THE engineer strapping me to the ejector seat can tell I’m nervous. His advice is to keep my eyes outside the cockpit at all times. Watch the leader and our wingmen. This will help occupy the brain and should avoid any sensations of airsickness.
I’m going up with the Breitling Jet Team, the aerobatic display team sponsored by the Swiss maker of luxury aviation watches, Breitling. The team of seven aircraft are in Britain this summer, wowing crowds as they fly meters apart at 450mph. Each of the sleek, Czech-made L-39 aircraft costs a staggering £2,500 an hour to fly.
The team was formed in 2003 by Frenchman Jacques Bothelin, a man who has clocked up 30 years in the cockpit, and displayed his skills at more than 2,700 events in 145 different aircraft types. Surprisingly, among his teammates of experienced aviators, Bothelin is the only one not to have served in the French air force or the Patrouille de France, the French equivalent of the Red Arrows.
Soon we’re blasting into the sky alongside three other jets, so close I feel I could touch the wingtip of the next plane. The flight to the Breitling Jet Team’s training area passes by in a flash and then we’re straight into the aerobatic routine.
We’re quickly diving down towards the ground at top speed before pulling up abruptly, and my body is being crushed by forces of 5G – amazingly, though, the pilots normally operate at forces of around 8G. I can hear myself grunting as I try to breath normally.
Suddenly I’m light as a feather as the jet carves a circle in the sky and the ground spins upside down.
Even though I’m just sitting in the back seat, sweat’s pouring off me from the exertion. The sun is dazzling through the bubble canopy and I’m disorientated. How the team do this hour after hour over dozens of displays around the world is beyond me. Soaring high and swooping low over an abandoned aerodrome, I can’t stop grinning with the sheer madness of what I’m experiencing.
Next it’s my turn to have a go and my pilot talks me through a few simple aerobatic manoeuvres. I jam the control stick to the left and we describe a corkscrew through the air in the blink of an eye. Diving down, we scream above the tree tops and bump on the turbulence coming pu from the warm earth.
All too quickly the flight is over and we’re heading back to base. I ask for a minute to sit back in the cockpit and let my brain catch up with what my body and senses have just been through.
The Breitling Jet Team is appearing this weekend at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. www.airtattoo.com