If you hear a plane overhead, and you look up to see what kind it is, then it’s safe to say you love aviation. And most of us can trace back to the when that love first started. And for me, like millions of others of children, it was at an airshow. A few weekends ago, I got to spend the day with 20 of these folks who live and breathe aviation at the March Field Airfest. They are an all volunteer team who maintain and fly the six sleek all black L-39’s that make up The Patriots Jet Demonstration Team.
The day started at a jarring 0630. For those of you who don’t speak military time, that is way to early for a Sunday morning. But it’s an airshow day, and soon the clam skies would be filled with the sound of jets!! First order of business, fuel up the people. Who knew this is what really makes planes fly!
And then it was off to March Air Reserve Base for the Pilot’s Brief. Every airshow day starts off with all of the performers gathering to discuss details of the airshow. The Patriots were represented by Dean “Wilbur” Wright, Lead Pilot and former USAF Thunderbird, and John “Boards” Posson, Left Wing. At the Pilot’s Briefing, the Director of the Airshow gave an in-depth review of the schedule, including any changes in the ordering, an up to date weather brief, reminders of the show layout, and how the show was handling early departures (including our request to leave before the Thunderbirds) . For the Patriots, this would just be the first brief of five. Even though I was just barely waking up at 9am, the Pilots were in airshow mode and alert for all of the information.
After exchanging pleasantries with a few of the performers, it was time to file the return flight’s flight plans and then head back to the jets on the Hot Ramp. The Hot Ramp is where the planes that are performing stage. Since it’s a beehive of activity, with planes and vehicles moving around, the airshow public is kept at a safe distance away.
As we walk across the ramp to the jets an hour later, Wilbur tells me that this is just the first of several safety briefs the they will have. We just finished the overall brief for the airshow, but now it was time for a Team brief where they discuss the team schedule for the day, when the pilots will be getting ready, take off times, what to do after they land and when to start packing up to head home.
In this business, the more information you have, the less chance of something happening. Even though these are all volunteers who do this for fun, on airshow days, each and every one of them is as professional as the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds or Snowbirds.
Each of the six L-39 jets has a pilot, and a dedicated crew chief. Then you have an announcer, a safety observer, music specialists, and a bevy of other volunteers who handle whatever the day could throw at them. They work with each other at the half dozen airshows that the Team will be at over the year, cultivating relationships and solidifying friendships. They travel from all over, from California, the Pacific Northwest, and even Canada.
After a few minutes of answering questions, the team breaks off on what seems like a bunch of random activities. But what seems like chaos, is actually everyone taking care of their own specific tasks to get these six jets launched in time for the 500,000 people in attendance.
And while most airshow acts are one plane, The Patriots have six of them. And being the only civilian owned and operated team in the US, they do it with class and safety. To give it some perspective, the USN Blue Angels have six jets also, but over 100+ people to make sure those jets get up in the air, but the Patriots do it with 20.
At 11am it was time for the pilots brief. Only an hour after the airshow brief, they were at it again. Safety, safety, safety. With a quick time hack to synchronize watches, Wilbur shares with the Pilots and safety observers the information from the airshow brief, such as weather. They then go over the exact time to the minute when the jets start, taxi, take off, altitude they will rendevouze and hold at before the show starts, primary frequencies, back up frequencies, alternate fields to land at should Marchs’ runway become unusable, fuel calculations, hazards in the area, and numerous other items. A few hours before they were joking about all the coffee brought in, and now it was as if they were planning a precision mission.
And with that, it was time to tend to other preflight duties. The next hour and a half went by very quickly. But then before I knew it, it was 12:30 and time for the pilots to do a final walk around and jump in the jets. They greet their plane captains who help them get strapped into the cockpit.
Used as a military jet training in several countries, these L-39’s have ejection seats to help the pilots get out of danger. Then from a calm quiet, six Ivchenko AI-25 engines roared to life and howled to an unbearable scream with the help of a Sapphire-5 APU.
A flurry of hand signals, and it was time for the jets to taxi out one by one to the runway. I jumped in the van and drove out to show center to get ready for the take off.
