Planeside With the Breitling Jet Team

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It’s rare to see a foreign jet team perform at U.S. air shows, especially one making its North American debut. The team’s original schedule called for nineteen show sites, each selected where The Breitling Company has a strong market share. Prior to their fourth show (North Kingstown, RI) we were granted the privilege of interviewing the team’s leader Jacques Bothelin and meet the rest of the pilots.

Emerging from the team’s trailer, the Breitling Jet Team’s originator and manager, a mature balding husky fellow with an excellent command of the English language accompanied by a French accent, left no doubt he is the driving force behind the group. Following Bothelin were the other six pilots, each outfitted in tight fitting slick black flight-suits with large gray individual pilot numbers adorning each aviator’s left leg and accessorized with their own limited edition (500) watch that commemorate the team’s North American tour. In the background; the team’s mechanics and support personnel, all wearing identical black flight-suits sans the pilot numbers, were busy making preparations for the afternoon’s flight display.

Since 1884, the Swiss based family owned Breitling Company has been manufacturing high quality pocket and wrist watches. In the early 1930’s the company extended their business to the aviation industry which needed precise, sturdy onboard cockpit chronographs. The Breitling family is very dedicated to aviation; owning a Super Constellation, DC-3, wing walker, and sponsor of an air racing team. Bothelin is a former French Air Force pilot, professional aerobatic performer and friend to the Breitling’s. For twenty years, Bothelin pursed the Breitling’s in his desire to have them sponsor a jet team. In 2013 the Swiss family agreed.

The team owns nine Czechoslovakian L-39 Albatross jets. They travel with eight along with a Fairchild Metroliner support plane. Our interview was conducted next to Bothelin’s #1 jet. Bothelin told us their brand new Albatross’ were acquired from Estonia and chosen because of their affordable purchase price and low maintenance cost. The L-39 also reflects the Breitling name; projecting an image of performance, reliability, speed and original technological. In December 2014, the nine jets were shipped from Europe to Lakeland, FL where they were uncrated, reassembled and then precisely painted in a black and gray scheme with large individual numbers on their tails along with the Breitling name emboldened in large gold letters on the entire length of the bottom fuselage and each engine intake.

Breitling, based in Dijon France, is the world’s largest professional civilian jet team. Consisting of either former French Air Force or Patrouille de France pilots, most have also flown together as either aerobatic or competition pilots and are quite familiar with one another. Like other aviation teams that fly in close contact, the Breitling pilots must have full confidence in their fellow aviators. Any new recruit has to be unanimously approved by the entire team. It’s also critical that they all get along well and each enjoys relating to the public. As Bothelin explained, it does them no good to have a great pilot that is not a good public advocate for the Brietling brand. Periodically throughout the season, the tight-knit group will return to Europe, taking about two weeks off to be with their families.

The seven jet performance opened with a head-on to the crowd. Over the loud speaker Team Leader Bothelin thanked the United States of America for liberating France and the French people during WWII. The performance was a meticulously choreographed ballet in the sky, orchestrated to the sounds of New Age music. The synchronized routine, adapted for different countries depending on regulations, reflected the team’s obsession with quality and perfection. The team’s display also mirrors the Breitling brand with precise movements as the jets fly between 62 and 435 mph with accelerations up to 8 G’s. The twenty minute performance concluded just as it opened, with a head-on to the crowd, as the jets pulled up and popped flares in a final bomb burst maneuver.

The team has scheduled another North American tour for 2016. The jets will “winter” in Lakeland, FL.

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