Civilian Jet Teams: Flash in the Pan or a New, More Sustainable Air Show Model?

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Mention “jet team” to anyone in the North American air show community and their first thoughts usually turn to the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds or the Snowbirds.  But, over the last few years, civilian jet teams have appeared on the scene and have risen to a higher stature as they fill a widening niche in performer offerings.

Civilian jet teams are not a new idea.  Former ICAS Board President T.J. Brown had a dream to create the first such team in the 1980s.  First, he was going to build the jets which resembled scaled down versions of the F-15 Eagle, but the finances didn’t work out for him.  Then he sought European production models, but died in a tragic crash in Russia before his dream could be realized.  In the early 200s0s, the Northern Lights Aerobatic Team transitioned from Extra 300s to L-39 Albatross jet trainers as part of a more recent – and, ultimately, unsuccessful — effort to demonstrate the viability and commercial impact of a civilian jet demonstration team.  But civilian jet teams are here now and — from all indications — are here to stay.

Among them is a popular attraction for west coast air show audiences known as the Patriots.  In the east, it’s been the Black Diamonds, though after two very successful years, their future as air show regulars is not as certain.

The Patriots are owned by veteran airline and air race pilot Randy Howell.  With solid sponsor backing from Fry’s Electronics, they have grown from a two-ship act ten years ago to six ships today, plus a spare.  Team members include two former Thunderbirds, a former Blue Angel and a former Snowbird.  Their combined experience has helped the Patriots reach a stunning level of precision and excitement that air show crowds love.

“We aren’t like the military jet teams and we don’t want to compete with the military teams.  Other than having six jets, we want to be very different. We capitalize on what we can do best,” said Howell.  And their list of what they do best includes tail slides, something almost unheard of in a jet aircraft.

“Our routine is very different.  We will run delta passes with six jets, diamond passes, two solos, and three two-ship passes.  And we break it up where all six are flying at least one solo maneuver during the show,” Howell said.

Because they are sponsored, they can keep their cost down, but they aren’t free. “Our fee helps cover operating costs, plus we require fuel, hotels and cars,” he said.  While that may be a lot for some shows, there are significant benefits. “We have fewer requirements. We don’t need an arresting cable. We travel with fewer people. Our logistics requirements are easier. And we can be very flexible at times, including flying in a smaller box,” Howell said.

Another benefit of a team like the Patriots is that they are able to do multiple media rides as well as sponsor rides.  “We like to take people for rides and share our passion of flight with them,” he said.

The Patriots perform about twelve shows per year, both civilian and military. “We could do more, but [flying fewer shows] leaves us at the end of the year saying that was a great season.  If we were to do more, we would be saying we are glad the season is over,” said Howell.

This schedule works well with the pilots because they are all volunteers.  “None of us takes a paycheck, including myself. I only put money into the business. I never take money out,” he said.  All of the money raised by the Patriots is invested back into the team and to support the Patriots Jet Team Foundation which serves to educate youths and provide aviation career paths.

The downside of a team like the Patriots is fuel costs.  This limits how many shows can afford them and, consequently, how far they travel.  Only the larger shows on the West Coast are willing to fund the fuel to bring the team from the Bay Area.

Like other multi-ship civilian jet teams, the aircraft of choice is the Aero Vodochody L-39  Albatross.  It is easy to maintain, has good fuel economy, tight turning capability and is extremely stable for formation flying.  It is also extremely reliable.  “In 2012, we had to use the spare only twice,” said Howell. He said their performance record is a testament to the reliability of the aircraft, but is also a testament to the quality of the maintenance team that travels with them.

With over 400 air shows in America, more variety is being displayed every year and shows have learned to be well balanced. “There are more jets out there, demonstrating more diversity and creating niches for themselves. We are a niche performer and there has always been a market for teams like us. It’s a matter of who has been willing to go out there and buy the aircraft to do it,” says Dean “Wilbur” Wright, the team’s lead pilot and a former Thunderbird.

When the Patriots began working on their routine, they did something unique. “In early stages of choreographing our routine, we gave it to people who fly jets on computer. They would get together on line and fly our sequence and could very quickly work out any bugs without burning any jet fuel,” said Wright. And it worked. “Spectators say we have a high entertainment value because we can do things that military teams can’t do. We get closer, fly slower, and use the limits of our aircraft to our benefit.”

