Most widely known for their work shooting high-speed action scenes in their specially modified Aero Vodochody L–39 Albatros for Top Gun: Maverick and upcoming aerial war epic, Devotion, the Patriots Jet Team in Byron, California, offers more to the world of aviation than meets the eye.
Former United Airlines captain and Patriots Jet Team pilot and founder Randy Howell always knew he wanted to be a pilot. “When I was about six years old,” Howell said, “my dad took me to an airshow where the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds were flying. He asked me, ‘When you get older would you like to do that?’ and I said, ‘I want to have my own jet and do that.’ So it was long ago that I had this vision…it was something on my radar that I wanted my own jet and to fly airshows and later it became the Patriots Jet Team…and before that I had another team with Mig-17s…My passion is flying formation airshows in the L–39s. I’ve been flying airshows all of my life, and that’s our primary purpose, that’s what we started out to do.”
Since its inception in 2003, the Patriots Jet Team has grown from a two-ship to a six-ship aerobatic formation team performing at airshows across the western United States.
When Howell isn’t performing with his team or shooting aviation films, you’ll find him focusing on another one of his passions, aviation safety.
“I’ve always been interested in safety and promoting safety in our industry.” Howell said, “I was coming home in a Sabreliner from an airshow…and I had read about In-N-Out Burger’s Westwind that got behind wake turbulence from a United [Boeing] 757 at the John Wayne Airport. At 1,100 feet they got rolled inverted and they hit the ground.” The accident killed four people, including In-N-Out’s president and executive vice president, COO. “I thought, that would never have happened to me,” Howell continued, “so I stopped by the aerobatic box…and I said to the co-pilot, ‘Let’s start this maneuver at 11,100 feet, 10,000 feet will be our hard deck.’ I was positive that I would not hit the ground if that were me. I rolled the airplane upside down and executed what I thought was proper execution for a recovery like that and I ended up recovering at 7,200 feet, I was about 2,800 feet into the hard deck…I thought I could do anything in a Sabreliner, I just didn’t realize how specific the recovery procedures are.”
After some research and trial and error, Howell said, “I realized that there is a very specific recovery technique for a corporate airplane or an airliner to recover, so I started perfecting it. That’s what really got me interested and I thought, this is important, I want to save lives.”
While the majority of pilots complete their upset recovery training in small, general aviation, piston aircraft, Howell believes the only way to properly train corporate pilots for upset recovery is to use an aircraft that closely resembles the type of aircraft they would be flying—a corporate jet.
“We teach corporate and airline pilots how to recover from extreme unusual attitudes…and I don’t mean just pilots that have never been upside down in their life, I’m talking about airline pilots, corporate pilots, that were prior airshow pilots or military pilots…There’s a huge difference being upside down in a Hornet or a Viper, than there is being upside down in a corporate airplane.
In an upset, it’s mandatory to get that full aileron deflection in there to get the airplane right side up again. We find that a lot of folks, no matter their background, have a tendency once we get them in this attitude [upside down] in a Sabreliner, in a corporate airplane, they push the right amount, but their tendency is not to get the yoke all the way over to the stop.”
Corporate pilots often get caught off guard in these upset scenarios due to negative training. Howell explains, “You take a small airplane with a stick, a full canopy that you can see out of and see the ground clearly, versus looking out the little windows of a corporate jet, and not knowing exactly what attitude you’re in…and the instructor says, ‘This airplane rolls at 400 degrees per second. Your airplane rolls at 40 degrees per second. We’re going to just put in small inputs to simulate that 40 degree per second roll rate.’ That causes negative training and tells you that you only need this slight input because that’s the way you train for your upset training. That’s why it’s so important to train in a corporate airplane.”
The Patriots Jet Team upset recovery program utilizes the Aero L-39C single-engine fighter-trainer and the North American Sabreliner 60 corporate jet, for its two-day course. Since receiving FAA
approval in 2008 to perform upset training in the Sabreliner 60, the program remains the only one of its kind in the United States to utilize a corporate jet in the full acrobatic envelope. The North American Sabreliner 60 is a T-39 in the military and is authorized for aerobatic flight. They are rated for up to 3 Gs, but as Howell explains, “The Navy and Air Force pulled 5 Gs daily with them and they’ve never had a structural failure.”
The majority of pilots who go through the Patriots upset recovery program are typically enrolled by large corporations seeking to protect their executives and aircraft investments. But the uptick in privately owned corporate jet ownership has also brought more individual pilots seeking out the program.
You can more about the Patriots Jet Team and their upset recovery program on their website.