Dave Unwin – The Breitling Jet Team
As though connected together, the five sleek jets pivot perfectly around the horizon as a single rolling entity. We pull up into a loop, the G comes on strong, and for a second I wonder if I’m going to regret not wearing a G-suit. Sliding seamlessly into the next manoeuvre, with the five jets holding formation with incredible accuracy, I cannot help but be profoundly impressed by the skill of the five pilots.
Scorching earthwards at 400 knots, the tip-tanks of our L39 jets practically overlapping, the formation pulls up into another giant loop with the engines of our jets spouting smoke.
Welcome to the world of the Breitling Jet Team.
I had arrived at Longvic airport, near Dijon, early that morning with my KEY colleague Jarrod Cotter to meet the team, get kitted out with helmets and flying suits, and get briefed for the days flying. If everything went to plan, I hoped to fly with the team as it practised its display, prior to actually flying the L39 myself with the teams instructor, Philippe Sheriff Laloix.
After a short wait for the cloud base to rise, a sudden flurry of activity indicated that we would be launching for the team practice imminently. I’m scheduled to fly with Sheriff and, as we prepare to walk out to the jets waiting in a neat line out on the apron, I suddenly realise that the only people not wearing G-suits are Sheriff and myself. I ask Sheriff if he is going to wear one, and with a typically Gallic shrug he simply smiled Non. What to do? Do I wear a G-suit anyway, and risk looking slightly effete, or not wear one and risk being crushed into unconsciousness by the high G? Reasoning that I’d not been troubled before when flying jets without a G-suit, I decide to chance it and announce that, like Sheriff, I won’t require a G-suit. Bold or stupid? I’d soon find out.
Soon I’m strapped in and the team is taxiing out in formation. Even the formation take-off is exciting and, after a quick transit to an abandoned French Air Force base which will serve as our practice area, the team launches into its display. Its routine is absolutely fantastic and I sit on my ejection seat entranced as it runs through its polished display with impeccable (and incredible) precision. During my flying career I’ve been privileged to fly with a number of extraordinarily skilled pilots but Sheriff has to possibly be the best ever. His flying is so smooth that when were pulling five, or even six G, it comes on so smoothly that it never becomes uncomfortable. An ex-member of the celebrated Patrouille de France, he can really fly a jet. At times, the whole event has a strange, almost surreal air to it. It is tremendously exciting to share the same small piece of sky with not one, two or even three but four other aircraft and its a real thrill to have one sleek jet just off the right wing and three more off to the left. I’m quite literally left in awe of the pilots skill as they dance their lithe little jets across the spring sky and if anyone made a single mistake I certainly didn’t spot it.
I note with interest that the throttle rarely moves and then only slightly. Instead, the small ventral airbrakes on the other jets (and, I assume, on our own, as the airbrakes annunciator light is constantly flickering) are opening and closing frequently. It’s all over far too quickly for me, and Jacques leads the formation back to Longvic for a de-brief.
With the teams de-brief completed, Sheriff briefs me for our forthcoming flight. I’m keen to do as much of the flying as possible, and listen intently while he explains the power settings and speeds I’ll need for the various stages of the flight. While landing some of the other jets that I’ve flown, the instructor has usually recommended that they are flown on. Consequently I ask Sheriff if he would prefer me to land the L-39 that way. Mais non, he sniffs, somewhat disparagingly. We are not in ze Navy! Happy that I, at least, appear to understand the basics of flying the L-39, Sheriff announces: OK we go, and we walk out to our waiting jet.
As indicated earlier, the L-39 has clearly (and cleverly) been designed to operate with the minimum of ground support equipment so, instead of an external ladder, a series of spring-loaded steps and handholds, combined with a pair of robust retractable steps, provide access to the cockpit. Once I’ve sat down and adjusted the VS1-BRI rocket-powered ejection seat, the crew chief asks me my weight in kilograms before dialling this value in on a small digital gauge to the left side of the seat. This actually adjusts the angle of thrust from the rocket motor, so that the thrust is optimised for my weight.
Once I’m securely strapped in, the crew chief connects the huge Personal Equipment Connector (PEC) to my harness before pulling the six seat and canopy safety pins. These are all held together on a long piece of string, and the crew chief shows all six to me (to ensure that I understand that the seat is now armed) before stowing them in a small canvas bag between the front and rear cockpit. This particular type of ejection seat has an envelope of 0ft/81knots and, while I’m aware that it has an excellent reputation, I’m in no hurry to test the veracity of the manufacturers claims!
While Sheriff straps in, I re-acquaint myself with the general layout of the instruments and controls. Both the stick and throttle fall nicely to hand, while the rudder pedals and seat adjust over a good range. Needless to say, the seat is always adjusted before the safety pins are pulled! I take particular note of the combined ASI/mach meter, as the outer scale is in km/h, with knots on the inner scale. I also note the combined VSI/T&S and also the unusual attitude indicator. This is the classic Russian type in which the miniature aircraft symbol tilts to indicate roll while the horizon remains level (i.e. the complete opposite of a western AI). Pitch attitude is shown by the horizon bar simply moving up or down.
