I believe I can fly

September 14, 2011

By Denis Balibouse

Everybody dreams of flying. Some have even burnt their wings trying to do it. So far, I’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks to my work as a photographer I’ve been lucky enough to experience flight in many different aircraft. I’ve flown in helicopters, paragliders and ultralight planes. I even did jobs for a well-known soft-drink company that proudly asserts that one of its products ‘gives you wings’.

On September 14, I moved one step higher up the ladder when I sat just behind the pilot of an L-39 C Albatros as part of a media demonstration flight prior to the air show in Sion, western Switzerland.

It all started a few weeks earlier when I contacted the air show’s press department about the possibility of placing a couple of Gopro cameras in the cockpit of some planes. I was hoping to have access to four or five aircraft in order to show different angles.

Asking well in advance often means organizers are still in the planning stages, allowing them to include press requests more easily. In my experience, last-minute requests generally result in disappointment.

After a couple of days I received an email telling me that there was indeed room for my cameras and also for me, as they were planning a demonstration flight for the press a couple of days before the event.

We arrived 90 minutes before take-off and were given a short briefing. A description of the maneuvers that we — sorry, they — were going to perform and of what we were allowed to touch in the cockpit, i.e: nothing. They gave us a description of the few red buttons and handles: remove glass, eject seat etc. And yes, you don’t want to touch them.

We would feel forces of up to 5Gs (as opposed to the 8Gs that the pilots will experience on the weekend when they fly without media passengers). If we felt sick we were to let them know, as they are able to bring us back to terra firma at any time. But that was not part of my plan, which was to combine work and enjoyment at the same time. The leader then allowed us to take our cameras with us into the jets.

I walked to the aircraft with a colleague from the Swiss agency Keystone, both of us aware of the influence of Top Gun on the pilots. They all have the glasses and the attitude. Since they are not military, and are owned by a Swiss watch company, they are probably encouraged to bring some Tom Cruise-style glamor to their work.

My pilot for the day was Christophe ‘Douky’ Deketelaere. With the help of mechanic David Champion I got into the cockpit. We switched on the radio, made the final checks and were aligned on the tarmac with the five other planes.

(Reuters photographer Denis Balibouse gets ready for take-off in the L-39 C Albatros aircraft before a media presentation flight of the Breitling Jet Team in Sion. Courtesy of Sacha Bittel/Le Nouvelliste)

Take off was relatively smooth, given that I was expecting to be flattened to my seat. We joined a standard formation and performed a couple of nice turns over the airport. Then we headed downwards, at speeds of 600km/h (370 m/h). Douky announced that we were going to make a loop and then I really was stuck to my seat. It was impossible to lift my camera, thanks to the G force. At the top of the loop, the pressure eased and the scenery was superb: mountains and blue sky. All too quickly though, we were on the way down and the G force struck back.

During the flight Douky sang; I told him he’d left the radio on. He then asked if he should switch to the sport channel and start commentating on a soccer game. I realized we were making another loop. This time I kept my camera up and managed to take a few pictures.

These were the fastest 20 minutes of my life, but also some of the most enjoyable.

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