Up Close and Personal with the Breitling Jet Team

A quiet hum fills the air around the Central De-icing Facility ramp at Toronto Pearson International Airport, emanating from a row of sleek dark blue Aero L-39 Albatrosses. Within seconds, the hum morphs into a whine, and then, a howl. Crew chiefs decked out in fluorescent vests on top of their jumpsuits coolly move to and fro around the aircraft as cockpits are sealed and chocks are pulled. The faces of the pilots ensconced in the front cockpit of these re-purposed military trainers betray no emotion – the very visage of professionalism and determination. Though they are a civilian demonstration outfit, the Breitling Jet Team is all-business and they fly and function with military precision.

Though the Team was formed in 2003, it can trace its roots back to 1980 when current team leader Jacques “Speedy” Bothelin began his airshow career with a Mudry CAP 10 two-seater aerobatic trainer, similar to those used by the French Air Force and Navy to train its future pilots. Bothelin, unable to join the military to fulfill his dream of becoming a fighter pilot due to bad eyesight, decided to go a different route and pursue aerobatics as a civilian pilot. By 1982, he traded in his 180-horsepower CAP 10 for three Italian SIAI-Marchetti SF.260s, sponsored by Martini, one of the most well-known alcohol brands around the globe.

Number 6: Paco Wallaert taxis off the flightline to runway 33R along with the rest of his team. Paco serves as the team’s right outside wingman. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

The crew chiefs jog to their positions away from the flight line, their heads constanly scanning as the L-39s – their machines – move out. In the rear cockpit of these Eastern European trainers are local celebrities and high-profile VIPs; people who can attract more eyes to the team and the brand they represent. The Number 1 jet, piloted by Speedy Bothelin, moves towards a taxiway which take Speedy and his backseater to runway 33 Right (33R), briefly activated by Toronto Pearson’s tower for the Team’s launch. The aircraft they fly has its origins in the 1960s, born of a need for a primary trainer for the air forces of Warsaw Pact nations. By 1969, Aero Vodochody had completed and flown the L-39, and by 1996 when the type’s production run ended, over 2900 had rolled off a Czech assembly line. Today, many still fly as military trainers while others, like Breitling’s, fly as aerobatic display planes.

The Number 7 aircraft of the Breitling Jet Team, flown by Patrick “Gaston” Marchand. Gaston is the team’s left outside wingman. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

Admittedly, I wasn’t paying much attention to the Team. I’m at the Central De-icing Facility for the 2016 Canadian International Air Show’s first media day on behalf of TACAIRNET. As I check my Timex wristwatch, a roar fills my ears. Before I can curse my lack of hearing protection, the sun glints off three navy blue L-39s executing a formation takeoff. The Breitling Jet Team is en route to the practice area for the upcoming weekend airshow. Ashamedly, I admit the signs were all there – the coordinated launch routine, the quiet professionalism of the flight and ground crew… they were all there. But I only truly began to appreciate the Team when I saw them take to the skies, just as I’ve seen the US Navy’s Blue Angels or the US Air Force’s Thunderbirds do for over two decades of my twenty three years on planet Earth.

When the Breitling team lands, they do it in formation, just like their takeoffs. Closely-formed, perfectly timed and well-executed overall. They taxi in and park neatly in a line abreast (i.e. side-by-side) pattern, exactly how they were before they launched. The gaggle of journalists and photographers that I am a part of is given the go-ahead to walk over and “mingle” with the pilots and crew. Nervously, having never met a Swiss aerobatic pilot before, I walk over and seek the closest one I can see out. Just my luck, he’s not Swiss but rather, French. As it turns out, Paco Wallaert is a former fighter and demonstration pilot with the French Air Force. He offers me a handshake and immediately moves our conversation closer to his aircraft, so that the metal bulk of the fuselage shields the microphone on my voice recorder for the interview that’s about to occur. As I unfold a sheet of questions, he laughs and jokes about my list and I quickly assure him it won’t take long. But in the next ten minutes, I get a glimpse of something I’ve never really seen before in the aviation community.

Paco Wallaert gives a thumbs up to photographers before settling into the cockpit of the Number 6 L-39 on the Breitling Jet Team prior to a practice flight. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

With his mirrored Ray Ban aviator sunglasses and complex watch, Paco is definitely a fighter pilot at a first glance. Somewhat shorter than my 6′ frame, Paco is considerably sturdier than I am, and makes eye contact with a concentrated gaze I’ve consistently noticed on other fighter pilots. It’s almost as if he’s entering the merge, reading his opponent while studying and soaking in the environment around him. I’m hardly an opponent, and this isn’t anything close to a dogfight, however. For 22 years, Paco has flown a mix of aircraft including the Embraer Tucano, the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet, the SEPECAT Jaguar, and now, the L-39 upon his retirement from the French military. I throw him a question: what’s the biggest difference between the Breitling Jet Team and military demo teams like the Blue Angels or Snowbirds.

