DETROIT — Europe’s popular Breitling Jet Team took North America by storm during their historic inaugural tour in 2015 and 2016, exciting crowds as they performed at several of the top air shows in the United States and Canada.
The Breiting Jet Team recently wrapped up their 2017 tour of Europe having performed many of the same aerobatic maneuvers they demonstrated to American audiences one year prior. Much like the watch and chronograph manufacturer who sponsors the team, the Breitling jets perform with aerobatic precision and with a timeless beauty high above the airfield.
Headquartered in Dijon, France, the jet team has been sponsored by the Swiss watch manufacturer Breitling since 2003 due in part by the company’s rich history in aviation. Breitling watches were strapped to the wrists of many aviation pioneers, and even kept time for NASA’s astronauts en route to the Moon.
Jacque Bothelin, whose pilot call sign is “Speedy”, leads an exceptional team both in the air and on the ground. Pilots Bernard Charbonnel, Christophe Deketelaere, Francois Ponsot, Georges-Eric Castaing, Paco Wallaert, and Patrick Marchand perform together in close formation, and at times with two of the jet aircraft performing a specific maneuver such as the Opposite Barrel Roll.
During one of the final American shows, the team displayed their excitement to showcase their aircraft during the Thunder Over Michigan Airshow. Hosted by the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the pilots of Breitling co-headlined the show with the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.
As the jets stood poised on the flight line of Willow Run on Thursday, the Breitling Jet Team discussed with this aerospace journalist their new experiences performing in America and Canada. Bothelin began by explaining the need to change up a few maneuvers to fall in line with the Federal Aviation Administration’s airshow guidelines.
“We had to set up a new display to fit with the FAA requirements because the regulations in Europe are a little different,” Bothelin said as he and his team stood poised in their black flight suits and each sporting a Breitling timepiece on their left wrist. “It’s a little funny because we have the same target which is safety, but we have a different approach as to what’s permitted and what’s not. So we had to adapt our normal European display to the American requirements.”
The world’s largest professional civilian jet team, Breitling’s aircraft is the Aero L-39C Albatros, a single engine military training jet originally used by the Soviet bloc countries. Each plane aligned side by side, their vertical stabilizers supporting the pilot’s single digit number in large fashion, and the name ‘Breitling’ across each side and the aircraft’s belly.
“We are the first civilian professional jet team, and the Breitling Jet Team is really unique because there is no equivalent of what we do in the world,” Bothelin added with a proud tone echoing from his strong French accent. “We have flown in 34 countries around the world, and all the team pilots, technicians, everybody is full time so we really have to say ‘thank-you’ to Breitling to give us… let’s say the word, the budget, to be able to properly operate a team professionally with two key words which are safety and quality.”
Hours before their flight before an air show crowd, the team’s black and gray aircraft are prepared near the flight line by Breitling’s top maintenance professionals. Their preflight checks cover the entire aircraft, and include ensuring that each jet has a full amount of biodegradable oil which, when heated, creates the pronounced airshow smoke trails.
During the Breitling’s flight demonstration their L-39C Albatros jet’s can pull nearly eight times the force of gravity, and soar up to near the speed of sound. The black color of the jet’s fuselage helps highlight each maneuver followed by smoke trails created during many of their maneuvers. Air show spectators along the flight line have noted the they they look like missiles streaking across the deep blue sky.
“We fly in seven ship aerobatic formation and we call that our 20 minute demonstration flight,” said pilot Francois Ponsot, call sign “PonPon”, who performs as Breitling’s left inside wingman. “The first part of the display is a kind of ballet with the seven ships, and after eight minutes we split the formation and we do some crossovers and many other maneuvers.”
PonPon added, “It’s the first time for us in United States, and I’m very happy to be here. In our job it’s very nice to discover countries, and Michigan is a well known place and so I’m happy to be here… it’ll be very fun.”
This aerospace journalist welcomed the opportunity to fly with the team with PonPon as my pilot aboard the number 4 aircraft. We first donned our black flight suit, grabbed our yellow helmet, and then departed for a preflight briefing by Breitling’s Boss Jacques Bothelin.
Once strapped in to the jet’s five-point harness, the duel canopies were manually closed by the ground crew, and I began to hear the instructions of uniformed preflight discussions in my headset. The choregraphed speech was like music as each pilot held a rythem of confidence.
The six aircraft then began their taxi out for take-off lead by Bothelin, each jet making a sharp left to align and follow the preceding L-39 aircraft. Once we paused at the end of the runway, with each of the jets aligned in a near Delta formation, the pilots checked their aerosurfaces one last time. It was time to fly.
The engines were throttled to near full thrust and our speed increased. Lift-off! Aboard Breitling 4, our jet’s nose slowly lifted upwards, and soon the entire aircraft was off the runway and soaring into skies over southern Michigan. Our flight formation arose as one in an alignment one can never truly appreciate as viewed from the ground.
Breitling’s Jets align in several fascinating formations high overhead during the airshow. The “Blackbird” has jet one aligned in front of the six jets delta formation; and the “Chronomat” displays jets one, three, and five aligned nose to rear with jets seven, four, two, and six making up the wings on either side. The popular “Rocket” formation has three jets aligned nose to rear with two jets behind and on wither side of the alignment.
Most of Breitling’s pilots had sharpened their aviation and aerobatic skills as fighter pilots while in the French Air Force. Each one having over 4,600 hours of jet time in such European aircraft as the Alpha Jet, Jaguar, and the popular Mirage F1.
Breitling’s right outside wing man Paco Wallaert served 22 years in the French Air Force both as fighter pilot and as aerobatic pilot for four years in the Patrouille de France — France’s military version of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. He spoke of his transition to Breitling at the same time he moved back into civilian life.
“Breitling’s not flying five or six jets, but seven which is quite unique as a civilian jet team,” Paco said with deep feelings for his new team. “I’m not a fighter pilot anymore, but I’m a jet pilot as a civilian. So I feel very fortunate to still fly in jets and above all with Breitling.”
In March, the jet team will release a busy 2018 schedule. Many of the pilots and maintenance personnel have expressed a sincere interest in returning to America in the future. However, it will likely be a few years before their anticipated return.
“I was a fan of the Breitling brand before being a Breitling pilot, so my first Breitlings I bought them, I still have them, and I am very proud of that,” Bothelin said. “It was very natural to me to be a Breitling ambassador, and when I see the latest watches by Breitling, I see how very useful they are to our job.”
Paco stepped in to add, “For me, when you’re a pilot wearing a Breitling it’s like a badge of honor. The link between Breitling and the world of aviation is obvious… we share the same value like the precision and team spirit — we have a passion for the world of aviation.”
(Charles A Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)