A top SI editor goes along for the ride with the aerial athletes of Breitling Jet Team and manages to keep his wits and his lunch about him while going over 400 mph and in close quarters with other fighter planes.
A version of this story appears in the July 6-13 issue of Sports Illustrated.
No. I didn’t puke.
Let’s get that settled right away, since it answers the first question asked by just about everyone who hears that I got to fly with the Breitling Jet Team. The BJT, sponsored by the eponymous, 131-year-old Swiss watch company, is the world’s largest professional civilian jet aerobatics team: a seven-man squad of high-speed, high-altitude athletes who flip and roll 7,500-pound fighter jets in formation and in unison, with wingtips usually less than 10 feet apart. This summer the team, a longtime favorite of airshow enthusiasts in Europe and Asia, is touring North America for the first time.
Last month the Breitling Jet Team took a break from that tour and invited some aviation newbies to fly with them in New Haven, Conn., where we were each packed into a twin-seat L-39C Albatros military trainer jet and taken on a 25-minute ride of our lives. The group included a handful of media members like myself, Breitling clients and retailers, and friends of the brand such as third-year PGA Tour pro Morgan Hoffman and retired astronaut and former Navy fighter pilot Mark Kelly. Like the rest of us, Hoffman, a self-described adrenaline junkie and an amateur aviator who got his pilot’s license earlier this year, was jacked on the morning of the flight.
Well, most of the rest of us—one passenger in particular seemed to be taking the whole thing in stride. Hoffman and Kelly, who made four trips into space between 2001 and ’11, had this exchange before we took to the air:
Hoffman: “Man, I’m pumped, this is going to be a awesome experience. Hey Mark, what’s the coolest plane you’ve ever gotten to fly?”
Kelly: “Um… the space shuttle.”
I was in Hoffman’s camp—though I was blissfully unaware of what I was getting into. I am not an adrenaline junkie. I’ve never bungee jumped or sky-dived, and my roller coaster résumé is thin. So when my pilot, Bernard Charbonnel, told me at a reception the night before that I’d be traveling over 400 miles per hour and pulling as many as 4 G’s of force on rolls and flips, I had no concept of what that would do to my head and stomach. I asked Charbo—as the rest of the team calls Charbonnel—if he had any advice. “Ehh Steve, you will be fine,” Charbo said vaguely. “But maybe don’t have such a big breakfast tomorrow.”
My confidence skyrocketed the next morning when I walked into the hangar and saw a locker with my name emblazoned on front, a helmet sitting on top and a flightsuit hanging inside. A funny thing happens when a man who has no business wearing a flightsuit puts one on. You stand up a little straighter. You feel a pressing need to wear sunglasses, even inside the hangar. The pilot alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…) starts to feel natural. You start contemplating Top Gun handles for yourself. (Wordsmith? Middleseat?) It’s like wearing Superman’s cape, only warmer.
As Charbo and I strode out to our ride—Breitling Jet Team No. 2—I carried my helmet under the crook of my arm, just the way I’d once seen Tom Cruise do it. Of course, when you strap in, you realize that all of that flightsuit confidence is Bravo-Sierra. While Charbo got settled in the front seat our technician, John, shoehorned me into my harness in back. He explained that I was sitting in a live ejector seat: Once he removed the safety pin, it would be in my best interest to keep my hands on my chest, gripping my harness straps. Letting my hands flail around the cockpit meant risking an inadvertent bump of what apparently was a very sensitive ejection apparatus. As he lowered the canopy over my head, John gave me his parting words. I’m pretty sure he meant to say have a good flight. But what came out was, “Remember, don’t touch anything.”
Charbo, meanwhile, seemed as concerned as a guy getting ready to take a new station wagon out for a test drive. Like the rest of the pilots on the team, he’s former French military: under the leadership of Jacques Bothelin, the group has been flying together for Breitling for more than 10 years. Between performances and training runs, Charbo said, they’re in their Albatros nearly every day. “It’s a beautiful day, Steve,” Charbo said over the headset just before takeoff. “It does not get any better than this.”
I got the feeling he was talking about flying in general, not just the gorgeously clear sun-drenched sky. “Charbo, you just let me know if you need anything,” I replied. “I’m here for you.”
Here’s the thing about flying in a fighter jet at over 400 mph: it’s remarkably smooth and quiet. I was prepared for turbulence and deafening jet roar. But it was calm enough for Charbo and I to chat, and once you’re past the whiplash acceleration of takeoff it’s easy to forget how fast you’re going. And once we were in formation—a seven-plane triangle—it seemed perfectly natural to look to your left and right and see another jet less than 10 feet away. Morgan, my fellow adrenaline junkie over in jet No. 4, and I were close enough to wave to each other. Beneath us, Long Island Sound seemed to stretch forever.
Things started to feel less natural when we moved past simple cruising. In perfect unison, the team weaved through a few barrel rolls and twisting wave-like maneuvers that Charbo called “lazy 8s.” “Are you OK, Steve?” Charbo asked. So far, so good. Stomach intact.
After a few more minutes of admiring the view, Charbo came back over the headset: “Ok Steve, you might feel a little something now.” He then started to pull us into a vertical loop, essentially a 360-degree roller coaster circle. As the nose of the Albatros started to point upward I could hear Charbo humming to himself as absentmindedly as a hansom cab driver trotting through Central Park: Do-do-dooo, doooo-do-de-doo...
I was not singing: I was too busy dealing with the equilbrium-destroying sensation that comes when the sun passes over your feet and the blood that should be in your head pools in your toes. It’s hard to describe the feeling, which I felt again a few minutes later on our final break—a steep vertical climb out of formation into a reverse loop that put us in landing position. Despite the constant questions about nausea, you feel the G’s in your face more. You try smiling when the muscles around your mouth are being pushed back toward the nape of your neck.
The ability to deal with that force wasn’t most impressive thing about Charbo and his fellow pilots. Their precision and chemistry were incredible. Even though they were wired to communicate with each other, the maneuvers were conducted with almost no chatter between the pilots. It was Bill Belichick’s do-your-job mantra on perfect display, a beautiful airborne ballet that could only be pulled off by pilots who are among the best in the world at what they do. Said Charbo, “Our greatest skill is trusting each other.”
In the end, trust was the key to my experience too: When your life is in the hands of experts like this, there’s nothing for you to do but sit back and enjoy the ride. The only negative: regular flying has been ruined for me forever. Ask me about it if you see me hustling through a passenger terminal or stuffing myself into a middle seat. I’ll be the guy wearing a flightsuit.
Stephen Cannella is an assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated. For more on action/adventure sports plus fitness and nutrition, go to SI.com/edge