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Look, up in the sky

It's definitely a plane as the Breitling Jet Team soars in for a little loop-the-loop



High-performance aeroplanes will be roaring through the skies next week as the Breitling Jet Team arrives in Thailand for an amazing display of aerobatic prowess.

"The public shouldn't panic if they see the jets flying low. They'll also be taking some tourism shots for a couple of days," says Air Chief Marshal Thongchai Chalamket, who is heading the air show's working committee.

Based in Dijon, France, and sponsored by the Swiss watchmaker Breitling, the team is touring the region in celebration of their 10th anniversary. The magnificent men in their flying machines have already stunned spectators in China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Jacques Bothelin will lead his team of pilots, Bernard Charbonnel, Christophe Deketellaere, Francois Ponsot, Frederic Schwebel, Philippe Laloix, Patrick Marchand and Philippe Duclos, as they put their planes through their paces next Saturday morning over the Don Muang Air Force Base. The team flies the Aero L-39 Albatros, a jet trainer developed in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

The show will also feature aerobatic manoeuvres by Royal Thai Air Force pilots, who will demonstrate their Swedish-made Gripen fighters as well American-made F-16s. The Gripen is a lightweight single-engine multi-role fighter based in Surat Thani while the F-16 wing flies out of Nakhon Ratchasima.

"The event will open with an aerobatic show by the Royal Thai Air Force team. We want to show off the abilities of our Thai pilots and give people the chance to see the aircraft that protect our country," says the air chief marshal.

The event will also be in celebration of the March 27 commemoration Day, which marks the formation of Royal Thai Army Air Force in 1914, and Royal Thai Air Force Day in observance of the founding of the separate military branch on April 9, 1939.

Before their Bangkok visit, the Breitling fliers will linger over Surat Thani to capture aerial images, says aviation photographer Katsuhiko Tokunaga.

"We want to make a connection between Thailand's culture and the team," says Tokunaga, who captured the air-to-air pictures of Thailand's fighter aircraft for the last year's coffee table book "Over the Horizon: Legends of Air Power".

"We are planning to take some pictures over several tourist attractions including Angthong Island on the west coast because we are told the sea there is amazing green," Tokunaga says. The team will also be shooting over Koh Samui, ratchaprapa Dam in Surat's Khao Sok National Park, parts of Prachuab Khiri Khan. "In bangkok, we will take pictures over the city and plan to capture the Bhumibol Bridge and other bridges," he adds.

The 56-year-old shutterbug specialises in air-to-air photography and has worked for many aircraft manufacturers, including Dassault, Embraer, Eurofighter, Korean Aerospace and Lockheed Martin.

He started his career in 1978 in the back seat of a US Air Force T-33A Shooting Star and has since flown 60 jets in more than 50 countries, logging 1,500 flight hours. He has also flown with and photographed Britain's Royal Air Force Red Arrows, Japan's Blue Impulse, the US Air Force Thunderbirds and the US Navy Blue Angels.

In 1989, the American Aviation Historical Society named him the Best Aviation Photographer in the world.

"The time for taking pictures in the air is very limited. When you take off, you have to run. You need efficiency for the flight. Preparing for the flight is very important," says Tokunaga, who usually shoots 60 to 70 pictures during the Breitling Jet Team's 25-minute display.

With only sky and planes showing in the air-to-air pictures, how can he possibly tell the difference between his aerial shoots in, say, China or the Philippines?

"It's difficult to say, but you know. The sky in different countries has a different character, so you actually feel it. In China, for example, there's a lot of pollution. We went to the Philippines and Indonesia in the rainy season but we were still able to fly. However, none of these countries had a 100-per-cent blue sky like Thailand."

Safety is the main priority, Tokunaga says.

"Our first aim isn't taking a picture but to land everybody safely. Taking the picture is secondary," he says.

And while the profession of aviation photographer attracts a good deal of interest, Tokunaga says only a few make it to the top.

"It's very much a niche market," he says.

Flying high

_ The Breiting Jet Team will perform at Don Muang Air Force Base next Saturday at 9.30am. Admission is free.

_ Find out more at www.breitling-jet-team.com






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