THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Meet the elite aviators representing Breitling’s elegant timepieces through their own brand of elegant flying
Nearly losing your breakfast in a jet as it swoops over Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is not a pleasant experience by any means, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either. Retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who undertook combat missions during the Gulf War as a U.S. naval aviator, confides that the sensations involved in flying at speeds in excess of 400mph, not to mention the extreme G-forces (from 8G down to -4G) caused by maneuvers like the Loop and “B One” Bend, the Ocean Master Wave and the completely crazy Apache Roll (more on that later), cause even him to get a bit queasy.
To clarify, Kelly feels sick only when he’s a passenger. “When I’m in the pilot’s seat, I’m completely focused on what I have to do and I feel fine,” he says while paying a visit with fellow Breitling brand ambassador John Travolta to the Swiss watch manufacturer’s hospitality tent at the 2015 Reno Air Races in Nevada. “But when I’m the passenger in a twin-seater military training jet like the ones these guys use and I’ve got nothing to do except look at the view, then even I feel a little airsick sometimes.”
“These guys” are a remarkably affable and apparently utterly fearless group of mostly middle-aged men who fly L-39C Albatros aircrafts, which are Czech-made training jets.
“Theirs is the world’s largest professional civilian flight team performing in jets”
They put on spectacular aerobatic displays for the entertainment of huge crowds of admirers all over the world. Led by 60-year-old Jacques “speedy” Bothelin, these magnificent seven pilots make up the Breitling Jet team. Theirs is the world’s largest professional civilian flight team performing in jets. Each year, they perform about 50 displays at air shows, Formula 1 Grand Prix races and sports events.
Mostly active in Europe, the team has also performed in Asia in recent years. In 2015, it undertook its inaugural tour of North America. This proved so successful that they have decided to extend the tour into 2016. Among the highlights of the two-year tour so far, Bothelin and his colleagues have performed in the United States’ second largest airshow, the Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo, in Florida; flown over the new Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon; and put on three signature displays for the Reno Air Races.
Officially known as the National Championship Air Races, the Reno affair is one of the premier air racing events in the U.S. The races draw aviation enthusiasts from around the world who share a love for what has been described as the world’s fastest motorsport. Breitling has long been a sponsor of the event, which is the last of its kind, carrying on the tradition of the legendary Cleveland Air Races of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. The races have become an institution for Northern Nevada, as the desert north of Reno becomes home to hundreds of aircraft, their pilots and crews. The event attracts more than 150,000 spectators each year.
The Breitling Jet team’s mission is to illustrate the watch brand’s values of performance, precision, aesthetic sophistication and innovation. The planes fly as close as within three meters of each other and at speeds of up to 565mph in a rapid-fire succession of figures that are calculated, mastered, synchronized and fine-tuned down to the tiniest detail. Perhaps the most breathtaking of the maneuvers they undertake is the mind-blowing Apache Roll, which was dreamed up by Bothelin and has since been copied by other aerobatics teams.
Says Patrick “Gaston” Marchand, pilot of plane No. 7 and occupier of the team’s left outside wingman position: “This figure involves five planes. For spectators, it begins by looking to the right and finishes up on the far left. I fly
the plane that performs barrel rolls around four other L-39s. From my pilot’s seat, I can observe the team from all angles.” For a regular spectator, the risks Marchand takes as he zips over and under the jets of his colleagues, one after the other, seem immense—perhaps even a little crazy. But as he describes how the maneuver was worked out, planned, rehearsed and perfected, and has been performed countless times without mishap, Marchand appears to be quite sane and relaxed. clearly, he and his colleagues just don’t know what the word “fear” means. The pilots’ confidence comes, of course, from their vast experience. For them, pushing their planes and their flying abilities to the very edge of the envelope, while all the time making safety their top priority, is just another day at the office.
