One summer day earlier this year, on an air strip in Buochs in Switzerland, a kind and patient man helped me into the cockpit of an Aero L-39 C Albatros trainer jet fighter. Thanks to a lifetime of an excellent penchant for food matched only by a revulsion for exercise, it took some huffing and puffing before I literally tumbled into the cockpit. One of the Breitling Jet Team’s ground crew then strapped me in tightly and reminded me to touch nothing. Ever.
“Whatever you do, do not pull the seat eject toggle when the plane is on the ground,” he said. I had no intention of pulling it in any circumstance whatsoever, I reassured him. Then I settled down into the seat, positioned the air-sickness bag within reach, took a deep breath, and prepared to die.
The Breilting Jet Team is one of the world’s largest civilian air display teams, and quite possibly Europe’s largest. And the jet fighter I was shivering inside was just one of a fleet of seven Albatros flying machines that the team’s highly trained crew of pilots and support staff display at private and public events all over the world.
I had gone to Buochs to experience one of these planes for myself. The event was an annual meeting of watch dealers, retailers and watch journalists organized by the team’s title sponsors, the Breitling watch company.
Watch companies love brand associations. Indeed, many brands make associations and alliances that make little sense for either their products or personality. Most of these partnerships with celebrities or events usually fizzle out quickly. Just look at the long list of watch brands that have tried to associate with car brand Ferrari. And failed.
Breitling is well known for two high-profile brand associations. The jet team is one. The second is with the Bentley car, which is embodied in the highly successful Breitling for Bentley collection of high-end timepieces. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some experts believe that the Breitling for Bentley range is a huge money spinner for the brand with significant shares in sales value and profits. A rare successful auto-watch project.)
But why a jet team? “It is the perfect, natural fit for our brand and our heritage,” said Breitling International’s retail manager Mathieu Brunisholz, who is also responsible for the Indian market.
The Breitling watch company was established in 1884 by Leon Breitling, and almost instantly established a reputation for making excellent chronographs and timers. Soon, his products became popular with the most discerning timepiece clientele—pilots who depend on timers to plan flights.
One of the milestones in that heritage that Brunisholz spoke about is the classic Breitling Navitimer watch, one of the gold standards for aviator timepieces in the world. The Navitimer is one of the models that is instantly recognizable on the wrist and frequently imitated by lesser brands. It also features prominently in Breitling’s promotional material. Advertisements featuring John Travolta and Breitling Navitimers are iconic. And when Breitling launched its first in-house movement—the Calibre 01—a few years ago, the Navitimer was, naturally, one of the first collections to house these calibres.
With such a strong aviation element in the brand’s history, sponsoring a jet team makes good sense. The row of seven L-39 Albatros jets lined up on a tarmac, embellished with the Breitling logo, is a sight to behold.
A few moments after I am strapped in, the pilot for my flight stepped into his cockpit in front of mine. Thankfully, he seemed considerably more relaxed than I was. While he got ready, I asked him about the plane. The L-39 C, Frédéric “Fredo” Schwebel, my pilot, told me, was built by the Aero Vodochody manufacturer in Czechoslovakia. Built at the height of the Cold War, it was meant to be a trainer for Warsaw Pact nations. More than 2,800 of these planes were produced between 1971 and 1999. (I find out later that this jet is one of the, if not the, most widely used jet trainer in the world.)
Fredo used to be an air force pilot. Most recently, he flew sorties during the American invasion of Iraq. “It is always exciting to fly on missions,” he reminisced, “but I hated using weapons. That was horrible.”
Then he prepared me for the flight. Fredo asked me how “intense” I wanted the aerobatics. I suggested he set the knob to “Vomitting Already”.
This is when Fredo explained the two cardinal rules of not making a mess of your jet fighter sortie. The first rule is to ALWAYS look out of the cockpit. Never look at the control panel inside. That helps to fight the air-sickness.
Secondly, Fredo said, prepare for G-forces by tightening all your muscles. Especially, all the muscles in the torso. This prevents you from going queasy when the plane swoops through the air.
There was one final rule: “Do not speak to air traffic control, Sidin. Leave that to me.”
Roger that, Fredo.
Shortly afterwards, all seven planes took off in formation into the air over Buochs.
The flight was utterly exhilarating. The sudden G-forces, as the group flew in and out of formation, can be shocking at first. (See the next page for an illustration of some standard aerobatic manoeuvres.) But once you get used to the physical unease, the experience is tremendously enjoyable. Even for a plane that has seen 20 or 30 years of service, the L-39 C is clearly nimble in the air.
When I landed 30 minutes later, I had only one regret. I probably shouldn’t have asked Fredo to tone down the aerobatics.
Note: After an accident in September 2012, one of the team’s L-39s was lost in a crash. Thankfully, both the pilot and the technician ejected safely.
For more details on the Breitling Jet Team and for air show details, click here.