The way Mojo tells it, a tail slide sounds harrowing.
“The jet goes vertical,” he says, demonstrating with his hand angled up at the sky. “Then the engine stops, and the plane starts flying backward” in a free fall.
Mojo, also known as Jeff Jess, is a support pilot and ground-crew member for the Patriots Jet Team, which will perform over Lake Washington in place of the popular Blue Angels during this weekend’s Seafair festivities.
When federal-government sequestration loomed, Seafair President Beth Knox said, she immediately booked the Patriots for the next two years, in case the Blue Angels weren’t available. If both teams could have flown this year, they would have. Knox is holding out hope they will next year.
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With the Blue Angels grounded, the Patriots are the main attraction. It isn’t the first time Seattle crowds will have seen them, though — the Patriots have flown in the festival twice before, in 2007 and 2008.
The Patriots might have been the backup plan, but they are no group of amateurs. The team boasts decades of military experience, its pilots having flown U.S. Air Force Mustangs and Thunderbirds, and Canadian Air Force Snowbirds. One is even a former Navy Blue Angel pilot.
Based in Byron, Calif., near Oakland, they now pilot six Czechoslovokian-made L-39 jets. The Patriots are the only stunt team that performs a tail slide in a jet, a particularly dangerous move because it’s done at such low altitude, and it risks engine failure or a spinout if wind hits the engine or wings the wrong way.
The secret to keeping that from happening? Carefully angling the plane at 78 degrees so it falls and levels out correctly.
Short answer, “don’t screw it up,” Jess says.
The tail slide is the riskiest part of the Patriots’ routine, but not the only danger. In a crossover break, four jets cross paths at high speed, a maneuver designed to appear from the ground as though they’re hurtling right at each other. Another involves two going into synchronized rolls.
The L-39s fly lower, slower and quieter than the Angels, Jess said. But that makes for a better stunt show, he said. The planes are closer, the maneuvers are easier to see, and the Patriots’ bypass engines don’t pass with the earsplitting crack that can make a Blue Angels demonstration unbearable for some. Since they don’t go as fast, they also don’t take as much time to turn around, and a plane is in front of the audience about every 10 to 20 seconds.
This will be the third show over Lake Washington for former Blue Angel pilot Scott “Banker” Ind, and his first not in the trademark blue F-18.
The 50-year-old Minnesota native, who most recently flew with the Blue Angels in 2000, jokingly referred to himself one of the “old, retired guys.” He said flying the L-39 in the six-plane formation is more difficult than with the F-18.
But he said the Patriots, several of whom work as commercial-airline pilots, are every bit as tight-knit and experienced a group as their Navy counterparts.
“They know the airplane inside and out,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the group of people we have on this team.
“We’re a bunch of yahoos, but we really aren’t yahoos.”
Colin Campbell: 206-464-2033 or firstname.lastname@example.org