I pulled a Top Gun and took a test flight with a CNE air show jet team
And I may have vomited a little
I love flying. There’s something about the moment a plane’s wheels leave the ground. About the view during a descent. Hell, even slow-moving security lines and overpriced airport food get me giddy. Maybe it’s genetic: when I was in my teens, my mom got her pilot’s license and took my dad, brothers and I for day trips around southern Ontario in a four-seat Cessna. So, when the Breitling Jet Team invited me to tag along on a flight before their Canadian International Air Show display this Labour Day weekend, I was all in.
I arrived at a de-icing facility at Pearson on Thursday morning. I was early, so I killed time drinking a box of orange juice, exchanging anxieties with a few of the other passengers and trying to figure out if the pilot in the glasses was actually Sam Waterston.
We donned black, full-body flight suits and yellow helmets, signed some waivers that I definitely read in full, and watched a safety video (“Do not touch anything;” “Pull the red lever only if the pilot says, ‘Eject, eject, eject!'”), which elicited a few nervous laughs throughout the room. Jacques Bothelin, the team’s lead pilot, explained that we could clench our stomachs to prevent the planes’ twists and turns from draining blood out of our heads (oh, joy) and reassured us that only two per cent of people feel airsick on flights like these. I stupidly thought I belonged to that other 98 per cent.
We were each paired with one of the team’s seven main pilots. I teamed up with François Ponsot, a wry French flyer better known to his team as Ponpon. Like most of his fellow pilots, he’d trained in the French military, finished his service and joined the Breitling Jet Team, a civilian squad sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker. He wore aviators and was generally badass.
We shuttled over to our plane, an L-39 C Albatros. The sleek, Czech-built aircraft can hit 900 km/h in a dive and subject its pilots to pressures equal to eight times the force of gravity. Mercifully, we’d only be hitting four Gs on our flight.
Once everyone was strapped in, we taxied onto one of Pearson’s runways. The engine roared louder than an EDM banger waiting to drop, and we shot forward down the tarmac. The first three planes, including mine, took off together, followed by two more pairs.
During takeoff, I stared at the leader’s plane, something like 10 feet away from us, thinking, “A little close, guys.”
Ponpon flew us 20 kilometres north of the city near Orangeville before the team started its manoeuvres. During an early turn, we flew perpendicular to the ground, and I started to feel some of those Gs.
Ponpon and the team then pulled a barrel roll and I instantly transformed into a small child full of wonder.
That’s when it happened. My stomach started to feel a little queasy. I reached for the paper bag pinned to the back of Ponpon’s seat—the one thing in the cockpit I was allowed to touch. “Just in case,” I told myself. Cold sweat ran down my temples. I looked at the other planes—was anyone else holding their barf bag? Nope, just me?—and gradually accepted I was part of the two per cent. It tasted like orange juice.
No, I did not make a GIF of me throwing up. That is not something that needs to exist on the Internet. But here’s a big breath of relief after the fact, both because I felt instantly better and because I think I managed to yak without Ponpon noticing.
As we inched closer to Pearson, Ponpon said something about braking quickly and turning, to which I enthusiastically repeated “Okay,” thinking he meant on the ground. Which is why I was surprised when our plane, hovering parallel to the runway, torqued right and peeled into the sky again. Sweat beaded down my face. My vision turned black-and-white for a second and I felt lightheaded. “Vomit and fainting? Perfect,” I thought. But I clenched my stomach (thank you, Jacques), smiled at the fact that I was still conscious and prepared to land.
I think this one speaks for itself.
I wasn’t kidding about the sweat. The mechanic helped me remove my helmet and pointed to the rolled up paper bag in my hand. “A little souvenir,” I said. He helped me out of the cockpit, and I thanked Ponpon for the flight. My body hated every second, but I loved it.
The Breitling Jet Team performs during the Canadian International Air Show, which runs from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 3; Sunday, September 4; and Monday, September 5.