Privately-owned fighter jets take to East Bay skies

March 29, 2010 6:24:12 PM PDT
They are an elite team of fighter pilots, but don't expect them to be fighting in any military battles -- this squadron is civilian owned. Meet the Patriots Jet Team.

Just over the Altamont Pass, the town of Byron sits nestled among the rolling hills in the Sacramento Delta. As horses roam open fields, wind turbines gently turn the breeze into energy. It is certainly not the place you would expect to find a squadron of fighter jets.

"The Patriots Jet Team is the only civilian-owned aerobatic jet team in America," said Michael Temby.

The Patriots Jet Team flies in air shows across the country. The amateur aerobatic team is the only one of its kind flying decommissioned MiG-17 and L-39 fighter jets. The planes were bought from the Czech Republic.

"Those aircrafts are purchased oversees, shipped in an ocean container to the Byron Airport to our maintenance hangar where these aircrafts are restored," said Temby.

Jeff Jess stumbled on the Patriots Jet Team four years ago after touring with the Blue Angels. He is now the head of jet operations.

"Getting the opportunity to fly these jets literally is a dream come true," said Jess. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to wake up."

He is also part of a team of volunteers who keep the planes flying.

"It could be from stripping paint to taking a canopy apart, taking the ejection seat apart, doing routine maintenance, to tightening screws or changing an engine," said Jeff Jenkins.

The planes are flown by professional pilots, but owned by former commercial pilot Randy Howell.

"I flew for United Airlines for 26 years," said Howell.

He started the Patriots Jet Team eight years ago with sponsorship from Frys.com.

"Many people wouldn't be able to afford to do it on their own, but it's amazing when you become a team and I am just one piece of the puzzle," he said.

Howell lives in Discovery Bay and says putting the planes in Byron was just convenient -- they had the space. However, it has provided the launching pad for what Howell hopes will become a larger educational campaign to get kids interested in flying.

"We hope to show the next generation of pilots that they can be the next generation," he said.

Howell is now in the process of turning the Patriots into a non-profit.

"We do this because it's a passion to all of us. Flying is in our blood," said Howell. "There's not a person on the team that's not a true aviator in every sense, whether they're a pilot or not."

Both the pilots and planes have to be specially certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. That is probably a good thing, when you consider one of those restored planes can be worth as much as $300,000.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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