Flying With Breitling’s Team
A few years ago, I came perilously close to climbing in the back seat of an Air Force F16D for a media ride with the Thunderbirds just before the California Air Show. I had a radio show at the time on the station sponsoring the airshow and I quickly volunteered when our program director asked. I also qualified, with a first class FAA medical with no restrictions and a doctor willing to endorse the activity.
Everything was in place for my exciting ride until I discovered that I was the alternate reporter, behind a colleague from CBS. Of course he showed up and got the team ride taking off from Monterey Airport. As a very nice consolation, I drove to Salinas and climbed into a Pitts S2C with a top aerobatic pilot and did a series of stunt maneuvers. It was far more hands-on than the Air Force ride, but the jet fighter experience stayed on my bucket list.
An 11th Hour Offer
Media rides in high performance aircraft are few and far between, and I hadn’t held out too much hope for another offer. But just a couple weeks ago, in the middle of my Western Automotive Journalists technology conference, an email appeared in my inbox. It seemed that the Breitling Jet Team had a seat available the next day if I was available. I didn’t hesitate to reply.
The watchmaker Breitling has a long history in aviation as well as a collaboration with Bentley luxury automobiles. A few years ago, I brought a Bentley Mulsanne to the Reno Air Races and spent part of a day performing aerobatic stunts with the air show team in an Extra 330SC. This year, Breitling brought its Jet Team of seven L39 Albatross fighters, built in the Czech Republic for military training, for its American Tour of major cities. And on October 6, I was secured behind Patrick “Gaston” Marchand, a former French fighter and demonstration team pilot, for a 25-minute thrill ride in close formation.
All Together Now
The aft cockpit of the L39 has all the instruments and controls of the forward cockpit. But unlike my other aerobatic experiences, I kept my feet planted well behind the rudder pedals with my hands gripping the harness. In tight formation flying, only one pilot gets to fly when aircraft are a few feet apart from takeoff, through loops and rolls to landing. The only controls I was briefed on were the big red ejection handles between my knees. Short of space flight — an experience still on my short list — military jet formation flying through aerobatic maneuvers is as much fun as I’ve enjoyed with machinery. From startup and taxi to three-abreast takeoff and team maneuvers, including a high-speed, six-g-force right break with smoke at low altitude, it was the ultimate thrill ride. I had imagined what this must be like watching jet teams perform. Now I know.
The Ultimate Pilot’s Collection
To celebrate the Jet Tour, Breitling produced a stunning Conograph 44 Limited Edition timepiece in black steel. Just 500 copies were hand-produced and are available at Breitling retailers. And the perfect companion for the Conograph is Bentley’s Mulliner-commissioned, Breitling Jet Series Continental GT Speed. Only a few examples of these lovely coupes, finished in team colors, will be produced, and may soon become classics. Brian Douglas