Patriots narrator Jon “Jughead” Counsell, recently retired from the Air Force, has watched the team grow from a two-ship act to its present six ships.  “We are able to put an airplane in front of the crowd every 20 seconds which few other teams can do.  And while we don’t have the cache of a military jet team, we don’t have the footprint either.  We bring solid entertainment in a way that is new and different to a lot of air show audiences,” Counsell said.

Civilian jet teams have proven their popularity with a number of shows.  Darcy Brewer runs the California Capital Air Show in Sacramento and has hired the Patriots three times in the past five years. And she’s hired them even when she’s had a military jet team headlining the shows. “It’s taken some time to educate our audience and show them just how cool a civilian jet team is, but the maneuvers are thrilling and people love them,” she said.

From a purely logistics standpoint, civilian jet teams are a good act because they have fewer requirements and fewer restrictions than their military counterparts. And she says the civilian jet teams are a solution to a problem that the industry is currently experiencing.  As military budgets are cut, fewer assets of all kinds are available to support shows and civilian jet acts can fill the gap.

At the California International Air Show in Salinas, the Patriots are under a two-year contract to perform. Executive Director Bruce Adams said he hired the Patriots after seeing their act at Beale Air Force Base. “We were very impressed with what they had to offer.  They have come a long way in the past ten years,” Adams said.  And being based only 70 miles from Salinas, Adams said it’s a good fit for both of them. 

And like a growing number of shows, Salinas doesn’t just hire a civilian jet team if they can’t get a military team.  “We hire them irrespective of our military support because they entertain our crowd and the sponsorship support they give us is outstanding,” Adams said.  He noted the participation by the Patriots even helped the show land a couple of major sponsors they otherwise could not have had.

At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where they have access to far more military assets than most civilian shows, the Patriots are regulars. They have performed at Miramar in three of the past five shows.

“Variety is a main reason we include a civilian jet team. We’ve staged them with the Blue Angels, and the Snowbirds. It shows the public another aspect of team flying, which they love,” said Ed Downum, air show director at Miramar.  Not only does the team feature maneuvers unique to civilian jets; they use colored smoke, which adds to the entertainment value.

On the east coast, the Lakeland, Florida-based Black Diamonds have had two successful seasons.  Owned by United Bank Card founder Jared Isaacman, who also flies right wing, the team posted a 25-show schedule in 2011 under the command of lead pilot Jerry “Jive” Kirby, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.  They flew a similar schedule in 2012, but with fewer airplanes as they began to take on defense contracts.

Being fully sponsored, the team is affordable to nearly every air show, asking only for hotel rooms, cars and smoke oil. Even that can be expensive for some shows when the full team shows up, but there is no fee and the team pays for its own fuel.  What shows get in exchange is performance. “We don’t have the history and we certainly don’t have the noise of a military team, but we do bring to a show the same level of precision and professionalism that you would expect from military jet teams,” Kirby said.

Included in the team are two former Thunderbirds pilots plus a retired Navy F-14 demonstration pilot. “Their experience helped us achieve a performance level that would have taken much longer without then,” Kirby said.  As a result, the Black Diamonds became known, very quickly, for their precision, their tight diamond and outstanding solo maneuvers. “The audience response has always been overwhelming,” he said.

Like the Patriots, the Black Diamonds fly the L-39 for simple and solid reasons.  “Whenever you buy a warbird, you want one with a proven track record. You also need an available supply of parts and people who can work on them, and there must be an economy of operation,” said Kirby.  He noted that 3,000 L-39s were manufactured and over 260 are in the U.S. now.

Unfortunately for air show fans, the Black Diamonds do not anticipate returning to a full air show schedule any time soon because of other commitments.  “We will maintain our proficiency and we will occasionally send out two or three aircraft to a show, but we just don’t have the time to do shows like we used to do,” Kirby said.

