Photo by Katsuhiko Tokunaga
Breitling offers VIP customers a variety of thrilling flying experiences.
Don’t touch this lever. It’s dangerous. Keep your hands on your harness. Pull this in case of an emergency, and your seat will eject.” My mind raced as I climbed into an Aero L-39 Albatros and listened to a mechanic calmly give last-minute instructions about riding in the military training jet. It was a sunny fall day at San Diego’s Brown Field Municipal Airport, just a few miles from the Mexican border, and I was one of 32 guests who had gathered for a Breitling Experience (breitling.com), a daylong invitation-only event at which the aviation-focused Swiss watch brand hosts local and international VIP customers and retailers.
Breitling holds several Experiences a year, in different regions of the country. Guests can participate in a variety of aviation-related activities, including skydiving; flights in aerobatic planes, helicopters, and biplanes; and—for the past 2 years—a flight with the Breitling Jet Team (breitling-jet-team.com). The team’s U.S. tour ended with the San Diego event, so next year’s Experiences will feature a different slate of activities.
The jet team comprises eight pilots. They’re all presently civilians, but seven are veterans of the French air force. They fly the Albatros jets in formation with a passenger onboard each one. “You can’t just sign up to do this,” observed Mike Angiulo, a vice president at Microsoft and a recreational pilot, while we waited for our turns in the 565 mph aircraft. “This isn’t for sale.”
As I settled into my seat, I remembered Angiulo’s words and reminded myself how lucky I was to be here. “Are you stressed?” I heard my pilot, Georgio, ask through my headset. Ignoring the nausea growing in my stomach, I lied and told him no. I had just skydived, and the residual excitement from that experience was combining with anxiety about this flight, but I was determined not to need the white paper bag that was clipped to the dash.
My fear and nausea dissipated as soon as we took off beside two of our teammates and joined the rest of the formation. In the air, the other jets were within 10 feet of us—close enough to see the joy on the passengers’ faces while we uniformly circled through barrel rolls, loops, and other thrilling aerobatics, each delivering 1 to 6 gs.
“Are you ready for the final breakaway?” Georgio asked about 25 minutes into the flight. The other jets soar one by one higher into the sky and roll laterally away from the formation. Georgio counted down to our turn and navigated through the maneuver.
Meanwhile, I clutched my thighs, desperately trying to keep the blood from rushing out of my head. My sight grew fuzzy, and I thought, This is what it feels like to pass out. Then Georgio righted the plane, and the sensation was gone. I was laughing, and the bag was still on the dash.