When it comes to display flying, Geri Krähenbühl is a master of the art. The Chief Test Pilot for Airbus Defence and Space based in Manching, Geri has performed countless displays both in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the 40s vintage Messerschmitt 262. Each aircraft type presents a different challenge but when it comes to any display, Geri has three principles — and a mantra based on five Ps — that guide him.
The first principle is to remember exactly who he is looking to please. In truth the only people Geri is really concerned with trying to impress – or entertain – are the members of the public who turn out in great numbers to the air shows. He has his own ‘ice cream’ test to check if his display is hitting the mark.
“In my view air show display flying is meant for the public, not the pilots. That’s the most important thing to remember. For me some displays look great, but are too low. They’re probably a rush for the pilot carrying out the manoeuvres but it’s no good if half the crowd aren’t able to see it properly. I think it is essential that everyone can see my display.
“I could do the best low flight path ever, or the most thrilling flight path, but if the crowd start to go for an ice cream while I am flying then I have failed.”
The second principle for Geri is to show off the positives of the aircraft he’s been asked to display.
“With the Eurofighter I love to perform verticals.” A crowd-pleasing take off where the aircraft turns skyward and heads up at 90 degrees. “Taking off vertically, performing a loop and coming back to the airfield. If you look at some other aircraft types they have to do oblique stuff before they get enough energy to go vertical. Eurofighter can go straight into the vertical.
“We celebrate this and try to show the performance of the aircraft right from the opening move. As an industry display pilot, you want to highlight where the aircraft has the edge on a rival. That’s the major difference between an air force and an industry display pilot. There might be thrilling manoeuvres, but if a rival aircraft could offer similar performance then we wouldn’t be interested in doing it because we are simply doing the same thing — which we don’t want. The air force pilot has a different perspective; they just focus on putting on a good public display.”
So for an industry display pilot like Geri there is an onus on him to ‘sell’ the performance of the product, but there is more to it for him. It’s about professionalism.
It’s not that we have to fly in a certain way, but it is fun to show the aeroplane in routines that other people can’t perform.
“I would not say we are part of the sales process. The sales team is happy with the way we fly a display. But if we did it differently, they would still be happy because they wouldn’t really notice the difference. But a fellow pi-lot can tell and can see what we can do in our aircraft compared to what they can do in theirs. And for us this difference in performance is the thing we like to highlight.”
Eurofighter Typhoon takes starring role at Airpower 2013
RAF 6 Squadron Eurofighter Typhoons on Exercise Bersama Lima 11
Eurofighter Typhoons at Air Power 2013, Austria
Eurofighter Typhoon Secure Airspace during the World Economic Forum 2015 in Davos
During a display the aircraft is pushed to the limits which means lots of G-forces pounding the body. But this is another area where Typhoon excels.
“If you just do one display for six minutes or so, it’s not too bad,” says Geri. “I was once asked to do three sessions in a day because the weather was good and we had the air-craft available. After the third display I was really wasted. One display is OK because the G-protection on the aircraft is phenomenal. Over my career, I have been lucky enough to fly 55 different aircraft and the Eurofighter has the best G-protection I have ever known. It’s a quantum leap forward from others I’ve experienced.”
With huge crowds to entertain, fellow professionals watching their every move, the physical and mental demands and routines that take their machines to the max, there’s a degree of pressure before each flight.
Not surprisingly Geri prepares for each display just like a top class athlete might ahead of a big race. He gets into the zone and blots out the world.
“In the hour before the display I go through a process of calming down, it’s almost like meditating. I try hard to blank out the public, the management team and the media inter-views. I try to find a quiet corner, to calm down and relax but at the same time think through the manoeuvres and the sequence. I think about the weather, the local topography and the geography around the airfield.
“Then when I climb into the cockpit I try to stay relaxed – my mind is on my work, not the crowds. Before take off I don’t have any sensation in my body, I just try to achieve a very calm state. I look out down the runway and stay focused. When the burner kicks in, I wake up!
“As soon as you sense the pure power of the Eurofighter on take off you come alive. The after burners fire up, you take off. That’s the wake up call.
The display is like a dance. You get the rhythm, and then you start to do the dance with the aircraft through the skies.
Gaining a seat in a display aircraft isn’t easy. Only the very best and most experienced get the call, but one glance at Geri’s CV proves he’s got the right credentials. Born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1963, he is in fact unusual for a pilot because he didn’t have much interest in aeroplanes until about the age of 16.
Then, after reading a magazine article, it became something of an obsession. “All hell broke loose,” he says. Despite relatively small numbers of professional pilots in Switzerland, Geri was selected and earned his wings in 1985. An incredibly varied career — taking in a host of roles and aircraft — has followed.
“I am really spoilt. Every day I look out of the cockpit window and give thanks for my life.”
That said he doesn’t take anything for granted, which brings us to Geri’s third guide rule: preparation.
“One key question I have when I am asked to display is what is the airfield like. You need to be aware of everything: the positions of the sun, the noise, whether it’s close to mountains and so on. You need to understand what parts of your display might not work in that particular area.
It’s all about the 5Ps — Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!
“Then you also have to prepare thoroughly. It starts with simulator training. I would usually book two hour slots each day for two weeks, though it depends on the topography. After the simulator training I carry on the preparations in the aircraft.
Display pilots are perfectionists. They try to make sure they never have a wing tip out of place but rarely do they ever feel they were 100 percent successful. In this respect Geri, though hugely experienced, is no exception.
“For me, I will never be satisfied. I came close a couple of years ago when I was given the opportunity to fly six days in a row and the last display was almost perfect. I think I said at the time I couldn’t do it better!
“But if I did the same display next year I would have to start from scratch. The more you do it, the smoother it gets, and the more satisfied you become. It is also important not to be too self-confident or satisfied too early into the display. There are some thrills in there, but also a lot of professionalism, other-wise you wouldn’t survive. It’s only when you land and it’s over that you start to see the public and acknowledge them.”
Public adulation for the stars of the show is understandable but it’s an aspect of the process many pilots feel uncomfortable with. The rock star exaltation isn’t what Geri dreams of.
“Unfortunately, it comes with the territory but it’s not natural. Outside of the displays, I am just Geri and nobody would recognise me in the street or the park. I don’t want fame. For me it’s far better to have a beer with my counterparts, talking and having a few laughs.”
For a man who dazzles in the skies, Geri is very grounded. Take away the drama and the theatre and what you’re left with is a very thorough professional. Who just happens to be doing an incredible job.