Civilian jet teams are just as popular in Europe as they are in the United States.  The Breitling family, which makes some of the world’s finest time pieces, sponsors a six-ship team that is known throughout Europe, not just at air shows, but at a wide variety of venues. “We will fly at air shows with or without a military jet team.  We have also flown at vintage car gatherings, and at golf tournaments. We are willing to fly in non-air show environments that are compatible with Breitling’s image,” said team owner Jacques Bothelin. He said their goal is to promote Breitling which has a lot to do with where they fly.  Bothelin comes to the ICAS Convention every year to stay current on industry trends in North America.

Boethelin said sponsorship does not cover all their costs, so organizers have to pick up their fuel tab. He also said they normally only fly at large shows because their sponsor wants to reach as many people as possible, but they consider other venues if they are compatible with Breitling’s image.

“Our target is to have the same quality and safety as military jet teams. We work hard on that and we incorporate pyro. Our goal is to provide entertainment value that is equal to the major national teams and I think we succeed,” Boethelin said.  Demand for the team is so strong that they fly about 50 demonstrations a year, with 30 of those being public air shows.  The rest, Boethelin says, are private events for Breitling and their guests.

Boethelin said the team is spending much of 2013 in Asia and the Middle East and have already booked many of their shows in Europe for 2014.  He said the team has never flown in the U.S., but said they hope to come here in 2015 to support Breitling’s marketing program in this country.

Like its American counterparts, the Breitling team flies the L-39 because of its reliability.  “It’s a good balance between looks, performance, reliability, and operating cost,” Boethelin said.  Another advantage is their ability to get type certificates for the aircraft. European countries do not allow them to be flown in the experimental category. While currently registered in Estonia, Boethelin said he is seeking French certification for the aircraft because French certification will be more readily accepted by the FAA should they come to America.

All of the Breitling pilots are former French Air Force pilots and one flew with the French demonstration team. But, whatever the background of the team members, Boethelin says the team has its own culture and its own identity. “I don’t want a team of ex-anything. We are the Breitling jet team and we have to use our assets to the maximum advantage,” Boethelin said.

Meanwhile, back at home, Texas-based aviation consultant Marcos Costilla is performing due diligence to determine if it would be feasible to bring a Middle East jet team to America. He has been working with a team known as the Baltic Bees and is seeking a sponsor for the team to bring them here in 2014. “We are doing our assessments to determine if there is a market. The cost of moving around the country is a big factor, especially fuel costs,” Costilla said.  Ideally, he would like to land an international sponsor, but is also looking for a strong national sponsor.

Costilla is no stranger to the air show world. His son is a former Blue Angel. He and members of the Baltic Bees attended the 2012 ICAS convention to begin making contacts and he says they hope to have a booth at the 2013 convention. “We would like to come to America for six months or so, but — if business is good — we may decide to stay for up to five years,” said team lead Artem Solodula.  He said the market for a team like his appears to be better in America right now.

The Bees, according to team pilot Robert Svikio, offer a different type of display than most other jet teams. “Our philosophy of our show is different than what you normally see in the United States. We combine our flying with music and smoke that produces a very emotional response which we think people would enjoy,” Svikio said.

The Baltic Bees also fly the L-39 and have been a team since 2009, starting first with four airplanes, then growing to five, then to six.  If they are successful in finding a U.S. sponsor, they plan to base their operations in Texas to make themselves available both on the East Coast and West Coast. “I think there is a draw in having international performers, but our ability to be successful is to be determined,” Costilla said.

Beyond the Patriots, the Black Diamonds, the Breitling team and the Baltic Bees, there are a large number of single and dual jet acts appearing at US air shows ever weekend.  They range from a T-33 to a variety of MiGs, solo L-39 acts, the occasional Fouga, and a number of other trainer-type jet aircraft.  Two-ship acts such as Jet Air Combat Team, the MiG Fury Fighters, and several others simulate dog fights which are always crowd pleasers.

“Our audiences are drawn to the military, but civilian jet acts do an outstanding job whether they perform alongside the military or in place of the military,” said Judy Willey, president of the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro, Oregon.  Willey, who is also the chair of the ICAS Board of Directors, has hired the Patriots several times for her show, along with vintage jets from a local aviation museum.

“The entertainment value of civilian jets is different than that of the military, but it is solid.  They demonstrate their entertainment value to our industry in every show they fly,” Willey said.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.