|Taking air racing to a whole new level, the Red Bull Air Race pits pilots, such as Kirby Chambliss, against not only the clock, but also pylons spaced 33 to 45 feet apart—all while executing specific low-level, high-G aerobatic maneuvers.|
Reno 2004: The single red and blue airplane comes screaming downhill from 1,000 feet toward the twin pylons, passes through the center of the short gap between them and starts the race. Then, inexplicably, the airplane does an 8 G pull up to vertical, rolls past a wingover to inverted and dives straight back down toward the ground. It’s called the Red Bull Air Race, and it’s a type of competition no one in the U.S. has seen before.
If you’ve been to an air race or merely seen one on TV, you know the usual drill. A half-dozen or more pilots fly 10 to 12 laps around a three-to-nine-mile oval pylon course, and the one who crosses the finish line first wins (usually). That’s the way most air races have been run for nearly a century. Airplanes fly at high speeds close to the ground. Exciting stuff, but nothing new.
Now, there is something new in air racing. The Red Bull Air Race World Series is as different from conventional air racing as Formula One is from NASCAR. Sponsored by Red Bull Energy Drinks, the series was introduced in Europe in 2003 with only a half-dozen competitors, but it was remarkably successful.
A product of the fertile imagination of aerobatic pilot Peter Besenyei, the Red Bull Air Race is different from anything you’ve seen before. In keeping with the vertical and inverted nature of aerobatic flying, three-time world aerobatic champion Besenyei reasoned that airplane racing should be more of a three-dimensional sport, and accordingly, the Red Bull races are a cross between high-G, low-level, air-show maneuvers and conventional, closed-course pylon racing.
Pilots fly individually against the clock on a tight, 2,000-meter course that keeps most of the action directly in front of the crowd rather than several miles away. Competitors must fly a specific attitude (usually knife-edge or straight-and-level) between five sets of inflated pylon gates that stand only 60 feet tall, meanwhile maneuvering through a slalom-style course. Distance between the twin rubber cones that comprise each gate varies from 33 to 45 feet, depending upon the difficulty of the entry and exit maneuvers. Despite the tight course, racers typically reach speeds as high as 250 mph on some diving recoveries. Turns between pylons can be so tight that they demand an up-and-over in order to make the radius to the next pylon gate.
Pilots not only must navigate the course between pylon pairs in minimum time, they’re required to execute specific maneuvers during the flight, usually a four-point roll, a two-of-four-point vertical roll, two low-level knife-edge passes in opposite directions between two pylons and a 11⁄4 vertical roll-up followed immediately by a touch-and-go landing on a specified section of adjacent runway. The latter sounds almost impossible out of a near-vertical dive, so Besenyei made it even tougher. To compound the difficulty, the runway touchdown mat is only 39 feet long, and penalties are assessed if the aircraft touches ground outside the center 12-foot target zone.
There are three possible flight plans for the course to keep things challenging for the racers and interesting for spectators. All use the same basic plan form, but specify different maneuvers in varied sequences. Time penalties of two, five or 10 seconds are assessed for flying too high through the pylons, any in-complete or missed maneuver, missing or touching a pylon and failing to touch down inside the designated zone on the touch-and-go. To be competitive, a racer must fly the course clean, with no deductions. In a recent competition, the winning margin was only .03 seconds.
(Interestingly, one cause for total disqualification is “hitting an obstacle with one’s propeller.” This has happened several times, fortunately, with no consequence worse than a bruised ego. Pylons are made of thin rubber designed to disintegrate on contact. So while a collision may be temporarily disorienting, it’ll simply destroy the pylon, not the airplane.)
Unlike standard, closed-course py-lon racing where virtually any decent pilot with a penchant for speed, reasonable formation skills and enough money to afford a race plane can compete, Red Bull racing demands expert aerobatic skills plus a fast, highly maneuverable airplane and a willingness to fly close to the edge. By definition, all competitors must be comfortable flying acro to the limits of the performance and control envelope, a special skill confined to a select group of aviators and a special type of airplane.
Red Bull kicked off the series in 2003 with two events, one in Austria and the other in Peter Besenyei’s home country of Hungary. In 2004, the schedule included three races, two in Europe and the third in the U.S. The first of the 2004 events was held in June at Kemble Air Day in Gloucestershire, U.K., the second in August at Budapest, Hungary. The latter race attracted several hundred thousand fans who lined the banks of Budapest’s Danube River to witness a wild race on a course that demanded a flight beneath the city’s famous Chain Bridge. (Imagine trying to get the American FAA to approve that.)
The final race of the season was held in conjunction with the world’s premier racing venue, the 41st Annual National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev. Eight pilots flew in each of the competitions, and the Red Bull Air Race World Series Championship was decided at the Reno event.
|Courtesy of Red Bull|
The eight pilots who were invited to compete for the top prize at Reno included some of the best aviators from the U.S. and Europe. All are former or current national or world aerobatic champions or established air-show performers.
