I’m already warm in my black flight suit as I cross the runway at Abbotsford Airport, approaching a shining Czechoslovakian L-39C Albatros jet aircraft. I’ve been fitted for a bright yellow flight helmet, briefed on the still active nature of the ejection seat, and introduced to my personal pilot, a handsome and affable Frenchman named Patrick Marchand, a veteran of the French Air Force who has logged over 5,700 flight hours throughout his career. Having never been in a jet before, I was thankful to be in such capable hands.
Patrick and his plane are part of the Breitling Jet Team, an aerobatic demonstration squad supported by the flight-obsessed luxury Swiss watch brand Breitling. The flight and demonstration are just one stop on the Breitling Jet Team’s 2016 American Tour, which has the team performing aerobatic displays over cities from Portland to Miami to Toronto. Formed in 2003 with just four aircraft, the Breitling Jet Team has since grown to seven planes and is the world’s only professional civilian jet aerobatics team.
I climbed into the second seat of the jet aircraft fastened the many belts that would hold me in place during the planned acrobatic formation flight. As a trainer aircraft, my seat had access to all of the same controls as Patrick, including those for the landing gear, canopy release, and, yes, the fully functional ejection seat. I gripped my harness tightly.
Patrick’s voice crackled over the radio, “You alright, James?” As I peered out over a sun soaked Abbotsford and off to a glorious view of Mt. Baker, I imagine he could hear my smile as I replied, “Never better.”
With each passenger firmly secured into their cockpit, our group of seven planes took off in waves. I am in plane #7, taking off in final wave. At Patrick’s command, the L-39C pushes hard down the runway, its single turbofan engine producing some 3790 lbs. of thrust. Accelerating hard, we take flight. While there is almost no impression of speed, the 12.13-metre-long L-39C is capable of 750 km/h in level flight, or up to 910 km/h in a dive. As we joined the tight group formation, often less than 3 meters from the wing of another plane, I was struck by how much these small jets move around in the air. Their wings fight for purchase, causing the entire plane to buffet and shimmy about. Through my seat I could feel the plane yawing slightly from side to side, like a car fighting for grip on an icy surface. The feeling was electric, the plane was alive, bristling with power and running with the herd.
Patrick’s voice crackled over the radio, “You alright, James?” As I peered out over a sun soaked Abbotsford and off to a glorious view of Mt. Baker, I imagine he could hear my smile as I replied, “Never better.” Moments later, the entire group was climbing hard into a full loop, and as the g-forces pushed the blood from my head I felt the edges of my sight fade. I tensed my legs and core and sucked in as big a breath as I could muster just as we transitioned from positive G’s to negative and while inverted it felt as though we were hovering over the rolling green landscape below. Pulling out of the loop, the group took long fast banked turns and climbed steadily into a slow and wondrous barrel roll. Glancing over our left wing I could see straight down into the valley and over the right I could make out the expression on the face of the passenger in the plane next to me (naturally, they were smiling). The noise, the view, the sense of power and sheer fun, I can see why no pilot has ever chosen to leave the Breitling Jet Team; it’s hard to imagine this feeling like a day job.
On wrist throughout the flight I wore a limited edition Chronomat 44 Breitling Jet Team American Tour, a bold, black automatic chronograph customized especially for the Breitling Jet Tour. Limited to 500 units, this version carries the Jet Team’s logo and is customized with yellow accent colours to match the livery of the team aircraft. I borrowed the watch right off the wrist of one of the team members and it certainly looked fit for duty within the cockpit of this high-performance aircraft. Breitling created the team as an outlet for their long-standing passion and fascination with aviation and the brand has long been associated not only with flying but also with Air Forces and extreme aviators the world over (just google Yves Rossy).
With the flight nearly over, we had our final acrobatic maneuver before landing. In sequence, each plane would pull up and away at great speed, turning hard to build distance from the group and to form a neat line up for landing. At Patrick’s command, our plane leapt up and to the left, pressing me against my seat. My smile broke into laughter—for a guy who grew up loving all manner of fast machinery, my first jet experience was thrilling, beautiful, and altogether too short.