I like planes, but we have only ever had a very casual relationship. Commercial airline stuff. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a press drive tangentially involving Bentleys would also mean flying in a jet trainer at 4 Gs, redefining my perceptions of gravity—and astonishing me with the ends the brands will go to for good press.
(Full disclosure: Breitling wanted us to do cool shit in jets and Bentleys so badly that it flew me last minute to San Diego, put me up in the gorgeous Hotel Del Coronado, fed me and gave me the opportunity to spend the day flying around in a bunch of different aircraft.)
I won’t bullshit you: there are a lot of perks that come with this job. You get to travel, stay in bad hotels that try to pretend to luxury, eat food you can’t and wouldn’t want to afford, and drive incredible cars you also can’t afford but have always wanted—all on the corporate dimes. Occasionally, the press trips get really over the top. Here’s how mine started.
Yes, I fully admit that it took me about three minutes to decide. I’m ashamed.
This trip that Breitling planned wasn’t a press trip, exactly. All the Breitling people I spoke to on that trip called it “the Experience,” and it certainly was, uh, an experience. There were only two journalists there, myself included. Everyone else was a jeweler or a watch dealer or some sort of person who made and sold fancy baubles, who all brought along a potential client or buyer or someone who likes fancy baubles. They did not purchase a ticket to come, they were all invited. Because there apparently is a point where you can be so fabulously wealthy that buying sweet gigs like this no longer becomes necessary: you get it for free.
The point was to let these people experience Breitling’s aviation ties and to have them walk away with the subjective knowledge that Breitling is A Cool Brand.
At first, I thought this was a joint trip between Breitling and Bentley, since the two do a bunch of marketing stuff together, but it wasn’t really about Bentley at all. Though, there was a Bentley Continental GT Speed Breitling Jet Team Series edition parked nearby. Lots of things can be made better if you just park a Bentley in the general vicinity, if you’re that sort of person.
After a light breakfast (nothing greasy encouraged), they shuttled us south of San Diego proper, driving until the glittering neighborhoods fell away one by one and were replaced by dusty tire shops and tired nail salons. We pulled into a tiny airport and were let off in front of a hangar that Breitling had rented just for this.
Parked before the hangar was the Breitling Jet Team: eight Aero L-39 Albatros jets—trainer aircraft developed in Czechoslovakia—that glittered in the early morning Southern California sun.
The day was broken up into sections—there were too many of us to fly in the jets all at once. But one of the unspoken rules that added to the bizarreness of the day was the banning of boredom. To combat the horrors of idleness, Breitling also offered up skydiving trips, helicopter rides, biplane rides and an outing in an aerobatic plane.
When it came turn for my group to jet, we zipped and buckled ourselves into the black flight suits Breitling provided and we went over a very complicated lesson on what to do should we need to eject.
I promptly forgot everything they told me as soon as they told me and only remembered what my friend in the Navy said: when ejecting, keep your head back or else it’ll end up in your stomach.
The Breitling Jet Team is an aerobatic display team based in Dijon, France. They tour the world, performing at air shows, weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. (I’m not sure about the last three, but you can certainly try.)
The fleet is made up of seven L-39C Albatros trainer jets, capable of hitting 465 mph in level flight, 565 MPH in a dive and with 3,970 pounds of thrust. They are 40 ft long and have a wingspan of 31 ft. That day, there was an extra jet, for some reason.
I was paired with the No.3 pilot, whose name is Christophe Deketelaere but went with the nickname “Douky,” which is much easier for us silly Americans to pronounce.
Douky has been flying since 1984, when he was 19 years old. He flew in the French Air Force, piloting Jaguar and Alpha Jet aircraft, and left to fly for Breitling in 2002.
As we walked out to the parked jets, Douky leaned down and asked, “What should we sing today?”
“Beg your pardon?” I said, tripping slightly on my flight suit. “Sing?”
Douky’s tanned skin wrinkled beneath his aviators when he grinned. “I like to sing when I fly. What should we sing?”
“Oh! Umm... how about the French national anthem?” I said, thinking it would be fitting. It was only later that I actually looked up the lyrics:
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!
In hindsight, not the best song for when I was already nervous.
After I was seated and buckled into the rear seat, I was told to touch nothing in front of me: don’t touch any of the levers, buttons, pedals, gauges or switches. Despite what you would think, I didn’t immediately have an urge to touch everything. I had this vision of the jet completely self-destructing.
Then they closed the cabin and left me alone.
I could hear Douky talking in French with the other pilots, as well as all the other ambient air traffic chatter, through the built-in headset in my helmet. We taxiied to the runway. There was an awesome noise coming from the thrusters, growing to a roar as they smoothly shot us forward and up into the pristine sky.