Bothelin, who put the Breitling Jet team together and negotiated its partnership deal with Breitling CEO Theodore Schneider, is not just a shrewd entrepreneur but also one of the world’s most experienced aerobatics pilots. He has clocked over 11,000 flight hours in 145 aircraft types, and performed some 2,800 demonstrations in 25 countries. As manager, he handles the team’s schedule and show program. As leader, he heads the formation, flying plane No. 1. “The Loop and ‘B One’ Bend is my favorite maneuver,” he says. “I love arriving at the demo location, lining up the planes for the first loop and giving the signal for the smoke trails. It’s very exciting and, despite the fact that we are in our aircraft, I can actually feel the spectators’ enthusiasm.”
“Speedy” sees the team’s role as very much that of entertainers as well as ambassadors for the Breitling brand. He chose the l-39C Albatros because they are twin-seaters and can also be used for passenger flights. These planes, he says, “represent an excellent compromise between performance, aesthetics, reliability and operating costs. They were widely used in all former Soviet bloc countries.” To accentuate their powerful, taut and dynamic appearance, Breitling has equipped them with black, anthracite gray and metal gray livery that improves the visibility of the breathtaking feats they perform. Each pilot’s number appears tightly framed and cropped to follow the shape of the wings and ailerons. Another important detail lies in the dark shade of the plans’ fuselage. This creates a vivid contrast with the metal gray of the underside of the wings and sometimes makes the jets look almost like missiles when viewed from the ground.
The team members Bothelin has hired over the years are, for the most part, ex-French Air Force veterans. Bernard Charbonnel, who flies plane No. 2, has 8,000 flight hours behind him. He specialized in ground attack as a fighter
pilot, mainly flying Jaguar and Mirage 2000N aircraft. He shares a passion for old planes with Francois Ponsot, in plane No. 4. “For me, the Ocean Master Wave is the most graphic figure and when there’s not much wind, it’s fantastic,” says Charbonnel. “When we reach the end of the figure, you can still see the start thanks to the smoke trail. Due to its nature and the time it takes, the execution of this maneuver must be extremely accurate. The space between each of the five planes must be identical to provide a symmetrical effect.”
Ponsot was formerly a Mirage f1 and Mirage 2000 fighter pilot. He devotes most of his leisure time to flying and restoring legendary planes, such as the Stampe, T6 and other warbirds. He has 6,700 flight hours to his credit. “I like doing what we call the Vertical Split,” he says. “To begin with, there are five of us flying in rocket formation. I occupy the right outside wingman position. The figure starts with a loop and the plane accelerates during the descent. Jacques then gives us the order to split. It’s technically very difficult, because you have to make sure all five planes follow the same split angles so as to ensure that the figure is visually beautiful.”
Marchand, in plane No. 7, enjoyed a career as a fighter pilot in Jaguar and Alpha Jet planes. He performed flight demonstrations over a five-year period as part of a pair of Jaguars: the “Raffin Mikes.” He has clocked 5,500 flight hours. Paco Wallaert, in plane No. 6, flew Tucano, Jaguar and Alpha Jet aircraft during his 22 years as a French Air Force fighter pilot. From 2009 to 2011, he was part of the Patrouille de France aerobatics team. He has 4,400 flight hours under his belt. Before joining the Breitling team, Christophe Deketelaere, in plane No. 3, was a fighter pilot in Jaguar and Alpha Jet aircraft in the French Air Force, where he was also an instructor. He has notched up 6,000 flight hours. Georges-Eric Castaing, in plane No. 5, served for 23 years in the French Air Force, flying Fouga, Tucano, Alpha Jet, Mirage f1 and Mirage 2000 aircraft. He spent three seasons (2008-2010) with the Patrouille de France. He has racked up to 4,900 flight hours.
