Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Patriots

This civilian aerobatic jet team showcases military flying skills and gives back to aviation

I've always wondered what pilots of the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds and Snowbirds do once their military gig is up. How can you possibly follow that? Do their pilots just fade into the general aviation landscape and fly Cubs to $100 hamburgers at greasy diners? Is the guy in the 172 ahead of me in the pattern the same one I saw last year pulling 7 Gs in a tight turn with the Blues? With the mystique that surrounds them, I figured they either walked on water, or retired into a life of telling great stories and forever being known as an ex-"insert team name here" pilot. It turns out I was wrong.

Some of the fortunate ones go on to fly in air shows as solo acts, while some go off to race warbirds. A lot of them end up flying lucrative corporate jobs. Only a few of the best go on to fly for the Patriots Jet Team.

Directing a six-ship formation of black Aero Vodochody L-39 military jets, the Patriots are one of the most unique aerial teams of their kind. The USAF Thunderbirds have their finesse. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines Blue Angels have their tradition and bravado. The Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Forces Snowbirds have their en masse precision. But the Patriots fly with an elegance and subtlety that's hard to match. It seems they possess the best qualities of all these teams.

I caught up with the Patriots before their show at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar—one of aviation's biggest air shows. If you haven't heard of the Patriots, you will. They're more than just a bunch of jet enthusiasts burning fuel on the air show circuit—they have a unique mission and a distinctive show.

From The Seed Of A Dream
"I just always had the dream of starting a jet team," says team founder and President, Randy Howell. An aerospace engineering graduate from the University of Florida, Howell is an accomplished pilot, having been a career United Airlines captain, a Reno Air Race pilot, and an air show performer before creating the Patriots. "I wanted to show audiences what a precision team could do, but also to create something that would draw people into aviation."

Howell's success in outside business ventures enabled him to apply his resources to the creation of the Patriots. In 1999, Howell purchased three Czechoslovakian-built L-39 jets from the Ukraine and shipped them in containers to his facility in Byron, Calif., near his Discovery Bay home. A group of volunteers painstakingly restored the ex-military trainers there, upgrading the avionics and communications, removing excess weight, and adding a computerized 30-gallon smoke system. Howell purchased more L-39s through 2002, then launched the Patriots in 2003 as a two-ship act. In 2011, the Patriots emerged as the only six-jet team in America that was civilian owned.


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