This puzzled me for a moment, as taking off in a 911 Porsche Turbo S felt more violent than the jet—but then I looked up and swiftly forgot all about the car. We had caught up to the rest of the squadron and were flying tightly in formation.
Even though we were about 6,000 feet up, moving at about 350 mph, the closest plane was only less than 20 feet away. They hovered like ghosts around us, bobbing in the air slightly. We looked for all the world to be part of some heavenly marionette show.
Douky’s voice crackled over the mic, humming and singing the French national anthem. “Okay, now we go,” he announced.
The noses of the jets tilted upwards for a loop and suddenly I felt the crushing sensation of 4 Gs—like a stifling, invisible blanket that I could still breathe through—descend upon me. The crushing sensation was like a magnificent suction had opened up somewhere beneath my butt and was intent on dragging every single molecule in body my down toward it. My face felt like it was being pulled from my skull like warmed taffy and I wondered if that showed up on camera (it didn’t, miraculously).
Above my head, the scraggly Southern California landscape spun lazily with us, the sun lolling across my field of view like a time-lapse. It was utterly wonderful. The trepidation I expected to feel never came. Perhaps it was because the pilots were trained not to scare the shit out their civilian passengers. Even this maneuver at this height at this speed didn’t feel any more threatening than if I were at home in bed with a powerful case of the spins.
Changing position now, we moved into the center of the formation to perform a barrel roll. “You can sing if you want!” Douky suggested. I thought for a second and realized that the ability to sing had utterly left me at that moment. Nor could I remember what a song was. “I can’t remember how!” I howled. This was funny to the both of us.
We straightened out from the barrel roll and went to perform another loop. Another round of crushing G-force, of otherworldly wonder and awe. As we straightened out again and the jet gave a little wobble on a pocket of air, I felt it: the sickening and cold wave of nausea that rolled through me like a terrible and clammy python.
The jet wobbled again and I felt the movement echo dizzyingly in my stomach. My hands, previously lying loosely in my lap, clenched into fists.
“How are you doing, Kristen?” Douky asked.
He must have been very used to hearing this, because he responded smartly, “Okay, we’ll take it easy from here.” I didn’t have the words to tell him that my stomach was getting ready to pour out my ears at the time.
There were still about five minutes of soaring around to do until it was time to land. Those five minutes might as well have been five years—that’s how time seems to pass when you’re desperately trying not to vomit. In retrospect, I’m sure I could have asked Douky to take us down early, but that would have counted as bitching out and I’m not about that. This was one of those bucket list items, so I was not letting something as mortal as motion sickness ruin things.
They had supplied the jets with barf bags, clipped within arm’s reach right under the GoPro trained on my face. My iron resolve not to throw up stemmed from pride, not wanting to mess up the nice jet and that if I did throw up, both of our video editors, Jared Auslander and Mike Roselli, wouldn’t be able to unsee it from the footage. No fucking way was that happening.
“You can see Mexico from up here,” Douky announced. “But I don’t see Donald Trump’s wall, hahahaha...”
Flying in formation, still, we loped above the tiny airport in preparation for landing. Douky peeled off from the group and swung around, tilting the nose of the jet downwards now, toward the runway.
My lips were pursed together, my breathing shallow, my mouth dry. Don’ttthrowupdon’tthrowupdon’tthrowup...
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit relieved when I felt the jet’s wheels hit the pavement. Once we reached the hangar, I unzipped my suit—I was covered in cold sweat inside. Still, though, my smile was just as big as it was when I climbed into the jet: this was an experience I would never forget.
But that didn’t change the fact that everything about this whole day was all very weird.
How much did this event cost Breitling? Like I mentioned above, nobody paid to be here. This event was invite-only. Just for me alone, Breitling paid for my flight, transfer from the airport to the hotel, a night at a fancy and historical hotel, a fancy dinner, a breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant, the shuttle to the hangar, a helicopter ride, a ride in a jet, lunch, various beverages and light snacks throughout the day, a ride in an aerobatic plane, necessary jet fuel, a shuttle back to the hangar and finally a transfer back to the airport. There were roughly 30 guests... so you can do the math.
Of course, it’s hard to say definitively if going to this experience will result in any more Breitling sales than if these people didn’t go. But as a Breitling spokeswoman explained to me over dinner, this experience is about altering brand perception, not making sales. I remember being skeptical.
Too often I see brands try and push their image onto the public through the use of pointless hashtags and vague, unrelated lifestyle campaigns. Breitling’s experience was exactly a publicity stunt—an extreme example of one. But rather than inventing relationships to seem “relevant,” at least it felt like the brand staying true its early aviation ties to me. Was it ostentatious and completely over the top? Absolutely. Then again, so is a $25,000 watch.