Not to put too fine a point on it, but doing some things requires the kind of testicular fortitude that not many people possess. If you’re flying a small, light jet plane, for example, and you’re required to fly it at over 700 kph mere feet from six other similar jets, it’s quite likely that you’re better endowed in the stones department than most other human beings, and the men who’re part of the Breitling Jet Team are probably a little crazier than the rest of us as well – you have to be, to do what they do. Not only do these pilots (all hardened veterans, with thousands of hours of flying time under their belts) fly incredibly close together in formation, they also perform some manouevres that defy the imagination (flying right at one other and banking away at the very last second, to name but one) and are simply breathtaking to watch. The fact that the slightest miscalculation would result in utter disaster makes the spectacle that much more nail-biting, and I can’t even begin to fathom the sort of training and nerve it must take to pull off these outrageous moves.
Breitling’s long-standing relationship with aviation goes back to the 1931, when it developed onboard chronographs for airplane cockpits, including World War II fighters. In 1952, the legendary Navitimer wrist chronograph was released and immediately became a cult favourite with pilots and aviation buffs; it is currently the world’s oldest in-production mechanical chronograph. There are other marquee models too – the Aerospace, for example, and the Emergency timepiece, which is the world’s first wristwatch with an in-built dual frequency locator beacon. That’s not all – to commemorate the Jet Team’s first American tour, Breitling has made the Chronomat 44, limited to 500 pieces; the dial is in the Jet Team’s official colours, and the caseback has the tour logo engraved on it.
The Breitling Jet Team was on its first ever tour of America, and part of its itinerary was to participate in the annual Reno air races, in Nevada, USA. This famous event has been a fixture in the world’s aviation calendar for over 50 years – originally held in Portland, Oregon, the event later moved to Reno and is the only closed-pylon air race in the world, with all manner of vintage and modern aircraft taking part. The aircraft fly one of four racing loops, depending on the class in which they’re competing, and if you’ve never witnessed an air race, it can be quite a sight to see these planes fighting for position, often flying neck-to-neck as they do so. Competitors show up in all manner of aircraft – vintage fighter planes, smaller recreational planes, trainer jets – and the winner of the final race pockets $300,000 (which is usually not enough to cover costs, since aviation is an expensive hobby). The Breitling Jet Team was not in Reno to race, however – it was in a class of its own.
The team was set up by Breitling in 2003, in order to share the company’s passion for aviation with the rest of the world. Team leader Jacques Bothelin, already a renowned aerobatics pilot at the time, was handed the task of expanding the team and building it into a crack unit, to wow crowds around the world – and they certainly impressed the pants off those in attendance at Reno. It is the world’s largest professional civilian jet flight unit, flying Czech L-39C Albatros jets and comprising seven pilots with military flying experience; it performs a hair-raising routine of aerobatic manoeuvres, all of which somehow seem to involve getting out of each other’s way at the very last second – it’s like a game of chicken with ridiculously high stakes. “There’s a lot of history associated with the Reno Air Races, and they are recognised all over the world for the skill they demand of pilots. Because of that, it is one of the events that we, as a team, have looked forward to performing at,” said Bothelin.
The pilots have to know each other so well that they can predict every infinitesimal move the other men will make – and they do, considering they’ve been training together for years now. The seven men – Jacques Bothelin, François Ponsot, Bernard Charbonnel, Patrick Marchand, Paco Wallaert, Christophe Deketelaere and Georges-Eric Castaing – have an effortless swagger about them on the ground, wisecracking with each other in delicious French accents; up in the air, they transform into deadly serious professionals, their lives in each other’s hands. They perform a set routine of 11 manoeuvres, some seemingly easy, some incredibly difficult – and all spectacular. Take the Apache Roll, for instance – it involves four of the jets flying fast and low, in an arrowhead formation, with a fifth doing loop-the-loops around them; or the finale, a dazzling move where the jets fly toward the audience, soar upwards in unison, release flares and then break away individually.
The Jet Team stole the show, but by no means were they the only sight worth seeing at the races (which are known as the ‘fastest motorsport event in the world’). The vintage planes that took part– P51 Mustangs, Hawker Sea Furys, Grumman Bearcats, Yak-11s, T-6 Texans and more – were achingly beautiful, and the re-enactment of the Pearl Harbour bombings had everyone jumping out of their seats when the first explosion was set off; I have to admit that a number of us initially thought that there had been a terrible accident. The US Air Force made its presence felt with a display of military aircraft, such as the Hercules transport plane (the inside of which was at least four times the size of my Mumbai apartment) the thuggish A-10 Thunderbolt close air support jet, the legendary F15 fighter and the eerie MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, otherwise known as the drone that’s been used to such controversial effect by the USA. There was literally something for everyone at the races, whether first-time visitor or die-hard enthusiast, with the Breitling Jet Team acting as the marvellous icing on an adrenaline-soaked cake. If you ever get the opportunity, go and see them perform – you won’t ever regret it.