The crowd that had been scattered amongst the vast show grounds were now pressed up against the fence line in anticipation of the jet’s taking off. And just like that, with a short introduction, from Jon “Jughead” Counsell who also happens to hold the world record for ejection speed, Patriots #1-4 launch in a diamond formation take off, followed shortly by #5 and #6
And just like that, the high impact show starts with all six jets in tight formation from right over the crowds. With the distinctive M on Box Springs Mountain in the background, the jets scream in at 400+ mph to the crowds cheers.
The next 30 minutes are full of death defying maneuvers. Two jets line up, head to head, one from the right, the other from the left on a collision course. And a split second before they collide, both roll 90 degrees to the side and pass right by. To the crowd, and this photographer, it seems very close, but in reality, both pilots communicate with each other and maintain offset routes to miss each other. Showmanship at it’s finest!
At one point during the show it was a non-stop barrage of planes coming at you from each and every direction. From the left and right, then just as you lock eyes on them, another screams overhead from behind you, startling everyone.
Some jets go high in the sky, and another flies so low to the ground, you could reach up and touch it.
But this high energy, big impact show just is the culmination of over 100,000 combined hours of flight experience and years of formation training. And these guys make it look so easy, even down to the graceful touchdown.
And to the cheers of those half million spectators, the act was over. We roll back to the hot ramp and greet the jets as they taxi back and shut down. A round of hand shakes with the crew chiefs, fellow pilots, crowd autographs, and time for a quick break before jumping into the Patriots air conditioned trailer for a post flight briefing. Outside the team starts scrambling to pack up and get the jets fueled and ready to depart for the hour long flight back to their home base of Byron, CA.
But Wilbur and Stache had a more important task. They was going to give 15 Boy Scouts and their parents their first up close look at an L-39 and light that spark for the love of aviation.
What I didn’t know was that the Patriots didn’t only just do airshows. That they are also a non-profit group that spreads the love of aviation in the hearts of children of all ages though various community outreach programs and their newly built 35,000 sq ft hangar / museum at their home base in Byron, CA. Randy Howell put it best on why they fly airshows. “We fly these shows so we can inspire our nation’s youth to pursue the magic of flight. And whenever we can’t bring the kids to Byron to teach them about planes, then we bring the planes to the kids, like here at the March Airshow.”
After a group picture with Wilbur and Stache, it was time to finish packing up and getting ready to fly home.
I helped out however I could, but just like launching the jets, everyone had a task and got the job done to get those jet’s launched. We got the bags in a waiting truck, loaded up the trailer, and started the jets. There wasn’t enough time to make sure that they taxied, so we had to get moving immediately.
I would be flying back in the Patriots support jet, a Westwind Jet Commander with Randy and John. My first time in this classic private jet. With a narrow window before the Thunderbirds’ performance, we had to be ready to launch 7 jets. It was going to be tight. Naturally the Jet Commander was parked at the exact opposite end of the airfield. With the show still going on, we drove past the mile long crowd line and then waited for a March ARB C-17 and KC-135 to land. Time was ticking down and our take off window was getting closer. But we got to the jet in time to do a safe preflight and get the engines started. A quick call to the Air Boss for taxi and take off clearance, and it was time to fly home.
Once we reached cruise altitude at 27,000 feet, I asked Randy if he could give me a detailed rundown of the systems of the Jet Commander. He asked if I was a pilot, and of course I replied yes. Maybe it was my ear to ear smile of being in a private jet (my very first time), or the twinkle in my eye like those Boy Scouts, but on cue, John said he wanted a quick break and Randy told me that it might be a little easier to explain if I jumped in the right seat. For a good 20 minutes, I backed Randy up on the radios and got to adjust the altitude for the auto pilot.
And somewhere over the central valley, 12 people strapped in to L-39’s saw us fly right past them.
With the speed of the Jet Commander 60kts faster then the L-39 formation, we got to Byron airport a solid 20 minutes before them. And just like hundreds of times before, Randy set the Jet Commander down on the piano keys and as light as a feather. I saw the end of the runway approaching really, really fast, but with a tap of the breaks we make a left run and just pulled onto the ramp of the newly built hangar.
After a few minutes to unload the bags, and grab a drink of water, the four ship, followed shortly by the two ship, was on final approach for the overhead break for runway 30 at Byron. And as light as Randy touched the jet command, each of the L-39’s floated in with their pilots and crew.
After a few pictures and it was time to bring each of the jet’s into the newly built hangar.
And just like that the day was over. To think, 12 hrs before I was in Southern California to watch an airshow.