I’m also intrigued by the various switches which an instructor can use to induce a host of different system failures on the student. However, as part of the team’s mission is to fly Breitling dealers and distributors, as well as journalists, many of the systems in the back cockpit have been rendered inoperative. Consequently I have to ask Sheriff to operate the flaps and undercarriage and also to start the engine.
With the canopies closed, Sheriff turns the electrics on and tests the fire detection system and annunciator panel. All is well and, having ensured that the Do Not Start light on the annunciator panel is out, he talks me through the engine start, which is actually very simple. First the small integral Saphir 5 APU is started by pressing a single button marked APU Start. Once it has started, you simply wait about 20 seconds for the APU to get up to speed (a light on the annunciator panel illuminates when it is ready) then press the Engine Start button. This introduces high-pressure air into the first stage compressor and all you then have to do is move the throttle to idle as fuel and ignition is all automatic. The ever-increasing noise behind me indicates that the Ivchenko engine has lit successfully and the two needles on the RPM gauge (High Pressure Compressor and Low Pressure Compressor) wind rapidly around the dial until the 1 needle settles at approximately 55%. Sheriff quickly concludes the post start checks and then says, you have control. I open the throttle slowly to taxi out of the parking area and then close it and test the brakes.
The L-39 uses the typical Russian system, which is similar to earlier British aircraft in that it has the brake lever on the stick. When I initially test the brakes, I use my whole hand to squeeze the lever gently. At first, nothing happens, then the brakes bite quite savagely and we lurch to a rather abrupt stop. Sheriff laughs and I resolve to be more gentle in future.
The nosewheel only castors, so steering on the ground is by differential braking. To achieve this, the appropriate rudder pedal is moved and the brake lever squeezed. A selector valve sends hydraulic pressure to the brakes, the amount of force applied depending on both how far the rudder pedals are moved and how hard the lever is squeezed.
To brake in a straight line, the lever is squeezed with the rudder pedals neutral. Like all the other aircraft I’ve flown with similar systems, this is not particularly easy. To complicate matters further, the taxi-way has a distinct slope to one side, and the crosswind makes things worse by trying to weathercock the Albatross down slope. The net result is that I am constantly dabbing the left brake as I taxi out to the runway.
I taxi carefully over the arrestor cable on runway 36 (Longvic is a joint use airfield and the home of a Mirage 2000 squadron) and then line the Albatross up with the centreline. To be honest, even this simple manoeuvre takes a couple of seconds as I’m still struggling with the brake system. Then, having ensured that the pedals are definitely neutral, I apply full brake and slowly open the throttle until the number 1 needle on the RPM gauge shows 80%. Sheriff checks the Ts and Ps and then tells me to open the throttle fully and check that we have at least 106%.
Final checks and everything looks good. Okay, Sheriff? I ask. Okay, Dave, he replies, let’s go! With the stick still fully aft, I release the brakes. The initial acceleration is adequate without being outstanding and as the ASI needle comes alive I can feel the rudder starting to bite. As the speed increases through 50 knots I move the stick to the neutral position and as it rises to 80, I gently ease the stick back, raising the nosewheel just off the ground.
The speed continues to build nicely and the next 50 knots come up a lot quicker than the first 50. As the ASI passes 100, I ease the stick back, rotate into the take-off attitude and the aircraft climbs smoothly into the sky. As I mentioned earlier, many of the systems in the back cockpit are inoperative. Consequently, having momentarily squeezed the brake lever (to stop the still spinning main wheels) I have to ask Sheriff to retract the undercarriage. Best climb speed is 215 knots so I deliberately hold the little jet in a fairly shallow climb until this speed is reached. Sheriff gives me headings to steer and we fly back towards the practice area where we had practiced the team display earlier in the day. For the climb I ease the throttle back slightly, until the 1 needle on the RPM gauge is showing 103%. This gives a climb rate of around 4,000ft/min, for a fuel flow of about 270 Imp gals an hour. Of course, low altitudes are where all jet engines use the most fuel and, at 18,000ft, the fuel consumption drops to a much more affordable 108gph.
Within minutes we are back at the practice area. I ease the power back to 100% and begin to experiment with some general handling, including steep and medium turns and sharp reversals. My initial impressions of the Albatross are all positive. Even from the back seat the visibility is superb and the controls all felt powerful and responsive. The primary controls are all purely mechanical, with no kind of artificial boost at all and I am pleasantly surprised to find how light and well-balanced they felt. However, as I soon learn, although the controls may well be light and delightful at 220 knots, once you push the speed up to 320 knots, the change in stick loads is not only significant but profound! More on this later.
