air shows, could lose their $9 million (U.S.) budget if the Canadian Defense Department goes ahead with its planned cuts.

"By the end of 2000, the Tudors, as a fleet, will not exist," said Lt. Col. Walt Chipchase.

The 30-year-old fleet is scheduled to be mothballed, he explained, and so the decision now is whether the Snowbirds will be given new planes, be scrapped or find a corporate sponsor to keep them aloft.

In 1995, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police struck a seven-year $234,000 (U.S.) deal with the Canadian Pacific railroad and side pacts with the Canadian Tourism Commission and 3M Canada to keep the Mounties' famous Musical Ride going, Chipchase said. Similar corporate arrangements may be needed to keep the Snowbirds airborne.

While Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told reporters he personally favors keeping the precision fliers in the air, he has passed the buck to the Defense Department for the final decision.

The plan for the Snowbirds' demise is contained in a document titled Defense Planning Guidance 2000, which assumes that defense spending, now at about $6 billion (U.S.), will increase by only 1.5 percent next year, just enough to keep pace with inflation.

But with complaints from military personnel that their tight paychecks have forced some to turn to food banks as a supplement and with demands on the armed forces increasing for missions at home and abroad, the department has questioned whether the acrobatic team is a necessity.

Art Hanger of the opposition Reform Party said: "The Snowbirds represent Canada and the best of what is left of Canada's pitifully small and ill-equipped air force. The death of the Snowbirds would be a symbol to the world that Canadian military aviation has become a shadow of its former greatness."

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