Fly like you train. Train like you fly. - Jacques Bothelin, Team Leader
Some experiences are profound, life-changing and mind-altering. Flying as a passenger in a Breitling Jet Team plane was such a moment. It will forever be etched in my memory as the best 45 minutes of my life. I floated three feet off the ground for weeks afterward, and still levitate when I reminisce.
Fortuitously, or by mere coincidence, I was invited to fly with “B-team” on the my “B-day.” Either way, I was thrilled beyond words. It was the very last stop on their American tour, which had lasted for two years.
Based in Dijon, France, the Breitling Jet Team is Europe’s largest civilian acrobatics flight squ
The team consists of:
- Jacques Bothelin, call sign “Speedy.” – Team Leader. The world’s top acrobatics pilot with 11,500 flight hours, 145 aircraft types, and 2800 global demonstrations in 25 countries.
- Bernard Charbonnel, “Charbo.” A fighter pilot with extensive training on Jaguar and Mirage 2000N and 8500 aircraft under his belt.
Christopher Deketelaere, “Douky.” French Air Force veteran, a fighter pilot and flight instructor who flew Jaguar and Alpha aircraft with 6200 flight hours
- Francois Ponsot, “Ponpon.” Mirage series fighter pilot and flight acrobat with 6500 flight hours. He is a vintage aviation restoration fanatic.
- Georges-Eric Castaing, “Georgio” Twenty-fouryears in the French Air Force teaches one a thing or two, while you have fun in Alpha, Fouga, Mirage F1, Tucano jets for 5300 hours.
- Paco Wallaert, “Paco.” Another French Air Force fighter pilot, with 22 years of experience and 4800 hours on Alpha, Jaguar and Tucano aircraft.
- Patrick Marchand, “Gaston.” Patrick’s career as fighter pilot mimics that of his teammates, with 5700 flight hours on Alpha and Jaguar jets.
Bothelin’s spectacular career was born out of frustration. Having nurtured the dreams of becoming a pilot from childhood, he was devastated when poor eyesight prevented him from joining the Air Force. Deeply disappointed, Bothelin pursued aerobatics, finding a way of channeling his passions into “the next-best thing.” He continued with dogged dedication, honing his skills with every maneuver, quickly becoming top in his field. He performed at a variety of airshows around the globe, until, in 2002, Breitling approached him to form a dedicated acrobatics crew to promote the brand’s passion for flying.
It was a perfect fit, as Jacques, a natural leader, already ran a group of experienced pilots that performed at top level. Since the team’s inception, many wanted to be a part of his crew, but no pilot has ever left the team. This carries a tremendous advantage allowing for the retention of the most experienced, cohesive, collaborative team in the field. Fifteen years together have created bonds that are impermeable. The one-of-a-kind professional civilian jet aerobatics team Jacques built is the most famous in the world. It enjoys a celebrity status and adulation of hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide. However, all the teammates are remarkably humble. Being around them was nothing short of magical. Their elegance in the air mimicked that on the ground. If you have ever been around profoundly decent human beings, you know what I mean.
The plane I rode in, the L-39C Albatros, is gorgeous, reliable and powerful. A strong structure, top efficiency, combined with relative ease of use makes this an ideal performance plane. With a top speed of 465 MPH, it’s no slouch.
Choreographing the complicated maneuvers is a fusion of art and science. Superb technical skills are enhanced by emotion turning precision into an art form. Their passions are harnessed by strict discipline resulting in a blindingly beautiful ballet.
To understand the enormous pressure that comes with the job, one must examine what it takes to be a member of this elite team:
- Emotional stability. No buckling under pressure, yours and your teammate’s lives depend on it. Nerves of steel are part of the job requirement.
- Measured risk-taking. Every maneuver carries potential pitfalls. Being risk-averse precludes you from full engagement and hinders the maneuver.
- No outside influence. Enthusiastic crowds, weather events, distractions of any sort must have no bearing on the planned performance.
- Discipline in all matters. When seconds count, it’s a key component.
- Conservative, restrained approach to all movements. Recognizing that every flight poses a risk. No matter how experienced you are, you cannot foresee everything
- Being one with the machine. Strong intuition, an ability to access the situation and make quick, sound judgments.
Pilot’s passions run deep. The resolve required is near super-human. That’s why few make the cut, and fewer are known worldwide for their prowess.
A perfectly orchestrated routine performed hundreds of times may suddenly go awry, broken up by a split-second disruption and turned into a crisis. One must practice a level of vigilance in the skies that is scarce on the ground. Exercising control is paramount, yet all must work in concert. Erroneous predictions or changing weather patterns, variations in air traffic, malfunctioning technology, or birds—all these capricious factors can spell catastrophe. As the jets are flown from one location to the next, across countries, and sometimes continents, these pitfalls increase dramatically. That’s when the highest form of trust takes hold. Your teammate, your wingman, is your biggest asset and your best friend. The kind of friend that you trust with your life. You share the risk, and the outcome.
As a group leader, there is a disproportionate amount of pressure that rests on Jacques’ shoulders. One mistake can cause someone’s demise. There is no margin for error. To observe him is to not notice a single bleep on the radar of his demeanor. Mesmerizing poise, precise focus, and remarkably calm attitude are his hallmarks.
I flew with Bothelin in Jet #1. The sense of honor and humility I felt that morning cannot be surpassed. He asked several times if I was comfortable. I mumbled, “Yes.” In truth, I wasn’t. My senses were in massive overload mode, with every cell in my body wide awake and on highest alert. We flew laps over Huntington Beach, listening to air traffic and did the famous barrel roll in the mountains. I didn’t want it to end. Ever.
I wanted to prolong what felt like a fantasy, savor yet another morsel of this high, get lost in exquisite ecstasy. I was hoping we’d get a little lost, slightly diverge from course, even if it was just for a couple of minutes.
I have known for some time that deviating from a flight plan is common on virtually every jet, commercial or military. Not an exact science, it hinges on getting to your destination safely and smoothly. The precise path is less significant.
Jacques’ path, now in its 35th year, began with devastation, and ended up in triumph. His drive, continued pursuit of his passions and unwavering tenacity made it all happen. He states that “No” is simply a “Yes” in disguise, and is living proof that it’s true; that all is possible if one wants it.
Listening to him, I was reminded of the French’s historical role in establishing the American spirit, so present in this unassuming, tremendously talented, and strikingly generous man. As the jets flew overhead, we spoke of the sound of freedom they deliver, a liberation of soul like no other. Passions that energize and inspire overflowed as we watched the crowds. Watching kids run up to the pilots was a heartwarming sight. The crew was so gracious towards their young fans, offering plenty of attention and small gifts.
All the pilots spoke about how they enjoyed their U.S. tour. They were touched by the welcoming nature of Americans. Europeans are shyer when expressing their emotions; Americans are more exuberant, engaged, invested. The energy generated is kinetic, it reverberates within its circle of recipients and charges up all involved. The pilots feel that they work for the public enjoyment, entertainment, and happiness. It’s the most fulfilling part of their job. In that vein, the music for the show is chosen with extreme care. It is designed to match the emotions of the moment, to fit perfectly with the overall theme and mission of the routine. The end effect is high-voltage, hypnotic and haunting.
What’s next for Bothelin? Eventually, retirement. He has begun training his replacement, to ensure that the future of his team is bright and secure. Passing the baton will not be easy. In addition to the sky-high skill level, the candidate must be an exceptional human being. Jacques would have it no other way.