Pilot’s Digital Editor, Jenny, takes a trip with the Breitling Jet Team.
There were seven of us due to fly from Cotswold Airport today. We’d been provided with black flight suits emblazoned with the Breitling Jet Team’s logo, hair nets and bright yellow helmets with built-in headsets.
The briefing, which included advice on how to use an ejector seat (pull the big red handles and brace yourself!) and how best to hold on to your breakfast, consisted of a short film. Afterwards we were assigned our craft.
“Jennifer Ross… number four.”
“That’s the best one!” Laughed one of the men stood at the back; Jet Four’s pilot, François Ponsont (aka. ‘Ponpon’).
Then we walked out to the jets themselves – seven sleek L-39C Albatros aircraft painted in Breitling’s black, grey and yellow colour scheme. These Czech-made former military training jets boast a top speed in level flight of 750km/h, rising to 910km/h in a dive.
I passed my helmet to a waiting engineer – Yannick Diry – who helped me to climb into the jet. This was probably the hardest part. Taking control of a helicopter flying over a thousand feet above the ground? No problem. Soaring about in a glider? Count me in. Climb a ladder? My stomach lurches. Right foot in the first slot, deep breaths, reach up, don’t freeze – do it quickly.
Once safely inside the cockpit, which contained numerous red levers that screamed ‘do not touch’, Yannick strapped me in securely and helped me with my helmet. I looked over at the other aircraft and gave a thumbs up to one of my fellow passengers. After a short wait while photographs were taken and the runway cleared, the engines were switched on – not as loud as I expected, and not all that different to the sound one hears when a passenger jet takes off – and we taxied out. Taxying was smooth and speedy. We moved out single file, then lined up in formation on the runway.
The Albatros leaped forward. The speed was incredible! We bounced, floated and soared into the air. It felt very surreal to look sideways through the bubble of the cockpit and see two jets hanging in the air next to me.
We flew upwards until we were just above the clouds and into Brize Norton ATZ, where the team requested permission to perform aerobatics.
I must admit that I was somewhat worried about the aerobatics. In my head I envisioned a sudden jerk upright as we pulled upwards, before hanging upside-down – blood rushing to my head – then shooting downwards. Barrel rolls would be sickening whirls of colour. I was so, so wrong!
“We’re going to start doing some aerobatics now,” said Ponpon over the radio. I looked out through the glass in fascination as we tilted sideways and downwards, I could see other jets below us. Their wingtips were no more than a couple of meters away from ours.
We dipped down, building up airspeed, then soared upwards; this was to be my first taste of looping the loop. I had not expected how strong the g-force would feel to a newcomer such as myself. It felt as if someone was sitting on my chest while stretching my face downwards. It dawned on my befuddled mind that I could barely see – the force was pulling my eyelids shut. I tensed my lower abdomen and this brought some relief.
At the top of the loop the sensation lifted. There was no feeling of blood rushing to my brain. Rather, it felt as if I were sat upright and the world hanging above me. I craned my head back. The sight of the ground upside-down, bright fields of rapeseed lit up by the May sun and fading into haze in the distance, is one of the strangest and most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
Then we were heading downwards and the g-force returned. It felt unpleasantly like being squashed. I half-expected to find myself a few inches shorter when I disembarked!
We then did a few barrel rolls – I had a vague feeling of spinning, and could just about see the ground through my half-closed eyes – and by the time we started heading back to base my face was hurting from the permanent grin that was spread across it. We darted through cloud and I could see Cotswold Airport materialise ahead of us.
Feeling a little sad that the day was nearly over, I sat back and admired the other aircraft. Then, without warning, the lead jet seemed to shoot upwards and flip, darting away outside my vision. Then another followed it. I waited for our turn. My stomach dropped as we rose suddenly. No rollercoaster is ever going to feel as good as this!
Ponpon spun the jet. I tensed my abdomen as hard as I could, but it wasn’t enough to stop swirls of grey from creeping into the sides of my vision. I was starting to black out.
Then we were the right way up, my face sprung back into its customary grin and I drew in air, marvelling at the receding shapes of the aircraft ahead of us and wondering how that must have looked from the ground.
Back on terra firma I climbed from the aircraft, shook Ponpon’s hand and thanked him and Yannick enthusiastically. What a flight!
Fancy taking to the skies with the Breitling Jet Team? Click here to enter the company’s video competition.