“We’re in the same situation as the Red Arrows, the Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels,” he says. Breitling flies high-performance demos replete with breathtaking death-defying maneuvers sure to stun and wow anyone. “The difference is that we represent a brand”. There are only two civilian teams in the world that fly jets in show routines, of which Breitling is one; the other being the Patriots Jet Team. Paco explains that even though the Team is entirely civilian, the vast majority of its pilots are ex-French Air Force. Military precision is required to maintain the safety and integrity of the show. It helps, he says, that military pilots also speak the same language. They connect on a different plane (no pun intended) that allows them to understand each other in a somewhat similar way to how professional athletes on a sports team can come together to play cohesively as a single unit. “It is certainly not easy,” he laughs, “but we do it!”

The front cockpit of one of the Breitling Jet Team’s L-39s. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

It’s at that point when I realize that Paco is the Number 6 pilot. A year and a few months ago, I was in Rochester, NY conducting an interview with another [future] Number 6 pilot – US Marine fighter pilot Jeff “Kooch” Kuss of the Blue Angels. Kooch tragically passed away in June of this year when his Hornet went down in Smyrna, Tennessee, shocking the aviation community throughout North America. But Kuss’s loss isn’t the only one the community has sustained over the past 9 months; just over the course of the last five days, two more [civilian] airshow pilots have perished. Following Kooch’s crash, a Russian demo team lost one of its own, and a Canadian airshow pilot lost his life during a demonstration routine in Cold Lake, Alberta. “Has the Team been affected in any way by these losses? Have you had to modify the routine in any way?” I ask.

“First I wanna say that, you know when a friend of ours has had an issue we feel very sad … it’s like a big family. Zero risk doesn’t exist, as you know,” Paco responds. “But safety and quality are linked. Before each performance, we get a full briefing … and there is no improvisation”. Like a military demo team, Breitling’s pilots take no chances. Not when there are lives at stake – especially spectators on the ground. Every movement of the control column in each jet is carefully planned out. Ever rudder input, every move they make, they know beforehand, and they understand that deviations can only become a viable option in the event of an extreme emergency.”But you never know”, Paco says thoughtfully, “sometimes things can go very wrong and it is unavoidable … some things we cannot manage or control, but we are prepared to face them”. Regardless, Breitling continues to fly its jaw-dropping routine, though with a wary eye on safety, more so than ever before.

Number 5: Georges-Eric “Georgio” Castaing, the Breitling Jet Team’s second slot position pilot. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

“This is a full-time job”, he emphatically adds, “It can be very fun though”. Part of being a member of Breitling’s flight roster is the travel, and it certainly brings the Team to some very interesting places around the world, be it Dubai, San Francisco, or even Toronto, where the team is scheduled to perform this weekend. But a part of this life includes having to be away from family and friends for extended periods of time, and that’s what makes it somewhat difficult for Paco and his compatriots. Even still, being a member of the Breitling roster is highly sought-after.

Paco himself was recruited to the team only because another member had known him in his previous incarnation as a French Air Force pilot. It didn’t hurt at all that Paco was a respected member of the Patrouille de France, his native country’s premier military flight demonstration team. The team constantly works on improving. Stagnation and complacency are two words that are most definitely not in the vocabularies of any of Breitling’s team members. Since there is no real turnover (a vacancy only opens up when a pilot decides to leave), the show pilots are very familiar with the routine. “It’s not something you forget very easily … almost like riding a bike, it’s hardwired into your system” says Paco.

Number 3: A helmet belonging to Christophe “Douky” Deketelaere, the team’s first slot pilot. (Photograph by Ian D’Costa, 2016)

“When your jobs is your passion … you feel very fortunate, you know? And when you fly for Breitling which has been involved in the world of aviation from the very beginning, this makes the job cooler because we fly for a brand I respect a lot … it’s like the story goes on”. It’s very evident – the love that these pilots have for their job. It shows in their flying, the care they take and their devotion to continually outputting high-quality shows for all to see. It comes across in the manner they interact with each other, dissecting their routines, rooting out even the smallest of mistakes in the interest of preserving the integrity of their show which is a direct reflection on the caliber of the team. And it certainly comes across in their attention to detail, the manner in which they conduct themselves, and the incredible demonstrations they fly.

One more question before he heads back to the Central De-icing building where the airshow officials have set up shop. I quickly hand over a business card, and after a picture with Paco, I ask: “How do you feel about the fact that your routine is a huge factor in inspiring the next generation of pilots?”

“Very very happy”, he says with a genuine grin as he walks away.

“Very proud!”

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