What’s it like to fly with the world’s only civilian jet formation team?

By Dan TyeYou’re in aircraft number five Dan,” says Breitling’s Chris Park. “Take off is at one o’clock so you’ll need to get yourself round there to kit up.” Now I’ve flown in a Hawk before so I know what a jet feels like to fly, but the prospect of flying in close formation with six other L-39 jets through the Swiss Alps is almost too much. I’m at Buochs Airport on the shores of Lake Lucerne, surrounded by Muesli-advert mountains. Standing in searingly sunshine a pilot’s dream line-up of aircraft sits in front of me.

When I arrived yesterday, I expected this trip was a one-day affair for just us lucky few people. Not so. Little did I know that for the past ten years Breitling has been running this exclusive event for the agents and retailers from all around the world that sell its watches. Here, Breitling gives them a flying experience they will never forget and a story which then filters its way back down in the stores and shops to customers around the globe. Retailers from as far as Japan and Australia were here last week and now it’s the turn for the Europeans.

I usually find myself surrounded by other journalists but not this time. Instead, I’m with watch experts, jewellery retailers and shopping centre owners and I find myself feeling like the odd one out. That soon changes when they find out I’m a pilot. “So this won’t be that exciting for you Daniel,” says one retailer, who considers this a busman’s holiday for me. They couldn’t be more wrong. Because when Breitling lines up a DC3, a Bucker Jungmann, two Pitts, three Marchettis, two Stearmans, a Hughes helicopter and seven L-39 jets, then says you can pick what you want to have a go in, its comes as close to a Carlsberg advert as you ever going to get.I walk round to the Jet Team’s tent with the six other people who will be flying this afternoon’s 20-minute trip. I’m introduced by Chris to Jacques Bothelin, the jet team’s leader. Chris then tells him that I’m ex air force and know how to fly which surprises Jacques who laughs and says to me, “No sick for you then.”

I know this is a passenger trip but I can’t help but hope that I might be able to get to have a go. I can’t go up in a jet and not get to fly it, I say to myself. Call me crazy, but I left the RAF during my fast jet training on the Tucano (I was seduced by skiing but that’s another story) and apart from flying a few times in a Hawk, I’ve always wondered what flying something more meatier, like the Harrier, Jaguar or Tornado, would have been like. But don’t we all imagine what it would be like to fly a jet? I’m yet to meet a pilot who has said to me that they wouldn’t want to have a go. But then the next question is usually, well, what exactly is it like to fly a jet? Answering that question is tough but I’m going to give it a good go and try and do it. Of course, this description relates to flying the L-39 Albatross jet on a nice sunny day in Switzerland. Flying as a military pilot on a fast jet squadron is much different; on a sunny day without a mission, it’s as good as it gets, but then on a day when it’s clagged out, there’s a target to hit and you’re going to get shot at, it takes on a very different colour.

We climb into our flying suits, don a lifejacket and pick up the yellow helmets including a white hair net to go on underneath (which instantly kills any sex appeal). Now feeling suitably ‘fast-jet’ we watch a safety video on how to get into the L-39 and out of it in an emergency. As I watch, I can’t help but think the L-39’s cockpit has a slightly ‘Fisher Price’ feel about it; there are big chunky red and yellow switches down on the left and right hand sides and a main panel that looks like one of those plates which you can separate food into sections. But the outside of the L-39 looks anything but childlike as it was widely used in all former Soviet bloc countries, where large numbers are still around today.

Breitling acquired its eight jets in an exceptionally good technical condition and this year they’ve been repainted black and anthracite grey. They look outstanding. It seems to have given the team new energy as well and when you see the team deploy flares at the end of their routine, you can’t help but be impressed.

Strolling out to the jets with helmets under our arms makes us all feel like fighter pilots. My pilot, Frederic Schwebel, nickname ‘Freddo’ helps me strap in. We haven’t had chance for chit-chat just yet so I decide to get myself sorted then talk as we taxi. I glance over at Mark Ungar, the Director of CS Bedford, a jewellery and watch specialist in Middlesex, who’s strapping into jet number 4 to my right. He’s never been in a jet before. He waves and gives me the biggest grin back.

Freddo then jumps in, makes sure we can hear each other and the ground technician fixes a Go Pro HD camera in front of me to capture the whole thing on film. “Now you’re being filmed Daniel,” Freddo advises me. “I best not swear then,” I reply.

The canopy comes down and seals up, making a noise like it’s the hatch of a submarine. It’s hot. Baking hot. “I’ll get zee air conditioning on in a moment,” says Freddo as I watch him in the front carrying out his pre-start checks. He starts her up. I watch as the gauges come to life. EGT and torque start rising. The bird is alive, whistling and purring. He checks in over the radio with the leader and then we wait for ATC clearance to taxi. I take my opportunity, “Umm, Freddo, do you think I might be able to take control at some point?” There’s a long pause. I start to wish I hadn’t asked. “Yes, I think that should be ok. We can try on the end of zee trip.”

