We Americans like our spectacles—loud music, over-the-top fireworks, and on-the-edge feats of daring. If it’s not noisy and the joint’s not rockin, it’s not the USA.
Cue the Breitling Jet Team. Seven L–39C Albatrosses come into view smoothly, like a symphony. Their jet engines are barely heard beneath the music of a grand opera and richly accented narration from the voice of a poet. Holding formation tightly and with perfect precision, the jets perform a ballet in the sky; spectators are silent in their awe.
American airshow fans, meet the men from France.
The story of this jet team can only start with 61-year-old, 12,000-plus-hour pilot Jacques Bothelin. In his black Nomex flight suit—maybe a little tighter than it needs to be—and with his sharply trimmed gray hair and clear-eyed glaze, Bothelin is the perfect embodiment of the team he helped create. During its first American press conference, before the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo in April, he made it very clear that this is his team, he is the leader, and he—and he only—flies Plane No. 1. Philippe Laloix, his close friend and chief flight instructor, can substitute for any of the other pilots; Laloix has been flying with Bothelin since 1998.
The Breitling Jet Team claims to be the world’s largest civilian jet team. This is an important distinction. Born of and created from Bothelin’s original team, Apache (named for his dog), the team has evolved from the two-ship team Bothelin first organized in 1980. As a boy, he saw an aerobatic demonstration in his hometown of Dijon, France, and was hooked on aviation. Reading about World War II aircraft and living in the Cold War era, his “absolute” dream was to become a fighter pilot. It was not to be; his eyesight wasn’t good enough at the time. “It was the hardest thing—to want something so bad that I cannot do,” he says.
He started taking private lessons, first in gliders and soloing after 10 hours. His family wasn’t well off, so he “walked miles and miles to save on the bus ticket” to help pay for his lessons. Bothelin started his formation team so he could fly without paying—“I wasn’t even thinking of earning, I just wanted to be able to fly.” He found some success and found corporate sponsors; Martini was one. “That gave me some trouble later,” he recalls, smiling.
Bothelin was approached in 2003 by the Swiss watchmaker Breitling to set up a team that would celebrate the watchmaker’s affection for—and history in—aviation (see “Time Flies,” December 2014 AOPA Pilot). A four-ship team that first year, it has grown to a seven-jet team today. “The reality is far beyond my dreams,” he says. “It is utopia—to be able to have a jet team like this.”
There are no names painted on the sides of the L–39s. No nicknames painted on the canopy rails. The team is identified by large numbers on each aircraft’s tail, designating the position it flies in the formation. “The flying skill is a basic thing,” Bothelin says. “But it is the teamwork that is the important thing. We are team members first, individuals second.”
But don’t assume there are no personalities here. And, oh, there are nicknames. They use them in flight because shorter versions of the team members’ given names, with just two hard syllables, are more easily heard on the radio. Although his nickname is “Speedy,” Bothelin usually is called Jacques in the air (he’s Speedy because “I am not very patient; my brain is always working quite quickly”). But the other pilots use nicknames, most based on something about their personalities.
The majority of the team has flown together for more than a decade, and the youngest is 42. And although their leader never was able to fly in the French Air Force, all of the other team members did, and they have impressive resumes.
There’s Patrick Marchand, who flies No. 7, the left outside wingman, and who served 21 years in the French Air Force. His nickname is “Gaston,” after a French comic character who is easily distracted. He could happily be called “Lucky,” because of how he feels about his role. “I wanted something interesting in my life and this is absolutely fascinating,” he says. “This is a dream team and I have never been bored for one minute.”
Bernard Charbonnel is the right inside wingman, flying No. 2. “Charbo” learned to fly at age 17 and it was his dream to be a pilot. He worked as a garbageman and in maintenance hangars to pay for his lessons. He loves to teach and has a son in the French Air Force. He also collects vintage aircraft, a passion he shares with Francois Ponsot—“PonPon”—the left inside wingman, No. 4. They collect such legendary aircraft as the Stampe, Zlin, and Bucker.
Christophe Deketelaere, No. 3 in the first slot, flew in the same squadron as Charbo. His nickname is “Douky” and as a boy actually found flying “boring.” His father also was in the French Air Force, and fought in the Algerian War. “My father was very passionate but it was not until I watched a TV show called The Chevaliers [Sky Knights] that I thought it was cool.” He served in the air force for 18 years, and learned of an opening on the team at a dinner in Dijon. “We try to reach perfection. The aircraft is our tool. I like that the spectator is happy.”
No. 6, the right outside wingman, is Paco Wallaert, with 22 years of flying in the air force. He, along with Laloix and Georges-Eric Castaing, flew in the French Air Forces’ precision aerobatic team, Patrouille de France. Castaing—nickname “Georgio”—flies No. 5, is the newest member of the team, and is the youngest at 42. He joined the team in 2014. “We are all different characters, but in this job we are very disciplined.”
Laloix—the eighth man—is nicknamed “Sheriff” because the English translation of his last name is “the law.” He is the team’s coach as well as stand-in. “We are a family. I have shared this life with him [Bothelin] for 18 years and more. He is my boss but he is also my friend.”
The support group for the team includes Luc Herbiniere, who flies the team’s Fairchild Metro III support airplane and is the poetic voice of the demonstration’s narration. Eight highly trained mechanics round out the team.
Bothelin is excited to be performing in America. He calls it a great achievement and is anxious to discover the country. Like others on his team, he has been in the states just once before, although the team has performed in 38 countries. The 25-minute show is carefully choreographed. Every 10 seconds he wants to be sure there is a high level of entertainment: “I never want a hole in our rhythm,” he says.
The L–39s fly in several different formations, from a crossbow to an arrowhead, at speeds up to 435 mph. The aircraft are just 10 feet from each other in formation; the pilots experience acceleration of up to eight Gs. The figures the aircraft make in the air are accentuated by onboard smoke systems. The aircraft remain precisely coordinated through loops and rolls. In the Apache Roll, one aircraft barrel rolls around the smoke trails of four in formation. All the while, Herbiniere describes the performance in his soothing, heavily accented voice. It’s a mesmerizing show that appears nearly effortless. And fans love it. “In Asia we had a Rolling Stones experience,” remembers Marchand. “We were in Bangkok, it was very hot, and there were thousands of people. The barriers fell down and we were surrounded. I loved that.”
Bothelin admits, “We are like a rock-and-roll band on tour. But we have families at home and try to live a normal life.” The team will return to France periodically throughout the year. In July and August, Bothelin’s daughter will join him. “She will assist on the public relations. Maybe one day she will take over her dad’s aerobatic team,” he says with a smile.
To end the show, the team performs a final dramatic breakaway during which the jets fan out into the sky, releasing a series of flares that create sparkling fireworks. Bothelin, a child of Cold War France, marks the finales of the U.S. performances by commenting from his cockpit, “Thank you from my country to yours,” for the liberation of France in World War II.
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Photography by Chris Rose
A precision jet team calls for a precision watch—Breitling is honored to launch a limited edition AOPA Navitimer commemorating AOPA’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Only 750 timepieces are available.
Czech-made two-seat military training jet
Max speed in level flight | 465 mph
Max speed in a dive | 565 mph
Ceiling | 36,000 ft
Thrust | 3,970 lbs
Weight when performing | 8,820 lbs
Max G force | +8G/-4G
Length | 40 ft
Wing span | 31 ft
Web: For more information, See the Breitling Jet Team show schedule.
Extra: Meet the Breitling Jet Team in this online video.