Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Patriots

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

Wright explains that there's a speed difference, too. "We average about 250 knots during our show compared to 450 knots on the Thunderbirds show," he says. "But we have some unique arrows in our quiver that we take advantage of."

Wright tells me their slower speed allows the team to keep maneuvers in a very tight piece of airspace. "We can loop and roll our formations in less than half the airspace of the T-birds or Blues." The Patriots' FAA waiver allows them to fly to the surface, where the other teams have higher minimum altitudes, and they can fly maneuvers 500 feet away from the crowd, versus the military team's 1,500 feet, making the show more prominent. And with six jets, the team flies three two-ship formations, combined with diamond and delta maneuvers, keeping jets in front of the crowd. Wright says the Patriots never compete with military teams, but the comparison is constantly being made.

The tail slide is unique to the Patriots. It's an odd sight watching an L-39 climb straight up trailing a stream of smoke, then coming to a stop and sliding backward on its tail like some biplane in the 1920s. "It's a maneuver you'll never see the other teams fly," adds Wright.

The Patriots rely heavily on precision and fluid routines. To emphasize that, their L-39s are equipped with high-intensity lights in the wing-tip pods. It makes the jets easy to spot and gives them a certain presence—especially head on. The glossy jets fly with computer-controlled, red-, white- and blue-colored smoke. The team also flies some impressive precision moves that superimpose one jet against another, illustrating the remarkable precision in the pilots' hands.

During the team's debrief session, video is played while each pilot critiques his performance, with everybody chiming in on how to improve. To my eyes, the variances they see in their performance can be measured in inches. The performance was nearly flawless. Still they strive to be better, and safety is always emphasized. The debrief continues considerably longer than the team's actual performance. Clearly, they take this seriously.

As the day wound down and I walked into the early evening, I saw the Patriots' L-39s silhouetted against the sky with the Blue Angels' F-18s in the distance. With their tails set in symmetrical perfection, the L-39s seemed right at home with the Blues. And I now knew their pilots wouldn't just fade away. If they're lucky, they might some day fly with the Patriots.

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