Nigel Lamb knows all about ups and downs – as an aerobatic pilot his life is filled with them. Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he applied to the air force aged just 11, seven years before he finally got in.
And 40 years later, he’s got the skills to show for it. He’s the only pilot to have won the British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship eight times in a row, and was crowned Red Bull Air Race World Champion in 2014.
But, as well as knowing how to win, Lamb believes a true champ must also know when to quit. This will be his last year competing in the Red Bull Air Race and that, he says, has given him exactly the focus he needs to go for the coveted trophy one last time.
THE RED BULLETIN: You applied to the air force at 11 and got in at 18. What kept you pushing to be a pilot?
NIGEL LAMB: My father had been a fighter pilot in World War II and I read all his flying books. We lived on a farm in the mountains in Rhodesia, hundreds of miles from the nearest airport, but I’d watch the eagles soaring. I wanted to see the Earth from above, to be free on all three dimensions and fly like a bird. The only option available to me was as a military pilot.
Four decades later you’re still in the cockpit. Do you ever lose that drive?
I had a moment at the end of 1993. I’d been doing formation display flying in England for 13 years – 100 displays every season – and really wanted a change. That opened doors and pathways into film flying, World War II vintage flights, the Red Bull Air Race – all different challenges, but all using the same skill set.
So your doubt turned into inspiration?
I didn’t doubt what I was doing, I just felt stale and I was going to do the same thing for another year. People would bite your arm off to have that opportunity, but I’d done it for 13 years. I’m a great believer in determining your own path, not succumbing to that feeling that you need to do anything in particular. You’ve really got to create your own destiny.
You did that in 2014 when you won the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. After nine years trying, did you start to doubt yourself?
The doldrum years were a long hard road, because you don’t know if it’s you or the machine. Is it your strategy, the way you’re flying? But I always believed that once we got things right with the equipment that I was capable, and the team was capable and willing. I never lost that belief.
Then a year later, you lost the title. What happened?
I’d like to win every race – it’s like food, it nourishes us, the desire to win. So my objective for 2015 was to win. The mistake I made was, in pursuit of improving the plane, I went down a route that in time and resources was impossible to accomplish – then I stuck with it. It was self-inflicted.
How do you come back from defeat?
With great difficulty. But if you can’t learn to pick yourself up, you’re never going to win, because there are more downs than ups. It’s a mental game.
This is your final year competing in the Red Bull Air Race. How do you know when to walk away?
This sport requires passion and the desire to win every race. I know I’ve got this year in me, but I don’t want to find myself in the future thinking that maybe I’m going to stop and it’s still mid-season.
Did making the decision push you to try harder?
No, it’s given me a sense of release. Everyone knows what the goal is – to win the battle and really enjoy this season. But it’s a comfortable feeling knowing this is my last one, so I’ve really got to make it count.
If you win will you think, “Maybe I can win one more”?
Maybe. But in 2014 some of my relatives said, “Now you’ve won it, isn’t it a good time to stop?’” I wasn’t ready – it wasn’t a question then. But it is now.
So you want to finish on a high…
Wanting to do one more season would be a stronger feeling in me if I didn’t have a good solid season this year, so I’m in it to win. It’s a mind game.