On April 23, just after daybreak, I found myself in an airplane hangar on the humid outskirts of Tampa, preparing to step into the tandem cockpit of a high-performance aircraft for the first time in my life. Just to be clear: I've never wanted to be a pilot, nor has the idea of G-force ever appealed to me. But when Swiss watchmaker Breitling offered Maxim a seat in an L-39C Albatros at this year's Sun 'n Fun International Fly-In Expo in Florida, my hand went up faster than I could realize what exactly it was I was volunteering for. Now, sleep-deprived and slightly hungover, and about 1,000 miles from my bed in Brooklyn, I was being taught how to operate an ejection seat by a group of French pilots with nicknames like Gaston, Ponpon and Douky .
The Breitling Jet Team is the largest civilian jet aerobatic group on the planet, composed of a fleet of seven extremely agile Czech Aero L-39C Albatros jets (capable of reaching 565mph) and an equal number of French ex-fighter pilots. Since the 1930's, Breitling has been a chief supplier of chronographs for both propeller-driven and jet-powered aircraft, and its watches are designed to the specifications of the champs who fly them. And so it was last Wednesday, when the Breitling Jet Team - each of its members sporting a devilishly handsome limited edition Chronomat 44 - made its American debut over sunny Florida, with seven extremely fortunate journalists in tow.
Back in the hangar, wearing a black flight-suit emblazoned with the words Breitling Jet Team, I could have easily been mistaken for a man who knows his way around an aircraft. But looking like a pilot and actually being a pilot are not the same, not by a long shot. The team's leader called us into a huddle to explain the rules. First, unless we had to activate the ejection seat, we were not to touch anything in the cockpit. The fact that mission success required me to do nothing but sit there and enjoy the ride like the luckiest guy on Earth came as good news to me. Rule number two: If we puked - and apparently there was a good chance of that happening - we were to puke into the tiny barf bag clipped to the dashboard in front of our seat. Turns out the giant salmon and cream cheese bagel sandwich in my stomach didn't belong there - but, as they say in France, "c'est la vie."
With that out of the way, we - the journalists - linked up with the individual pilots we'd each been assigned to. Mine was the team's right outside wingman, Paco Wallaert, a compact 43-year-old ex-fighter pilot from north of Paris, who kind of resembled the action figure version of George W. Bush circa 2003. (I found this strangely comforting.) Over a hefty steak dinner the night before - during which I may have had one or two or three too many glasses of French wine - I'd learned that Paco had flown numerous real-world combat missions during his 22-year career with the French Air Force, many of them during the Bosnian War. With his horn-rimmed glasses and Bond-like demeanor, he was the spitting image of what I imagine every little boy in France wants to grow up to be.
Paco handed me a yellow Breitling flight helmet and asked if I was nervous. Only about throwing up, I lied, cool as a cucumber. "Don't worry," he said. "There's a bag."
As a former Army combat medic, I've always appreciated a good fighter pilot, but only as a thing that swoops out of the clouds to bomb you out of a pinch. That was about to change. After about ten minutes of cruising over the Florida countryside, Paco and the team kicked into gear and began doing what they do best — showing off. Suddenly, we were blasting through the air at an uncomfortable speed, rolling and diving and banking in a formation so tight I could see the cheeks of my fellow journalists quivering in the cockpits to my left and right. G-forces truly elude comprehension until they are actually experienced. And, if you're me, when you finally do experience it, all you can do is wag your tongue and whisper, "holy shit," into the big blue sky while the salmon and cream cheese bagel sandwich you ate for breakfast rages like Poseidon in your bowels. Simply put, it was incredible.
I didn't spew. But as soon as we touched down on the runway - nearly 30 minutes after taking off - I heard that one of the other journalists did. "How do you guys do that?" I asked Paco on the tarmac. "I thought my face was going to fly off." He shrugged and placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder, looking just as at ease in the world as he did when we were eating filet mignon and drinking fine wine in Tampa the night before. "You get used to it," he said with a wink. I looked over and saw the guy, the one who puked, appearing sheepish with a bloated barf bag in his hand, and thought: that could've been me. But it wasn't. Mission accomplished.