Smiling, I talk him through my flying background then he tells me his; 6500 hours including Alpha Jets, Jaguar, Mirage 2009 and Rafale. Breitling prides itself that this is the only civilian jet display team but all its pilots are former military. I’m then surprised by how old Freddo is – mid-forties – the stress of military jet flying doesn’t seem to have taken any toll on him at all.

We taxi out, the throttle is a stubby looking control on the left hand side (a bit like the handle of a light sabre) and the main control stick is chunky. We’ve all been briefed to keep our hands firmly on the shoulder straps during the flight, well away from the bizarre-shaped ejection handle which isn’t a black and yellow hoop but a red coloured double hoop. It makes us look like we’re holding on for dear life, but we’re not. Well at least I’m not anyway.

Freddo talks me through his pre-take off emergency brief and we line up as the second group of three aircraft. The engine winds up, Freddo nods and the brakes are off. The acceleration is reasonable and everything feels ultra smooth as we fire down the runway. There’s no noise or vibration like you have in a piston and it’s as we climb straight out over Lake Lucerne when I can really feel the acceleration. Ahead, I can make the other three ships flying in Vic formation. “This is how we fly VMC between places,” explains Freddo. “So is that us coming up to 200kts?” I askFreddo. “Should I be reading off the yellow or the white numbers?” The white number is 30, but that would mean 300kts, and we’re certainly not going that fast yet.Freddo calls back, “Yes the yellow is knots and the white is km/hr.” So we’re doing about 300km/hr… but, it doesn’t really seem like it. I remember as a youngster trying to imagine how anyone could control something going so incredibly fast as a jet and it’s a common question from those who haven’t flown in one, but it’s surprising how just 300km/hr can seem fairly pedestrian when you’re airborne. We fly club aircraft at 100kts to 120kts but sometimes things are easier if you’re flying that bit faster and getting to places much more quickly. So I guess, 300km/hr may sound fast but when you’re experiencing it, it’s not the mind blower you think it will be. The actual top speed of the L39 is 700 km/hr but even that is manageable.

We’re climbing higher now, up into mountains and Freddo has slotted us nicely in the bottom right position of the formation. My head switches left and right, trying to take it all in. I find myself mesmerised by one particular view for a moment and then suddenly realise I should be looking at something else. Up here, the scenery fights for your attention; a rock face, a pine tree wood, a cabin perched on a hillside, a look inside at the dials, a lake beneath us, a boat on that lake, snow on the tops of the mountains…it goes on.

We reach the tops of the clouds and the hills in a wide open valley and level off as a seven-ship formation before we begin a slow turn round to our right. I peer down over the wingtip into a wide open green valley below us and smile at the other aircraft just feet away from me. “OK Daniel, so now we fly a loop,” comes the call from Freddo. We accelerate down for what seems like an age and the noise in the cockpit is just rushing air. I forget to look at the IAS, because the view out the front is so amazing and I expect Freddo to pull back hard but instead there’s a small amount of g, then a pause, and then we climb skyward, ever so gently until I really start to feel the G come on. “Urrgghh.” I look left then look right at the wingtips, imagining it’s me flying it. But then I start to feel my eyes greying out a little. What? I can’t be feeling the effects that bad, can I? I realise I’ve not flown aeros for a while plus I’ve not been tensing my leg or stomach muscles. The g relaxes and the jet feels light and airy and we pass over the top of the loop.

I watch the exhausts of the jets in front as the ground rushes up and my vision becomes clearer. I then look left and right at my companions, really savouring the sight of the other jets so close to me with those sharp, pointed noses racing downwards, reminding me that we’re cutting and ripping through the air.

We then fly a large lazy barrel roll to the left. Below us is dual carriageway that is so straight and distinct that later when I look it up on a map, I realise we had been operating in a valley overhead Attinghausen and Seedorf. Take a look for yourself on Google Earth. Staying in this valley, we loop up again. By this point I’m itching to have a go myself but my hands are still holding on to the shoulder straps.

We’re moving at our fastest as we come out of the loop and then I hear the leader call over the radio and moments later he breaks up and out to the left. One by one the rest of the formation does the same. It’s then our turn and I look down on the remainder of the formation as we roll over the top of them. We’re now on our own. “Ok Daniel, you have control.”

This is it. I place my right hand around the control column and my left on the throttle.“I have control,” I call back. “Ok keep us heading in this direction,” says Freddo. “Can you see where the airfield is?” “Affirm, it’s just beyond that lake in the 11o’clock,” I say. “Goooood,” replies Freddo. “Now you can try some turns and some aeros, but please tell me what you’re trying before you do it.”

