Photography by Chris Rose
For the first time in American skies, the Breitling Jet Team brought its unique brand of airshow performance to the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo—and spectators were left breathless.
For 25 minutes the seven L-39C Albatrosses crisscrossed the hot and humid air above the Sun ’n Fun campus. Unlike the usual fare at a U.S. airshow, there was little noise, little fanfare, and little sensationalism. What awestruck spectators watched was an elegant display of precision airmanship, the sleek jets moving as one through maneuvers that brought them as close together as 10 feet at speeds up to 435 mph.
Narrated by presenter Luc Herbiniere and accompanied by beautiful music, the L-39s danced through the sky in a beautifully orchestrated ballet. One L-39 rolled over and over the smoke trail of a formation of four; five swept up and over in an ocean-like wave; all seven performed a 360-degree turn in a blackbird formation; and the seven twirled around in a looping barrel roll. The scene was mesmerizing and unlike anything most spectators had seen before. At the viewing stand it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop and the only sound was an occasional gasp or quick intake of breath.
The Breitling Jet Team is the under the leadership of founder Jacques Bothelin of Dijon, France. He heads the formation, flying jet No. 1. He set up the team for Breitling in 2003 after many years flying his own aerobatic performances. The only one of the seven-man team who was not a member of the French Air Force, Bothelin is nonetheless the most military of all—precise, dedicated, and inspiring. He has more than 12,000 flight hours and his team has complete trust in his leadership. Ironically he could not join the French Air Force because of his eyesight. “It was so hard to want something so bad that I could not do,” he said. He took private flying lessons and soloed in 10 hours.
In addition to Bothelin, the other members of the jet team are (picture this in a arrowhead shape with the odd number aircraft to the left of the leader): Francois Ponsot in jet No. 4; Bernard Charbonnel in jet No. 2; Patrick Marchand in jet No. 7; Paco Wallaert in jet No. 6; Christophe Deketelaere in jet No. 3; and Georges-Eric Castaing in jet No. 5. Phillippe Laloix is the eighth pilot, ready to substitute any one of the pilots in the team and is their instructor.
The Breitling team is the largest professional civilian aerobatic jet team in the world. Bothelin grew the team from four in 2003 to seven today. Most of the team has flown with him for 10 years or more. These are not youngsters—Bothelin is 60 and has been flying aerobatics for more than 40 years. Of the team, the youngest is Castaing, who is 42 and flew for the French Air Force for 24 years before joining the team in 2014. All bring extensive experience and devoted dedication to the team.
In their specially designed black Nomax suits, the team felt the Florida heat keenly. After the performance—Bothelin calls it “the display”—all were drained and concerned that the heat affected their performance. They need not have worried; spectators charged to the flight line with congratulations hoping for photos and autographs.
The finale illustrated the importance Bothelin felt for his team’s first U.S. performance. As they formed for the “Final Break” maneuver, Bothelin said on the loudspeaker, “thank you from my country to yours” for the liberation of France during World War II. The seven L-39s fanned out into the sky and, using a system of flares—thermal decoys generally dropped during combat to confuse heat-seeking missiles—ended with a fireworks display that brought the viewing stand crowd to its feet.
The Breitling Jet Team will be touring the United States this year and will perform a flyover during AOPA’s Frederick, Maryland, Homecoming Fly-In June 6.