Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Patriots

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

The Secret To Their Success
The Patriots' team briefing starts some 2½ hours before showtime. Miramar's staging ramp is packed with every kind of military and civilian aircraft imaginable. It's somewhat surreal to see a Stearman being marshaled next to an F-22 Raptor and flanked by F-18s and F-16s. The cacophonous roar of the air show rattles the team trailer that sits just yards away from the line of seven gleaming, midnight-black L-39s (one is a spare).

Like the most meticulous military operation, the briefing summarizes the day's expectations, with every detail made clear. The word "safety" is mentioned more times than I can count. Everything about this operation is precise. On the side of one of the tool carts, a white sheet of paper neatly lays out the day down to the minute. It's a mix between a Formula One pit crew, a military invasion and a stage ballet.

The pilot's briefing one hour later is a rare glimpse into the team's inner workings, since outsiders are normally not allowed (they present a distraction). For now, the briefing focuses, once again, on safety. The brief starts precisely on the minute, and today, one of the pilots is about 20 seconds late. The briefing room door is closed, leaving the pilot knocking. He's eventually let in, to good-natured ribbing, but the point is made: Be on time, every time. Precision and safety are the Patriots' hallmarks.

The secret of the Patriots is that they've selected pilots whose individual skill and talent form a greater whole within the context of the team. In simpler terms, they "mesh" perfectly with each other. On a team that's constantly compared to their military counterparts, personalities are just as important as skills. Each one brings a different perspective to the team, along with varied experience. Today's Patriots are a mix of ex-Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, Snowbirds, aerobatic competitors and civilian pilots experienced with everything from airliners to warbirds. The Patriots have the luxury of adopting the best practices of each. There are more than a few pilots among the crew chiefs and support crew, as well, and some even hold L-39 type ratings. It's clear Howell has picked the best.

Spend time with the members of the Patriots team, and you quickly feel like you've stepped into the home of a very close family. It's a boisterous one with a lot of joking, laughter and even a few stressful moments, but it's a family brought together by the job of putting on the best and safest show possible. The one fact that impressed me most is that every member of the team is a volunteer. Nobody—not even the pilots—are paid a single dime. Howell says the proceeds from the air shows pay for fuel and keeping the team running. No one on the team is paid.

Even though the team is civilian, their infrastructure—like everything they do —is impressive. The team's trailer is a veritable maintenance hangar, with every conceivable spare part available instantly. The trailer even houses a complete replacement engine for the L-39, along with all the tools and parts necessary to do a field replacement should that become necessary. To lighten the financial burden, Fry's Electronics and Hotline Construction have signed on as the team's main sponsors. Volunteers run everything.


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