I then decide to try my hand at a few loops. These are entered at 320 knots and, on the first loop, I can feel the buffet through the stick as I pull too hard over the top. The stick forces in pitch remain manageable even at these higher indicated airspeeds due, in the main, to the aforementioned bungee-boosted elevator control circuit. One advantage of sitting in the back seat is that it is easy to use the two tip tanks as a reference point on the horizon as we reach the top of the loop. The first loop is a bit ropey but, under Sheriffs expert coaching, they rapidly improve. After several attempts, I feel that they are really not bad at all and decide to move on to some rolls.
Having attained 325 knots, I raise the nose 10 and sweep the stick smartly over. Well, I try to, but I soon realise that it is practically impossible to only use one hand at these speeds. A laughing Sheriff then recommends that I use two hands on the stick, and all of my subsequent attempts at rolling are actually quite crisp. He then suggests I try a roll at 220 knots. This is a revelation, as the aircrafts handling is now totally different. Where the stick previously felt as if it were set in concrete, it is now very light and once again it is easy to fly with one hand. I then try a few more rolls, most of which are reasonably satisfactory, before making my way back towards Longvic.
As I join the circuit for the run and break, I notice that there are already two Mirage 2000s in the circuit. I have to slightly extend the upwind leg before turning crosswind and then downwind. I inadvertently gain some height during the break and quickly descend back down to the circuit height of 1,500ft before letting the airspeed settle at 160 knots with the throttle at 85%. Sheriff lowers the undercarriage, followed promptly by the first stage of flap. With wheels and flaps extended, I increase power up to 92% to maintain the airspeed, until we pass abeam the numbers. I then squeeze some of the power off and turn onto a curving base leg while reducing height and speed. The speed gradually reduces through 150 on base and, as I roll the wings level on final, I note that (mainly due to Sheriffs excellent coaching) I have an ideal two red and two white lights on the PAPI (precision approach path indicator) lights and 140 on the ASI. I now aim to bleed the speed back to 130 on short final, looking for a Vref of 115.
Initially, it’s absolutely perfect but on short final I notice that we now have three reds and one white. I begin to add power but Sheriff says, This is okay for a jet so I hold the attitude and power. As we flash over the threshold, the speed is bang on 115 knots and I slowly close the throttle while gently easing the stick back. As I said earlier, Sheriff had recommended I try for a fully held-off landing and, after a brief float, the main wheels squeal as we touch down.
The landing is quite a good one, although the well-designed trailing undercarriage is clearly able to flatter even the most inept aviator. I hold the nosewheel just off the ground while Sheriff calls for full power and sets the flaps to take-off. I smoothly push the throttle to the stop and, for long seconds, not much seems to happen. During the briefing, Sheriff had mentioned that the engine takes a considerable time to spool up from idle to full power and, for a long moment, I fixate on the slow progress of ”needle 1” as it gradually begins to rotate clockwise around the dial.
Rotate, says Sheriff suddenly, just as I tear my eyes away from the RPM gauge and note that the needle of the ASI is already sweeping past 110 knots! I quickly rotate the Albatross into the take-off attitude, and as we are already 10 knots over Vr, the jet lifts off and climbs away very rapidly. Sheriff retracts the undercarriage and, then as the speed increases, he selects the flaps up. On the first take-off we’d left the flaps up (it’s a long runway). Consequently, I was unaware that there is a big change in pitch trim as the flaps retract. Suddenly the stick is very heavy and despite the fact that I’m hauling back and trimming, the Albatross dips. Don’t sink, warns Sheriff. I’m trying not to I grunt in reply, still struggling to hold the nose up.
Although most of the flight has gone well, I am suddenly behind the aircraft and I know it. A sharp turn to avoid a nearby village and I level out at 1,500ft and get the aircraft back into trim. While I’m still not in front of the aircraft, it is no longer in front of me and, although initially the second circuit has started badly, by the time I’m established downwind I’m back in front of it. Heights, speeds and power settings are all good on base and final. On short final the last red light on the PAPIs begin to appear but I add a suggestion of power and salvage the approach. The landing is again perfectly acceptable and Sheriff tells me to hold the nose up for aerodynamic braking. I’m amazed at how effective the elevator is and, even as the needle of the ASI dips below 50, keeping the nose up is still easy. The vortex generators on the tailplane clearly work! As we approach the end of the runway I lower the nose and then gently apply the brakes, before taxiing carefully over the arrestor cable. Interestingly, during the taxi back I find it much easier to control the Albatross, although whether this is because I’m more confident (it becomes easier if you taxi a little faster) or because the crosswind has reduced, it is difficult to say.
By this time, you might think that Jacques and the team had already pulled out all the stops for me but the next morning I’m offered another flight! Sheriff is flying with the teams newest member, so I fly with Francois Ponsot. Ponpon was the Mirage 2000 display pilot for three years and, as the five jets scream into their display routine, I am struck once again by just how good these pilots are. Indeed, my own experience of flying the L39 has given me a greater insight into the colossal amount of skill needed to fly in a jet formation team. One things for sure these boys are good! The team is touring Europe this summer, and if you get the opportunity to see them, take it. You won’t be disappointed.