Rhode Island Air Show Hits Jet Team Trifecta

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The on-line dictionary Encarta defines the word trifecta like this:

1. bet on first 3 in race …a bet… that involves selecting the competitors that will come in the first three places in the correct order. 2. set of three …a series or set of three things, factors, or influences…”. The chance of naming a winning trifecta offers long odds to a bettor in the racing world, and having three large jet teams on the same bill is equally rare at air shows. The 2015 Rhode Island National Guard Open House and Air Show beat the odds, and presented three large jet teams at their 2015 air show; the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Snowbirds, and the Brietling Jet Team. The three teams are different in many ways, but also share similarities… here’s a look at some.

Their Missions:

The mission of the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron is to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach”. “…demonstration sites are selected in support of Department of Defense objectives and in the interest of the armed services, with safety as the primary consideration. Performances greatly assist in recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women, and demonstrate the professional skills and capabilities of the Naval services to the American public and U.S. allies.” – U.S. Navy

“The Canadian Forces Snowbirds’ mission is to represent the professionalism, skill and teamwork of the Canadian Forces and to act as a platform for recruiting. The Snowbirds represent the values of esprit de corps, professionalism and service before self that are inherent in all members of the Canadian Forces”. “With their inspiring show, the Snowbirds also encourage young Canadians to consider a military career…” – Royal Canadian Air Force

“Precision. Speed. Audacity. Aerobatics is one of the world’s most demanding disciplines and one of the most fascinating sights to watch from the ground. A concentrated blend of technical ability, mastery and finesse, the Breitling Jet Team is the elite in its field. Breitling recognizes excellence in aviation and this unique aerobatic team actively promotes the wonder of flight to the public. Working closely together to reinforce the core values of the company, the Breitling Jet Team has carried out the mission with verve, performing for awestruck audiences across the globe for over a decade.” – Breitling Jet Team

A main difference between the teams is that the Breitling Jet Team is a civilian team sponsored by a civilian company (the family – owned Swiss wrist chronograph (wrist watch) company Breitling SA) while the others are military squadrons.

A similarity between the teams, noted by Breitling Jet Team Leader Jacques Bothelin during a planeside interview at the Quonset airport, is that his team not only represents the family-owned company; they have in fact become Breitling family members too. Bothelin called the team “ambassadors” for the company, and the Blue Angels and Snowbirds have echoed that same moniker in literature about their teams too. There’s a lot of pride exhibited by all the teams while representing their parent organizations.

The Teams:

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 The Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, fly six Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets and one Lockheed C-130T Hercules during their shows. The team operates some early blocks of the C and D version of the Hornet, first built in 1987. The twin engines develop around 22,000 pounds of thrust without afterburner and about 35,000 pounds with the ‘burner, propelling about 24,500 pounds of aircraft. The C-130T develop around 18,000 pounds shaft horsepower.  Their show speeds range from 120 MPH to around 700 MPH (or Mach .95). There are approximately 16 officers and 100 enlisted personnel on the team, although only 45 routinely travel to a show site. Most officers serve for 2 years, enlisted crew for 3 years. There are no spare pilots, but the team routinely flies one or two spare aircraft to a show site. Normally, the C-130 attends each show, acting as a support ship as well as a performer.

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The 431 Air Demonstration Squadron, known worldwide as the Snowbirds, fly a routine with nine Canadair CT-114 Tutor jets. The single engine develops 2,700 pounds of thrust to propel a 7,170 pound jet. Their show speeds range from 115 MPH to 370 MPH. There are about 80 team members, although 24 normally attend each air show. The Snowbird Tutors were built in the early 1970s, and their jets are part of the two dozen or so CT-114 airframes still operated by the RCAF. Current plans (early 2015) will see the retirement of the Tutors by 2020; no replacement plan has been announced. The nine pilots who fly the routines stay for three years, while technicians can remain on the team without limits. There are no spare pilots, but the team routinely supply one or two spare jets for each event.

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The Breitling Team performs with seven Aero L-39C Albatross jet trainers. The single engine develops 3970 pounds of thrust to propel an 8,820 pound jet. Speeds during their routine range from 62 MPH to 435 MPH. There are 17 members on the team, supported by a non-performing Swearingen Metro III. While the exact years of manufacture of their L-39Cs is unknown, they were described as some of the newest airframes in existence… production ended in 1999. The team has a spare jet available if needed, and is the only one of the three teams that has a spare pilot.

The Pilots:

The Blue Angels flight leader is known as the “Boss”. Besides commanding the squadron, the Boss will have at least 3,000 flight hours and has served as commander of a tactical jet squadron. The Chief of Naval Air Training chooses the Boss, but the team chooses their other pilots. To be one of the jet pilots, you must have at least 1,250 flight hours of tactical jet time and be aircraft carrier qualified. The Marine Corps pilots who fly the C-130T “Fat Albert” must have 1,200 flight hours as a minimum. The 2015 Boss is Captain Thomas Frosch, who has logged more than 3,800 flight hours and has 830 carrier landings. As far as experience goes, the six F/A-18 pilots average more than 2,250 flight hours each.

The Snowbirds Team Lead must be a Major or higher rank, and had already been a Snowbird once during his career. The outgoing Team Lead recommends new “bosses” to the Wing Commander and to the Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, who chooses the most qualified applicant to lead the team. The team’s pilots decide on their replacements for the next year. The Snowbird pilots have diverse backgrounds; as an example, Captain Ave Pyne, Snowbird 2, has over 2,800 flying hours, gaining many as a CH-124 helicopter pilot on the West Coast, then as an instructor in CT-156 Harvard turboprop trainers. As a team, the Snowbird pilots average slightly more than 2,580 flight hours each.

