Cooler Than The Red Arrows: Flying With The Breitling Jet Team

A chance no-show from Jay Kay meant I got to go for a ride in a twin-seater with one of the Breitling aerobatic pilots. What followed was as terrifying as it was exciting, and the biggest adrenaline buzz of my life...

Through my job I’ve rubbed shoulders with rock stars, super models and international statesmen but Jacques ‘Speedy’ Bothelin, the leader of the Breitling Jet Team has got to be the coolest man I’ve ever met. A seasoned aerobatics pilot with over 10,000 hours of flight experience in over 140 different aircraft, he’s well into his fifties and radiates a cool and measured aura. Just the man you want to throw you about the sky on a wet July morning. Waitresses fawn and whisper as he makes his way around the room, handing out flight suits and oozing a seasoned Gallic charm.

I’m sat with 3 journalists in a hospitality suite next to the runway at Britain’s biggest air show - Farnborough 2012. US F-18s, Eurofighter Typhoons, South Korean T50 military jets and a giant A380 airliner roar down the tarmac as huge deals are cut in the multi million pound corporate chalet suites fringing the runway. This year saw over $73 billion of aerospace business done and hundreds of aircraft changing hands at the show. Richard Branson was also in attendance launching his new satellite business in a typically slick press conference.

As a PR guy, I’m used to laying on amazing experiences for journalists. Answering every whim for sometimes ungrateful hacks, my job is to persuade and provide them with everything they need to help them pen an article that results in some positive press for my clients.

But on this occasion, a last minute no-show from 90’s pop star Jay Kay leaves a spare seat seat in a Czech-made twin-seater L-39 C Albatros military training jet. I don’t need asking twice as I bundle myself into a slightly-too-small black flying suit.

Based in Dijon, the Breitling Jet Team is the world’s leading civilian jet aerobatic team. Touring the world to perform for thousands of spectators in their seven individually numbered jets, they are the French rock stars of the aerobatics world. The team performs thrilling close formation flying, opposition passes, solo routines and highly sophisticated synchronised aerial manoeuvres.

a last minute no-show from 90’s pop star Jay Kay leaves a spare seat seat in a Czech-made twin-seater L-39 C Albatros military training jet. I don’t need asking twice

Where the RAF Red Arrows are Britain’s elite military flying institution and part of the establishment, the Breitling team are the flying world’s mavericks. They’re the Cirque de Soleil to the Red Arrows’ Last Night of the Proms.

“You’ll experience 4 times the weight of gravity on your stomach so feeling ill is no surprise to us. Just reach for the sick bag in front of you and we’ll pull out of the manoeuvre. It’s no problem...” Jacques’ pre flight briefing started to trigger second thoughts as we were shown a short information film. No family friendly “in case of emergency, adopt the brace position’” cartoons in evidence here. “When you hear the words ‘Eject! Eject! Eject! pull the red handles sharply between your legs. Everything will be fine and your parachute will automatically deploy. And remember to bend your legs when you land...but don’t worry - this has never happened...” The odd spelling mistake in the short movie builds the tension ever so slightly.

The clip over, we’re allocated pilots and I’m relieved to be flying with Jaques. With a quick signature on a waiver form we’re chauffeured off to the far end of the runway by a fleet of black limos where the jets were waiting.

The L-39 is a powerful aircraft widely used in most former Soviet bloc countries. Utilised as a light attack jet by a number of Eastern European countries and a trainer by many others, it’s the plane best known for being stolen by Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond from the weapons bazaar in Tomorrow Never Dies.

Our jets are immaculately parked in sequence with Jacques’ #1 sitting nearest to us. Awaiting us, stood in position opposite each aircraft is a ground engineer. The equivalent of each pilot’s roadie, these guys look ever cooler than the pilots. Boasting male model looks, mirrored aviator shades and Breitling bomber jackets, the ground crew instruct us in how to get into the jet without crotch-activating the ejection system.

As we climb through the thick grey clouds I lose all perspective with no ground or sky visible

Once strapped in, my helmet secured and the canopy locked, I’m nervously trying to make small talk over the intercom with Jacques who’s more focused on dealing with the control tower on taxiing and takeoff details.

We’re cleared to start and the Soviet built Ivchenko turbofan engine starts to wind up behind me and the cockpit fills with a intoxicating mix of aviation fuel and exhaust fumes. Jacques gives the briefest instruction to the team and we’re taxiing up the side of the airstrip. Once in position we turn 180 degrees and we move to the centre of the runway, flanked by two of the other team members just behind us on either side.

The team gets the all-clear from the tower and we blast off down the runway in formation. In seconds we’re airborne and heading for Boscombe Down, an area 50 miles west that’s renowned as an aircraft testing site and relatively free of air traffic - handy for what we’re planning. With a low cloud base we cruise westwards and I’m listening in to Jacques as he’s constantly alerted to air traffic approaching from all directions and leads the team through the necessary adjustments in height to avoid any nasty accidents. Once we’re approaching our destination we get the go ahead to climb above the clouds to 11,000 feet. As we climb through the thick grey clouds I lose all perspective with no ground or sky visible - just a disorientating thick, grey fog, which is unnerving to say the least. The instrument panel in front me me shows the jet’s wings are parallel to the ground and that’s the only clue to our heading, other than the climbing altimeter numbers.

And then we break into sunlight, each of the jets still in perfect formation with a deepening blue sky above us and clouds below.

“Ready for some aerobatics?”

“Sure” Gulp.

And with the simple command of “Gauche”, Jacques triggers the team into steep climb upwards and to the left and 60 stones of weight immediately pushing the air from my lungs, leaving my stomach thousands of feet below.

We climb vertically up and rolled over into the ‘Boucle’, manouvere just 3 meters between the jet’s wingtips and I start to grit my teeth as the pressure increases. Jeremy Clarkson’s distorted face springs to mind as I start to experience a ‘grey out’, peripheral vision reducing into a tunnel as the jet continues to spin as I consciously attempt to avoid throwing up over the instruments. We bank up and over again - this time to the right. The weird thing is the silence between the pilots. Only the leader speaks single word commands as we spin and loop through the sky in perfect formation.

After a few more turns, we descend through the cloud base again to find the weather has closed in. We need to fly low and around the weather to make it back to Farnborough safely. With a dry mouth and a ‘pins and needles’ sensation in my hands as the blood flows back we head down to just 300 feet above the English countryside. The experience of screaming over the M3 at over 370 miles per hour whilst banking and turning is the stuff of video games and it was this, rather than the aerobatics was the most exhilarating thing.

The queasy combination of adrenaline buzz and nausea is unusually addictive.

After an hour’s flying we were back approaching the Farnborough airfield for a low pass in an arrow formation, when without warning the team performed the stomach churning ‘explosion’ manoeuvre. Each jet simultaneously breaking into a different direction in a starburst effect with my jet pulling up and over the runway and banking tightly though a 360 degree turn. The queasy combination of adrenaline buzz and nausea is unusually addictive.

Within moments we had safely landed in perfect sychronisation and were taxiing past billions of dollars worth of military aircraft, surrounded by ground crews busily preparing them for their display performances.

After climbing gingerly out of the cockpit we made our way back to the waiting cars that would whisk us back to the Breitling chalet where champagne was waiting - a perfect way to soothe the nerves. 10 minutes later I was out of the flight suit and back in the real world as I made my way back through the crowds after a surreal hour with the world’s coolest aerobatics team.

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