The Breitling Jet team’s bravura displays in Reno were the absolute highlight of the weekend for many, if not most, of the thousands of spectators. They leaped to their feet to applaud, or simply gasped in astonishment, as the pilots pulled off staggering feats of meticulously coordinated and carefully planned aerobatics. John Travolta—no mean aviator himself and the owner of an ex-Qantas Boeing 707-138 airliner—was heard to mutter in his VIP box: “Damn, now those are real pilots.” But perhaps Jacques Bothelin put what his team does most poetically, proudly describing their displays as veritable “ballets in the air.”
“Damn, now those are real pilots” – John Travolta
INTERVIEW WITH JACQUES BOTHELIN, THE “FLYING AMBASSADOR”
Jacques Bothelin, nicknamed “Speedy,” created the unique Breitling Jet team, known as the largest professional civilian team performing in jets. He is the team’s leader and manager, handling its schedule and show programs. In his position as flight leader, he heads the team’s formation, flying plane No. 1. Bothelin is one of the world’s most experienced aerobatics pilots, having clocked up over 11,000 flight hours in 145 types of aircraft. DA MAN caught up with him at the national championship air races in Reno, Nevada, during which the Breitling Jet team thrilled tens of thousands of spectators with three displays in as many days of breathtaking maneuvers high up in the thin, bright blue, cloudless desert air.
DA MAN: How did your relationship with Breitling begin?
Jacques Bothelin: It’s been 13 years since Breitling asked me to set up the first civilian jet team in the world to promote the brand and its great pilot watches. Everyone on the team works full-time, and we travel all over the world
to give displays and act as brand ambassadors for Breitling. We have been to more than 30 countries. We have eight jets, of which seven (L-39C Albatros aircraft) fly regularly and the eighth (a Fairchild Metro III) is for support. All of the pilots, except me, are ex-French Air Force.
DA MAN: How do the pilots get along?
Jacques Bothelin: We have a stable team. Most of us have flown together for many years. The only time we bring in new pilots is when someone has to retire from flying because of their age or for medical reasons. We try to keep the guys in the team for a long time because training a pilot is a huge investment. Good communication is extremely important. This is why everyone in the team is French-speaking.
“It’s vital for a pilot that his timepiece be easily readable. His watch must be strong too”
DA MAN: Precision is clearly important for you guys, too, just as it is for a good watch.
Jacques Bothelin: The most important thing each pilot must do is to be in the right position and to stay within one foot of where he is supposed to be. Otherwise, the figure will not look symmetrical from the ground. We are entertainers, so the figures we create up in the sky must look symmetrical from the ground.
DA MAN: How much do you guys use your Breitling watches when you’re flying?
Jacques Bothelin: Our watches are important to us. We must be able to read them at a glance, so it’s vital for a pilot that his timepiece be easily readable at all times. His watch must be strong too, because it will get banged about while he is flying.
DA MAN: What do you look for in new pilots?
Jacques Bothelin: First, he must be acceptable to everyone in the team. We like to hire guys who have retired from the Patrouille (de France, the precision aerobatic demonstration team of the French Air Force) because we know that they have all the flying skills we require. They speak the same language as us, but they do have to learn our culture—and that takes time. I don’t want pilots who want to show off and be daredevils. For us, flight safety is most important. We need guys who are well in their heads. As I said, we are entertainers and ambassadors. So we must have pilots who are friendly, willing to talk to the public and share their passion for flying with them. If we had guys who didn’t want to talk to people it would not be good for the team’s or Breitling’s image. I think all the guys would agree with me that we are lucky to be part of the Breitling Jet team.
DA MAN: You guys sometimes fly within three meters of each other; at speeds of over 700 km/h. Don’t you have to be a bit crazy to be an aerobatics pilot?
Jacques Bothelin: If you compare it with car racing, what we do is much safer. We are not racing. Our flying is coordinated, carefully planned and rehearsed. Each of us knows what he is doing and so does every other pilot on the team. Because of our training and skills, it’s very natural for us to fly this way. Each year, we introduce something new in our displays to add to the challenge and to create something more entertaining for the public. What we do looks dangerous, but we are always governed by two words: quality and safety.