Breitling Flight Leader and the team manager is Jacques Bothelin, one of the world’s most experienced aerobatic pilots. He has over 11,000 flight hours and 2,800 performances to his credit. He leads a “close knit team of professionals” according to Breitling literature. The Leader chose the original team members, but recent additions were vetted by all of the team’s pilots. Before flying for Breitling, all seven pilots had extensive careers in the French Air Force as Patrouille de France members or Mirage or Jaguar demonstration pilots. As an example, the pilot of the Number 7 jet, “Paco” Wallaert retired after 22 years with the French Air Force, and amassed more than 4,400 flight hours in Tucano and Alphajet trainers, and Jaguar strike fighters. He also served four years as a pilot and technical director for the Patrouille de France. The team has an abundance of flight experience, averaging over 6,640 flight hours per pilot. This excludes spare pilot Philippe Laloix, (9,000 flight hours) who also has extensive French Air Force and Patriolle de France experience. He is the team’s flying coach and instructor, and the stand-in pilot for any of the seven show pilots.

The Flying Displays:

Looking at each team’s 2015 schedule, the Blue Angels list 68 appearances at 37 events, the Snowbirds list 60 appearances at 40 events, and the Breitling Jet Team listed 35 appearances at 18 events. Between the C-130 and F/A-18s, the Blue Angels demonstration usually takes about 50 minutes. The Snowbirds and the Breitling Team demonstrations normally run around 20 to 25 minutes. All three teams perform to music that match their routines. The Blue Angels use popular music, sometimes filled with powerful, rocking bass, others with demure vocals. Before the season’s start, the Snowbirds pilots contributed to their fresh musical score, sometimes “in heated discussions” according to #2 Ave Pyne. Breitling’s music is slightly classical and less powerful than the others, but their final break, complete with pyrotechnic flares emitting from their jets, stands alone.

Both the Blue Angels and Snowbirds divide their maintenance crews/ technicians into teams and alternate road trips with them, while the Breitling Team, based in France, has several extended breaks in their schedule for the team members to travel back to their homes in France.

The History:

The Blue Angels’ first performance occurred on June 15, 1946 in Jacksonville FL. Beginning with Grumman propeller-driven fighters, the team switched to jets during the 1949 and 1950 seasons. In 1956, the team expanded to 6 jets, with a pair of solos for the first time. Support aircraft consisted of multi-engined, piston powered transports until receiving their first KC-130F in 1970. The long-running JATO assisted takeoff of the C-130 was a regular event until the end of the 2009 season.

The Snowbirds can trace their heritage back to 1954, as No. 431 (Fighter) Squadron was authorized to perform flight demonstrations of new Sabre jets for that year. In 1967, the Golden Centennaires flew eight CT-114 Tutors during the Canadian Centennial year-long celebration. A few years later, the Snowbirds performed their first official flight with nine aircraft on July 11, 1971 at Moose Jaw, SK.

The Breitling Jet Team can trace its lineage back to 1980. Jacques Bothelin began the Patroille Martini with Mundry CAP-10s, and soon moved to SIAI-Marchetti SF-260s and then Pilatus PC-7 turboprops. In 1982, Jacques had founded Apache Aviation, which has operated flight teams under various European and African sponsorships. In all, 5 sponsors preceded Breitling. In 2002, the L-39s arrived, and a year later Breitling took over the team’s sponsorship, allowing it to expand gradually from four to the seven jets of today. Jacques told us at Quonset that he had been trying to gain Breitling as a sponsor for some 20 years… so never give up trying!

Why Quonset?

As the Blue Angels represent the U.S. Navy, North Kingston RI (Quonset State Airport) is a natural destination, with the large population centers of historic Providence RI and Boston MA within an hour’s drive. The Naval War College is nearby too. The Snowbirds were happy to be performing at a few more than normal shows in the U.S., as the number of Canadian air shows has dropped this year. The Breitling Team supports their company, and the U.S regional headquarters is in nearby Connecticut. The Team members were anxious to sample real New England lobster too! Add to that a stellar reputation earned over 24 years worth of air shows, and the Rhode Island destination was an easy scheduling addition.

Takeaways:

So there’s a look at all three teams, in a rather large nutshell. It isn’t easy to distill all of this information into a few sentences, but here is what I see as major similarities and differences between the trio.

The Blue Angels have the longest heritage, fly the most powerful jets, and have the largest support crew for their aircraft. Their dissimilar C-130 routine is singular of these 3 organizations. Their pilots average the least amount of flight hours, but are the only masters of challenging aircraft carrier operations in the group. They support recruitment and morale, as do the Snowbirds. The high-subsonic sneak pass, a crowd favorite, still left many Quonset spectators laughing at their own surprised reaction to its’ roar.

The Snowbirds operate the oldest model of aircraft while presenting the largest formation at the most venues during the year. Their pilots come from varied backgrounds, including rotary wing experience. They support recruitment and morale, as do the Blue Angels. The crowd was hushed with fascination as the huge nine-ship formation drew across the sky, and their opposing maneuvers drew gasps.

The Breitling Jet Team operate the newest aircraft of the three, and perform the furthest from their home. The pilots average the most experience in the air of the three, and have already completed one career (military aviator) as a minimum. The team is the only one of the three that has a spare pilot too. They support their parent Breitling SA company with sales and media presence. Their pyrotechnic finale was a definite crowd pleaser.

The 2015 Rhode Island National Guard Open House and Air Show had a winning ticket when it presented these three jet teams together. There were differences and similarities between the teams, some easy to see and others more subtle. But there was no competition, and no second or third place finishers in this trifecta.  All three teams were spectacular, and the air show spectators were the real winners.

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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