"We could perform our display blindfolded"
How a member of an aerobatic display team prepares for his performance. How he feels in the cockpit. And why his job is still far from over even after landing: Squadron Leader Christophe Dubois of the legendary Patrouille de France lifts the lid.
The squadron leader on...
... the relationship a pilot has with his aircraft
"We use Alpha Jets because they're so stable in the air and so easy to fly. We all fly the same plane every time. I'm practically married to mine: my jet is set up for me and me alone. How an aircraft feels, how it responds to commands, the kind of feedback it gives in the air, there may only be minimal differences from aircraft to aircraft, but I'd still be totally lost to begin with if I suddenly had to fly another pilot's aircraft."
... preparing for a display
"For any airshow I start by memorising all the reference points on the ground." (He opens Google Earth on his smart phone and zooms in on Zeltweg.) "I learn everything by heart, everything I see until every detail is imprinted in my brain. This street. This mountain. The axes, the runways, the position of buildings. I think about where certain manoeuvres will have to begin and end. Then there's the weather briefing. After that I can factor in the wind direction and make adjustments to flight lines as required. Then you can get going."
... the last 75 minutes before the start
"With one and a quarter hours to go nobody is allowed to talk to us. We sit down, close our eyes and in real time we go through the display manoeuvre by manoeuvre, for 34 minutes, with music and with every command. Only then are we ready to climb into our cockpits."
... staying focused in the cockpit
"It's most stressful just before the start. We only have air-con once we're airborne, so until then it can get really hot in the cockpit. Once we're up there, we could perform our display blindfolded. Because we fly by ear. I conduct my fellow pilots by radio like a conductor. That's the only way to remain totally synchronised throughout. In the air each pilot has a different job, like each member of an orchestra."
... the post-show debrief
"If we're unhappy with how things went, we get together straight afterwards right there on the landing strip and let off steam next to one of the planes. Otherwise we try to calm down first and think about other things. Usually there are autograph signings, and then we go back to wherever we're staying. There we analyse the video footage – we always have a cameraman to film our displays, so we can watch them back and learn from our mistakes.
... the stressful life of a squadron member
"Our performances run from May 15 to October 15 and we train from October 15 to May 15, on average twice a day. If I manage to take two or three weeks off once a year, I try not to think about flying. All I do is play golf – that's how I clear my head.