Flying with 'Speedy' at the Oregon Air Show
Breitling Jet Team to thrill fans this weekend at their first Oregon appearance
On Thursday I took a flight with one of the world's most experienced aerobatics pilots, and lived to tell about it.
Jacques Bothelin, nicknamed "Speedy," is the leader and manager of the Breitling Jet Team, the elite French aerobatic flight team in Oregon for the first time to perform at the Oregon International Air Show starting today and continuing through Sunday.
What makes the Breitling Jet team different from most?
They are the world's largest professional civilian flight team performing on jets. They do what they do full-time, and are not associated with the U.S. Marines, Air National Guard, Navy or other military organization. Most of the team's seven pilots trained together in the French Air Force and have flown together as a team for 15 years.
Many have known each other for 30 to 35 years; Bothelin himself has been flying for 35 years, having clocked 11,500 flight hours on 145 types of planes and performed around 2,800 demonstrations in 25 countries.
They always fly in formation. They fly their jets as a team about 10 feet between jets, often less, sometimes at speeds of up to 435 miles per hour everywhere they go.
This includes when they ferried the 2.5 hours from Salt Lake City to Oregon this past week for the Air Show. "We have to fly very smooth," Bothelin says. "The leader is doing the maneuvers. The wingmen are following him. It's not so easy. It looks so easy because it's smooth. But you have to know what you're going to do. Everything is prepared (ahead of time)."
Their jets combine performance, precision, innovation and beauty. The L-39 Albatross, designed to train fighter pilots, is a Czech-made twin-seater that can also be used for passenger flights. The dark shade of their fuselage creates a vivid contrast with the metal gray of the wings' underside and sometimes makes the jets look like missiles when viewed from the ground.
Their Air Show demonstrations will be different from most shows you've seen. "It's different for the U.S.," Bothelin says. "It's a kind of ballet, not just powerful. We try to stay in front of the people all the time. We have smoke, we have music. We do aerobatics in formation, change formation, split and do crossovers."
It's with this background that I zipped into my flight suit and climbed into the tiny cockpit of Jet No. 1 Thursday afternoon at the Hillsboro Airport, where each of the Breitling Jets were lined up for a media tour.
The jet mechanic gave me a boost, strapped me in, secured my helmet and kindly informed me not to touch anything, lest I set off the ejection seat, bump the pilot's pedals, touch any of the hundred buttons and levers or make the glass canopy overhead fall crashing to the runway.
"Don't look at this," he said, pointing to the inside of the cockpit. "Look at this (outside)." It was great advice: The beauty of the ride (before the G-forces hit) was indescribable as we flew about 25 minutes northwest of the airport, over endlessly green hills and valleys and fields of Washington County, the blue jewel of Hagg Lake sparkling in the distance.
We kept the in-flight chatter to a minimum, since the pilots were in continuous communication with each other and Bothelin was constantly checking in with air traffic control.
We left the formation at one point and did two maneuvers, a loop-de-loop and a barrel roll, getting up to 4Gs (the pilots often do 8).
As sweat dripped down my face and drenched my entire body I felt like passing out at one point but tried to keep breathing, keep my eyes open and look at the horizon.
When Speedy checked in, I replied with a meek "Fantastic," "It's beautiful," or "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh." I felt those G forces, hard.
To which he responded: "It's no problem. No more tricks for you. Look outside. Enjoy."
"It's easy to make people airsick," Bothelin told our group of intrepid journalists beforehand. "It's not the purpose of our flight. It's to share our passion."
We landed soon after, gentle and smooth, and I was a bit of a hot mess afterward but finally felt like myself again about four hours later.
It's a flight I won't forget.
Check out the Breitling Jet Team this weekend at the Oregon International Air Show, oregonairshow.com.