Luxury marketing execs love to boast how experiential and authentic their brands are and how integral they are to a consumer’s lifestyle. That’s exactly what it usually is: all talk.
However, Breitling, a privately owned Swiss watchmaker with a deep aviation history, puts its money—a whole lot of money—where its mouth is by owning a private jet team, which the company uses to delight its most loyal customers.
I recently got to experience first-hand just how audacious and adrenaline-inducing these invitation-only, VIP events really are. Only approximately 100 lucky customers will have the chance this year, the team’s last year in the U.S. before returning to home base in Dijon, France.
My thrill-ride took place in New Haven, Conn. on a Tuesday morning in May when all 21 participants, including myself, were flown by seaplane up the coast from Manhattan’s South Street Seaport to the Tweed New Haven Airport. Lined up on the tarmac awaiting us were Breitling’s eight L-39 Albatros jets. First developed in the 1960s in Czechoslovakia, the L-39 is the most widely used jet trainer in the world; more than 30 air forces have owned them.
There’s nothing like the sleek, needle-nosed beak of a fighter jet to get your heart racing, and the uniformed mechanics positioned in front of each machine only added to the drama. In the adjacent hanger, the pilots stood at attention in front of a massive Breitling sign. Behind them, the company had constructed a temporary lounge with white leather furniture, a training facility with a demo ejector seat and lockers for each “pilot”—including one that bore my last name, “CALLAWAY.” It was starting to get very real.
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We were split into three groups, assigned to a real pilot (I got a jocular Frenchman named Christophe Deketelaere with the call sign “Douky”), and asked to don black flight suits. An intensive safety training session ensued, and my heart rate continued to increase.
Finally it was time. I walked out to the jet with Douky, both of us carrying our Breitling-yellow helmets. An engineer helped me climb up using tiny toeholds, and he guided my feet into along the fuselage. Inside, he strapped me in, reminding me not to touch any of the pedals or the joystick in front of me—all redundant controls to the pilot’s. Looking left and right, I watched other guests strapping in. Dead ahead, a GoPro stared at me unblinkingly. There was no turning back now (a thought that brought with it a bit of mild panic, I won’t lie), and there was even the uncomfortable opportunity for humiliation if the acrobatics the team is known for got the better of my stomach on camera.
The engineer closed and latched the hatch, and one at a time the L-39s rolled toward the runway. It was mesmerizing to watch them all move in sync—an unspoken choreography that was as precise as it was aesthetic.
Take-off was so quick it surprised me, although it shouldn’t have considering the jet is capable of going up to 565 miles per hour and pulling eight “G’s,” a term for the unit of measure for the force of acceleration; one G equals the force of gravity.
Once airborne, Douky, who had begun to sing to me in French—probably to aurally reassure me of his own calmness—was soon flying wing-to-wing with the six other jets, the tips only ten feet apart. We flew out over the ocean. Then, in flawless formation, all seven jets suddenly pulled straight up. I felt the blood begin to drain from my head, then my chest. I did my best to follow the pre-flight training advice: tense your legs and abs to prevent the blood from being pushed by G’s down into your feet. Just when I thought the skin on my face was going to rip off, we swooped down and to the right in a graceful loop.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. It made the bungee jump I did years ago seem like a toddler’s game. We executed several more turns and rolls, and then we broke away from the pack. “Take the stick, pull it toward you a little to nose up and then push it hard to the left!” Douky instructed me through the headphones. I grabbed it and pushed, but immediately he said, “No, no—harder!”
And there it was: my first left-hand roll in a fighter jet. Damn! He let me do another and another, and then, just like that, it was time to rejoin the pack and head back.
Just as we began to descend to land, I felt a wave of nausea hit, which the pilots had warned happens to most mere mortals after about 25 minutes in the air. I redoubled my ab efforts and managed to hold it together, the same big grin on my face that I had had since takeoff.
After coming to a standstill back by the hanger, I felt a bit light-headed but elated. The sensation of speed was greater, smoother, and more peaceful than I had imagined, and something I will remember the rest of my life—even though at 400 miles per hour, we hadn’t come close to the jet’s top speed.
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Breitling’s day of visceral thrills didn’t end there. They had a helicopter on hand to fly us over the Yale campus a few miles away, an old WWII T-6 Warbird ready for slightly less G-laden rides, and a tiny Extra EA 300 aerial acrobatics plane that I managed to maneuver (level!) for several minutes, thanks to its indulgent owner. There was also the limited-edition Breitling Bentley Continental GT Speed ready for the taking (Breitling is Bentley’s sole timepiece partner), one of only seven issued by Bentley’s Mulliner customization division—one for each jet.
Just how experienced do you have to be a Breitling Jet Team pilot? All the pilots have extensive military experience. The gentleman in charge of the team’s U.S. Tour, Jim DiMatteo, has 30 years of active duty under his belt—the last 17 of which he was the chief instructor at the elite Naval fighter weapons school, or Top Gun. (Yes, he consulted on the film, and yes, it appears that the rumors of a remake are true.) Enough said.
Other than managing a roll and my stomach, I left most proud of the call sign DiMatteo gave me by the end of the day: Ice Woman.