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.
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.
Patriots team lead pilot Dean “Wilbur” Wright leads a walk-through prior to the team’s six-ship formation performance at the 2012 MCAS Miramar Air Show. The team is made up of former U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Navy Blue Angels, Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds and highly experienced civilian pilots.
“If you read these people’s résumé, you’re amazed that they are willing to put all that talent to work for the Patriots,” Howell says, shaking his head. His team members do it all—from travel to maintenance to administration—just for the love of aviation and the pride that comes from achieving a common goal. For the Patriots, that means putting on a breathtaking show while maintaining a strict margin of safety, and as of 2010, to inspire the world’s future pilots.
Jet Team Foundation
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Patriots is their dedication to taking aviation to tomorrow’s pilots. It’s no secret that aviation’s future in the U.S. is on shaky ground with declining student pilot populations and diminishing interest in aviation careers. In response, the Patriots have created their own youth-directed foundation.
Launched in 2010, the Patriot Jet Team Foundation is a 501c(3), non-profit organization whose mission is to provide air and space education programs to youth to inspire them to seek careers in the aerospace field. Formed by Howell and his wife, Marie, the idea for the foundation was, “Developing innovative educational programs that combine the high energy of our Patriots Jet Team partners with exciting, hands-on curricula that will provide students with learning skills and experiences of a lifetime.”
In June 2012 the foundation moved into the Patriot’s 35,000-square-foot hangar facility at Byron Airport in the Bay Area. The team is a key part of the foundation, providing motivation and hands-on experience to students. There are “work nights,” regular interaction with team members and the opportunity to volunteer with the team. The foundation has created the Patriots Aerospace Academy to offer aviation education programs to kids 14-18 years old. Their latest offering is a complete aviation ground school that allows students to pass the FAA private pilot written exam. It’s free.
The Patriots eschew their counterpart’s lengthy and ceremony-laden walkout to the jets and get to what everybody came to see: the flying. After a precision taxi out to the runway and a formation takeoff, the Patriots get down to business.
A Patriots show has several highlights. First, the team can’t rely on the sheer power of the Blue’s F-18 Hornets, or the T-Bird’s ferocious F-16—both equipped with afterburners. The lithe L-39 isn’t as large or domineering as those fighters. Instead, the team keeps jets at air show-center constantly, eliminating the “dead time” common to the military teams.
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.
|The L-39 Albatros|
|If you’ve watched the Patriots perform, you’ve no doubt said to yourself, “I want one of those jets!” At anywhere between $200,000 and $300,000, they’re within the reach of a few select souls. Yet, in comparison with American Iron jets like the T-33 or T-38, the Czechoslovakian-built L-39 Albatros is a relative bargain.
The jet was introduced in the late 1960s as a jet combat trainer for Warsaw-pact countries to replace the L-29 Delfin, and was the first turbofan-powered jet trainer made. It was put in production in 1971 and approximately 2,800 were produced. Thirty countries have used the L-39, and it’s the most widely used jet trainer in the world. The FAA shows some 255 L-39s registered to private owners in the U.S.
The sleek little trainer is known for superb handling, excellent visibility from both cockpits, ease of maintenance, ability to fly out of less-than-perfect fields and high reliability. One characteristic particularly appealing to buyers is the ample nose compartment that can fit a set of golf clubs or duffle bags. As a personal jet, it’s tough to beat.
The L-39 is powered by a single 3,792-pound thrust, Ivchenko AI-25-TL turbofan engine. It has an empty weight of 7,340 pounds and a maximum takeoff weight of over 10,362 pounds, depending on configuration. The L-39 has a maximum sea level speed of 435 mph, gaining an extra 50 mph at 19,600 feet. It can fly over 550 miles with full fuel, and 995 miles with external tanks. It has a ceiling of 36,100 feet.
If you want to own an L-39, you’ll need to obtain an Authorized Experimental Aircraft rating (AEA). That requires a checkride with an authorized check pilot. You’ll also need: a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating; 1,000 hours total time, 500 as PIC; a current medical FAA 3rd class and BFR. You can also count on five to 10 hours training to get comfortable with the aircraft, and that’s assuming you have some turbine experience. You’ll also need to complete a three-day ground school course.
L-39 ownership isn’t for the timid. An annual can cost $13,000. Liability insurance is around $12,000 a year. Most owners figure on spending about $5,000 a year in parts, as well as another $2,000 on regular maintenance issues. Fuel burn is $750-1,000/hour depending on fuel price ($1,500 per jet during the Patriots’ air show routine), and don’t forget that ejection seats add a whole other dimension and cost.
The jet has an excellent website for prospective owners and enthusiasts at www.l39.com.