Plane & Pilot
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Crewing For Red Bull, Down Under

Race pilots fly an awe-inspiring competition, but they can’t do it alone

red bullAt the closing ceremonies of each Red Bull Air Race, there’s always a jubilant atmosphere. Pilots douse each other in champagne, confetti fills the air, everyone cheers and countless autographs are signed. The racers have worked hard and deserve such a moment. But away from the fanfare, crew members have just as much reason to celebrate. Mechanics, ferry pilots and managers have given their all to help the pilots succeed and have also earned the right to be proud. “Our pilots represent us,” says Lance Winter, mechanic for the 2006 series winner, Kirby Chambliss. “If they do well, we have done well.”
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red bullIt was immediately evident that Red Bull Air Race crew members are given an enormous amount of responsibility, which begins well before the racing does. To transport airplanes between sites, they’re disassembled, loaded into shipping containers and trucked to hangars at a temporary runway—in Perth, a riverside park was transformed into an immaculately manicured grass strip that any pilot would drool over—where they’re reassembled and test-flown. “It’s difficult, dirty work, but it has to be done properly,” says Len Rulason, an A&P mechanic and aerobatic pilot who crewed for Kirby in 2006 and British racer Steve Jones in 2007. “Steve typically has five days of obligation per Red Bull Air Race; I usually do 10.”

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Frank Versteegh races knife-edge in his Edge 540 through a challenging course of inflatable pylons, reaching speeds of up to 250 mph (above). Pilots Nicolas Ivanoff and Peter Besenyei celebrate Mike Mangold's 2007 series victory (below).
Jason Resop, Kirby’s Crew Chief of four years, will test-fly the Edge 540 if Kirby isn’t on the scene yet. “My job is to make sure everything is 100% okay and that the airplane is always ready to fly,” he explains. “If something breaks, it has to be fixed right away.” The international Red Bull Air Race circuit has a following that brings NASCAR to mind, and pilots can be easily distracted by sponsor obligations, media and zealous fans (6,000 of which lined up on Qualifying Day for the public pit lane walk—one named her newborn in honor of Kirby, another asked him to pose with his favorite stuffed kangaroo). “I need to concentrate on flying, and the last thing I want to worry about is if the airplane is in good shape,” said Kirby before I watch him beeline to the airplane without a walk-around. “My preflight checklist only has one item: open the canopy. My crew understands that if they make a mistake, it may cost a life.”

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2007 Series Results
Top Five of Thirteen
1. Mike Mangold USA
2. Paul Bonhomme GBR
3. Peter Besenyei HUN
4. Kirby Chambliss USA
5. Steve Jones GBR


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