Predictably, the pilots fly some of the world’s most agile high-performance aerobatic mounts. The French CAP 232 is a dedicated aerobatic airplane that has carried its pilots to more world medals than any other type. Walter Extra’s remarkable German Extra 300 is a total favorite of air-show performers around the world, and they include U.S. Aerobatic Champion Patty Wag-staff. The Russian Sukhoi has been a star on the aerobatic circuit for years, both in its initial SU-26 and later SU-31 versions. Perhaps the most popular of the Red Bull aircraft, however, is the Edge 540, an all-American product.
Red Bull racer Kirby Chambliss of Flying Crown Ranch, Ariz., flies an Edge, and he’s convinced the airplane is one of the secrets of his success. Chambliss is a four-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion and 2000 World Champion. Chambliss won both the Budapest and Gloucestershire events in 2004. A Southwest Airlines 737 captain in real life, Chambliss is an air-show pilot during his off time, flying the Edge 540 in air shows across the U.S. and Canada.
“From the beginning to the end, the Red Bull competition is a high-G, high-performance environment,” says Chambliss. “I need to keep the turn radius as small as possible on each pylon, and that means I’ll be pulling 8, 9 or even 10 G’s. If you expect to win, you need to shave off every second you possibly can and fly the shortest possible distance through the course.”
Chambliss’ Edge 540 is well-suited for that kind of mission. The airplane’s Lycoming AEIO-540 engine is pumped up to an 11.5-to-one compression ratio and delivers an impressive 350 hp. With only 1,183 pounds to lift, the Edge sports a power loading of only 3.4 pounds per hp, among the lowest of any aerobatic airplane. “My airplane is the closest thing you can get to a rocket ship with wings,” says Chambliss.
The Edge, which is a product of ZAI Aeronautics in Guthrie, Okla., offers a climb rate near 4,000 fpm and a top speed close to 200 knots. “I can recover lost energy faster from a slow speed and accelerate much quicker than some other airplanes because of the airplane’s extremely light weight as well as plenty of horsepower,” boasts Chambliss.
The Edge also is incredibly maneuverable. Huge ailerons help the airplane roll at 420 degrees per second. “Outstanding acceleration and quick maneuvering are especially important on such a tight course,” explains Chambliss. “The quicker you can get the airplane to the attitude, altitude and airspeed you need, the quicker you’ll get through the course. In short, we need all the performance we can get for this type of racing.”
The ground is another factor that plays a major role in Red Bull competition. “Unlike standard unlimited aerobatic competition where the floor of the box is 300 feet AGL,” says Chambliss, “we sometimes fly as low as 30 to 40 feet during a race, so the margin for error is considerably less, especially when you’re covering the equivalent of a football field each second.
“Most of us don’t worry too much about the danger of Red Bull racing. We’re too busy concentrating on getting through the course. But we’re flying so close to the ground that there’s practically no room for any mistake. Perhaps surprisingly, the most dangerous maneuver we do is one of the slowest, the touch-and-go landing following the 11⁄4 vertical roll-up,” comments Kirby Chambliss. “You’re coming steeply downhill from 500 feet with a high rate of descent in a fully cross-controlled slip with power practically at idle. You need to arrest that sink rate just right to touch the target at exactly the right speed. Touch down too fast or too hard, and you could damage the landing gear or possibly even wipe out the airplane. On the other hand, let the airplane decelerate to a comfortable landing speed to assure hitting the target zone, and you’ll lose time.”
The field at Reno last year included Chambliss and Besenyei plus Amer-ican acro experts Mike Goulian, Dave Martin and Mike Mangold, Brits Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones, and German Klaus Schrodt. In addition to a trio of Edge 540s, a pair of Russian Sukhois, two French CAP 232s and a German Extra 300 participated in the Reno Red Bull event.
When the final race times were tallied at Reno, former Air Force Academy graduate, as well as F-4 Phantom fighter pilot and current American Airlines 767 captain Mike Mangold was the winner. Like most of his fellow racers, Mangold is an aerobatic champion and an avid sky diver as well. Mangold finished nine seconds in front of Chambliss, who had a series of time penalties. Air-show pilot Mike Goulian was third, and Peter Besenyei finished fourth. The Red Bull Air Race World Series was a major draw everywhere it appeared in 2003 and 2004, and the energy-drink sponsor promises that the 2005 racing schedule will be even more exciting.
For more information on the Red Bull Air Race, call (310) 460-5020 or log on to www.redbullairrace.com. Get really up close and personal with the Red Bull Air Race by visiting the Red Bull Copilot interactive Website at www.redbullcopilot.com.