I am sitting in an ejector seat. An inflatable life vest is strapped to my chest, with a parachute pack layered over top. There’s a sleek yellow helmet secured to my head, its visor down and its built-in mic pressed firmly against my lips. Everything is hot and smells of jet fuel. Unless I wake up tomorrow as Tom Cruise — God forbid — this is about as Top Gun as I’m ever going to feel.
The plane I’m slotted into is an L-39 Albatros fighter jet. A few moments from now, it’ll take off for a formation flight over New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the Breitling Jet Team, the largest civilian aerobatic display team in world. It’s comprised entirely of ex-French Air Force pilots, and is led by Jacques Bothelin, a laser-focused aviator who has performed more than 2,800 flight demonstrations and racked up an astonishing 11,500 hours in the air.
I’ve been invited here by Breitling to experience firsthand the thrill of blasting through the skies upside down at 700 KM/H, surrounded by six other jets a mere three metres apart. And, despite the somewhat rushed safety briefing I received earlier, I’m not all that nervous.
Maybe it’s just the calm that comes before the storm of doing something, well, kinda dumb, a body’s natural response to unnatural excitement. Or maybe it’s because I’m strapped into a high-explosive seat — which, quite honestly, I’m hoping to get to use as long I live to write about it.
But the biggest reason for my lack of nerves is the pilot seated in front of me. Bernard Charbonnel — “Charbo” to his friends — is jovial, quick with a smile, the kind of person who obviously loves life. Which means he’s also the kind of person you want piloting you in a formation of jets propelled by a cumulative 12,600 kg of thrust. When you love life, you don’t want to, you know, lose it. “Relax,” Charbo tells me as a mechanic shuts the canopy, “This’ll be fun.”
I am confident he’s telling the truth.
As we taxi down the runway, the other six jets rolling along with us aligned in a perfect “V,” the cockpit begins to get unbearably warm, and my so-hip-they-hurt thick-rimmed glasses (essential to both my sight, and the aura I cultivate as a Creative Director) are starting to actually hurt, pinched up against my temples and my helmet. Just as I’m no longer able to stand it, however, we take off. There’s no build-up whatsoever — unlike a lumbering 777, full of 350 plump vacationers, all seven L-39s are off the ground in a hop, and then blast straight up towards the clouds.
As it turns out, the ride is pretty damn smooth. I’d been expecting something more visceral, like the forceful throttle of a Formula 1 car, which truthfully I’ve never experienced, but have imagined several times. But the Breitling jets were as steady as the widest wide-body commercial airliner, and with the headphones and helmet on, nearly as silent. Once the AC kicked in, the whole thing was as civilized as air travel can be.
That lack of straight-up intensity, however, didn’t detract from just how majestic the experience was. As we rose into a vertical climb at nearly 4 G’s and spun into a full backward loop, I was struck by a zen-like high. The beauty of the clear blue skies, the stirring sight lead of the jet soaring ahead of us—it all left me itching for more.
And more there was. Two more full backwards 360s, followed by a series of barrel rolls. I never felt dizzy or uncomfortable—I engaged my abs as I was directed, and the trick seemed to work; the experience of all the twists and turns was something akin to a rollercoaster with as cushiony and smooth a ride as a Rolls Royce. After 20 remarkable minutes in the air — which felt, in truth, more like 20 seconds — we returned to solid ground.
It was, without question, the experience of a lifetime. I left more convinced than ever that Breitling’s commitment to aviation, and the credibility it holds in those circles, is entirely earned. The aerial feats we’d just performed required the utmost precision and dependability — a flawless melding of man and mechanics. Just think what they can do with watches.