I grin. Here I am over a lake in Swtizerland with green hills meandering beneath me at real speed and I have a free reign to do what I want with this jet. “Ok, I’ll start with a steep turn left.” I look all the way round to the left, then roll the jet on its side and pull reasonably hard making sure the nose is tracking through the horizon. God, that feels good. It’s so much easier to nail that attitude out the front in a jet. I roll level, checking the dead wing area and fly another to the right.

“Ok, an aileron roll. Do I need to raise the nose slightly first?” “Yes, a little,” says Freddo. I roll it all the way round, making sure I’m looking forward all the time as I watch the lake and mountains spin upside down and blur. “Ahh, that’s good,” I say out loud. “And one to the right now.”

My first didn’t feel that fast so this time I deliberately make a larger deflection, remembering it’s not how quickly you move the stick but how far you move it.That’s helped. “Ok, am I staying at 3500ft?” I ask, still keeping us heading back to Buochs. “Yes that’s fine, come right by about 40 degrees so we can join downwind behind the mountain.”

We pass over a ridgeline and I can see the log cabins and people stood in their gardens. It may be quiet in here, but it most certainly isn’t outside for them. Once clear of the ridge I tell Freddo I’m going to do a barrel roll. “Ok,” he says.I point the nose down to the right and build up some extra speed before pulling back hard making sure my wings are level as I pass up through the horizon. It feels strange to have such a long nose out in front of me as I do this, but the jet just cuts through the air. There’s no wobbly prop out the front and the controls feel so tight and responsive. It’s heaven. I come out of the barrel roll feeling incredible and enjoying the extra burst of speed I’ve added. I really want to stay up longer and see more because the snow covered mountains behind us look oh so tempting… We have to head back, though. Even at this speed I feel like I have time to make decisions and the world isn’t blurring past as fast as you’d expect it to. It’s hugely satisfying to see a landmark ahead, just as you do in a piston, but then get to it so much quicker. There’s no plodding along. I can see where I want to go, right, so now let’s get there. This is what a jet gives you. Today’s jets may be easy to fly, but it’s not about flying, it’s about operating them and the spare mental capacity you need is the real challenge.

I position us downwind. “Ok Daniel, start to throttle back.” I do so, gingerly as Freddo doesn’t say how much. “That’s good,” he says. “Now raise the nose slightly tobleed off some speed.” I watch as we come back from over 300km/hr to 210km/hr.

Assessing how fast you’re flying is tricky in an aircraft that’s so quiet inside. It must be so easy to overcook it. “Ok start us in a left descending turn,” says Freddo. “See the highway, follow that round. You’re going to land it.” I can really hear the whining of the jet now as the throttle is brought right back. I look up ahead to line us up on final. It feels fast, yes, but not so fast that it’s too difficult. Seeing the runway is difficult though because the top of Freddo’s ejection seat is in the way. I leanmy head left and right repeatedly until I settle on looking out the left.

“Keep her coming down, keep her coming down,” Freddo instructs. I’m wary that I do not want to point her down too much for fear of either accelerating or slamming down on to the runway. I’m also more used to floating something down to the ground, not driving it down. “That’s good, that’s good.” I try to hold everything steady. “Keep it coming, keep it coming.”

We’re getting closer to touchdown and I can see the threshold. Freddo cuts the power and instinctively I start to flare. It feels like I’m too fast to land, but then the left wheel touches first, then the right wheel nanoseconds later. I think I’ve cracked it but then I feel a little wobble. We’re down, but then I hear Freddo say, “I have control.”“Arrggh, “I say. “A slight bounce.” I’m not too sure if I’ve landed it or if Freddo has saved it. “It’s ok. A good attempt,” he says. I start to self critique. “I flared a little late and had a bit of aileron in. Any tips?” I ask. “The trick is to keep on trimming on that final approach,” says Freddo.

As we taxi in, I think about the landing. The frustrating thing is, it’s not like I can get back in the jet to a have another go tomorrow. As we walk back across the pan an attractive Breitling girl is on hand to offer us a cool, white flannel to wipe the sweat from our hot faces. Now you don’t get that sort of treatment in the air force.

Back at the Jet Team’s tent, Freddo writes on my certificate “Congratulations on a perfect landing!!” I’m sure it wasn’t quite perfect but the whole experience was. No amount of video watching can replicate just what it feels like to fly a jet. No other type of aircraft can hurl you through the air quite so fast and with so much smoothness and grace. It makes your brain buzz, your body tingle and your soul marvel…and it’s every bit as good as what you imagine it to be.

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