An interview with Jacques Bothelin, chief pilot and owner of Breitling Jet Team
My personal record shows that I have flown nearly 3000 displays in 39 countries as a team leader, which I believe is an absolute record. But I hope to add several hundreds more in the next seasons!
We are sure all of our readers have heard about Breitling Jet Team or even seen your performance. However, could you briefly describe what the Breitling Jet Team (BJT) does?
Since 2003, BJT has been the first professional civilian jet team in the world and the sponsorship of Breitling will run at least until the end of 2019. After incredible tours in Asia, the Middle East and the US, the team is back to perform in Europe. The fact that the Breitling company has been taken over by the CVC Fund means a new management has been put in place, keener on digital communications. For the Jet Team this means that we will perform less shows than before, but that we will actively support this digital communication, welcoming on-board our jet influencers from around the world.
We know your season is always full of displays. Perhaps you could tell us what you do for the rest of the year? It is obvious that you do a lot of other thing than just the shows…
We prepare for the next season including contracting with air shows organisers. For two years we have also been marketing the flight experience on board of our jets, which is a unique opportunity even for non-pilots to fly aerobatics in formation in a multiple jets team.
BJT has performed incredible tours to Asia and America with dozens of thousands of kilometres flown on the ferry routes. How difficult was it to get the team ready from continental displays to truly worldwide and unparalleled shows?
You have to evaluate and list what you need to move with you, remembering that you start from a clean sheet of paper, because this has never been done before by a civilian team. It means you don’t have the logistics or diplomatic support that military teams normally have. We also worked within a constrained budget, so we were not allowed to overestimate our needs, because they would just not be covered. So you need to decide which spare parts you bring with you, or ship to your destination, how many spare engines you take, how you organise customs clearance, how you get the overfly permissions, how you find the correct airfield for fuel stop (remember the L-39 has short leg, speaking about crossing a continent. We planned 1,000 kilometre legs even with the big drop tanks.). Think about that, in an unknown country, with rather unpredictable weather and air traffic control. In the end, the displays are just the easiest part of the adventure.
What do you personally think of the international tours you have made? Although I have tried hard, I have not found any mentioning of any other commercial team with similar results.
40 years ago, the Rothmans, a cigarette company, was operating a four ship Pitts Special S2A team (in fact 2 teams of 4) to cover the world from a marketing perspective. This is probably what inspired me, but the logistics concerning moving those light aircraft were much easier, I believe…
With shows on several continents, is there a place or show that you would like to participate in and have not done so yet?
During our US tour, we did not manage to fly in Oshkosh (EAA Air Venture, the biggest aviation event in the world – interviewer´s note) for various reasons of planning time and jet maintenance. This is probably the only regret I have.
In this season, your team should be stationed in Europe. In which locations can people see you?
As we speak, we are still in negotiations with various air show organisers.
We expect to come at least once to the Czech Republic because of the 100th anniversary of Aero.
We have a lot of invitations from the UK because the Red Arrows will fly their American Tour after mid-July. We expect to be in Zeltweg and various shows in Europe. ►
► Can you calculate or guess how many public shows you have performed in total since your team started?
My personal record show that I have flown nearly 3 000 displays in 39 countries as a team leader, which I believe is an absolute record. But I hope to add several hundreds more in the next seasons!
With the extremely high number of flight hours your operation has been very safe, with a loss of only one plane. What are the measures you take to keep such an impressive safety record?
We are governed by two key words, Quality and Safety. I don’t know which one to put first, because one cannot go without the other. Safety culture is based on many things such as training, maintenance, recruitment, fitness, but also discipline and team spirit. We always have to be humble. The next mishap is the one you do not expect.
From the personnel point of view, your team is very stable and you do not rotate the personnel so frequently. But still, some people have left and new pilots have come. How do you select a new member? What are the key attributes of such a person?
Quality and safety are very much related to the experience of flying together. We try to retain the pilots for this reason, as well as for limiting the training budget which is huge when you have to bring a new guy on board. They are selected from ex French air force fighter pilots who enjoy this lifestyle of adventure and camaraderie. They have to be good, but more importantly, they have to be willing to work as a team and communicate their passion.
How long does it take for a new member to fully synchronize with the team and how many shows do they usually have to pass?
With the BJT, the learning curve is tough! With an experienced fighter guy, I usually estimate 12 to 15 hours for type rating, followed by training how to safely and accurately fly the show.
You are the chief pilot of the team. Except your managerial role, are there any differences between your position and the other team members?
In the team, each pilot including myself shares the same level of expertise. Beyond that the team belongs to me, so I am the boss. My relationship with the other pilots is sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical and my job is to mix the two approaches.
We know you have several performance schemes ready depending on the weather conditions. Are they always performed as per the plan, or do you have some freedom during the show?
We have a “low show” with 2 options separation or without, a “rolling show”, and the “high show” which is the one we prefer. The originality is that from manoeuvre to another one we can swap from one program to another, keeping the same display structure. I say that with this system we fortunately don’t need to improvise which is something which a Jet Team just CANNOT do. ►
► I have been personally watching your shows for more than a decade and seen some improvements or new figures every year. There are generally new ideas implemented into group aerobatics such as pyrotechnics effects or smoke and flash light effects in the US etc. Can you tell us if BJT is planning some surprises in this area?
This point is a secret one….I am joking. Yes, we try to improve the show for showmanship purposes as well as to have a personal challenge in order to avoid complacency
How do you put together the yearly plan of shows? Is it your decision or do the main sponsors dictate where you will fly?
The venues are decided according to the sponsor´s marketing objectives as well as by the invitations we receive.
It seems that there are always some new restrictions for public displays and civilian aviation. What are the main challenges the jet demo team has to deal with today?
I fully support that a safety culture as well as standardised regulation are in place in all countries. FAA and EASA rules have the same target, to find different ways to reach their points. Regulators should talk together, because there are sensible rules on both sides of the ocean.
You personally have spent more than a year and half (11,000 hrs) of your life in the cockpit. What does flying mean for you? Do you still enjoy the shows?
I STILL LOVE FLYING!!! I don’t use any other drug but flying!!!
With the time passing by, how difficult it is to keep fit for the shows? Do you exercise or do you have another way of self-preparation?
With the age coming, fitness is a must. I work out at least 6 hours a week. I do take care of my nutrition and resting. So far I am not feeling tired from the displays.
In two years’ time it will be 20 years of L-39 operation under Khalifa and then Breitling jet team. Do you plan something special for that moment?
Good to mention. I did not realise that it was the case. For sure we will celebrate. It’s amazing how quickly the time goes by. ►
► How would you characterize the L-39? All people always mention is its flight characteristics and easy operation, but can you be a little more specific about what you like or don’t like about the L-39?
You can always dream of a better performance (like the L-159?!), but a good aircraft is also the one you can afford to operate safely. The L-39 is a great compromise of a nice-looking aircraft, performance, reliability and operating cost. Nobody has made a better plane.
What are the key characteristics of a good demonstration plane? You have had a chance to fly more than 150 types of plane.
A display is a compromise between what an aircraft can do and what a pilot knows about how to do the show.
A good demonstration plane has to be nice looking, safe to operate, accurate on the controls. Power is always a must, because it means the energy you need to keep flying safely. Air show fans love jet noise, air base neighbours prefer quiet jets, so you have to choose.
Interviewed by: Jakub Fojtík
Photos by: author, Breitling S.A., Katsuhiko Tokunaga