’Behind the airplane.’ This is not a phrase any pilot wants to hear. It refers to a situation of less than full control, reacting to events rather than premeditating them. It’s the point where you stop flying the plane and the plane starts flying you. It’s something all pilots try to avoid, but particularly those in the high-speed world of air racing, where the clearest mind has the advantage.
Red Bull Air Race pilots spend hours visualizing their course. Some sit staring into space, simply picturing the air gates; others physically construct a scale model of the course in their hangars, walking through it over and over again. The latter has brought a new phrase into the sport: the can dance. In the can dance, cans of Red Bull are arranged to represent air-gate pylons. They’re placed precisely on the airplane hangar floor and the pilots weave in and out, sometimes with eyes closed, looking for all the world like men performing a ritual dance in praise of … who knows what?
The dance changes with every round of the championship: The core components of the course remain the same, but the layout evolves to suit the geography, so every race requires a new set of rehearsals. The intent is the same, though: to mentally prepare the pilot to perform maneuvers at racing speeds and racing G-forces. Combined with training laps, it’s designed to confine qualifying and race runs to muscle memory, divorced from the ticking of the stopwatch and pressures of competition.
The best of the best are the ones who can most clearly visualize their lap. Like F1 racer Ayrton Senna or NBA star Anthony Davis, in their groove, the elite of the Red Bull Air Race simply look like they have more time to make their moves. They are, in effect, ahead of the airplane.
is The Red Bull Air Race world champion of 2009 and 2010. When the series returned in 2014, Bonhomme picked up two victories and finished the championship in third position, which is approximately two places lower than anything he’d be satisfied with.
Flying is the Bonhomme family business, though Paul entered at the very bottom, sweeping the floors at his local airfield before progressing to aerobatics, flight instruction and finally civil aviation, rising to become a 747 captain for British Airways.
Bonhomme can frequently be found flying vintage World War II fighter aircraft or appearing with Steve Jones as one half of the Matadors formation aerobatic display team.
The start gate
This is what counts
The perfect lap begins before it begins. The run to the first gate is a pilot’s final chance to visualize his run, but it’s also a busy time with lots to do, not least of which is ensuring he stays under the 200-knot (230 mph) maximum start-line speed. More than one pilot has ended his race participation before it even got going, simply by going too fast through the start gate.
is the Reigning champion. He learned his craft in southern Africa, flying for the Rhodesian Air Force before making the long trip north to England to take up professional aerobatics. Aerobatics suited Lamb perfectly, as his eight consecutive British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship titles attest.
One of Red Bull Air Race’s more innovative pilots, Lamb has a relentless enthusiasm for developing his plane and his skill set. His hard work paid off last year with a maiden victory in Malaysia and his first world championship.
This is what counts
The chicane sequence of three equally spaced pylons provides a tough challenge as pilots flick from knife-edge to knife-edge, all the time trying to maintain a level altitude. “When you watch newcomers in the chicane, they struggle,” says Nigel Lamb. “You’re making rapid control inputs, and a tiny overuse or underuse of the rudder and the airplane tends to climb. The corridor of air we’re flying through is very small: a little bit too low and you get disqualified; a little bit too high and you get a penalty. You need to be incredibly precise without thinking about it. You always need to be ahead of the game.”
is another Red Bull air race pilot born into aviation. His parents ran a flight school and private airfield in Tannheim, Germany, and young Matthias is reputed to have first flown at just 3 years old.
Forty years later, he’s piloted more than 150 types of aircraft and won German championships in aerobatics and flying ultralights. Today, along with his sister, he runs the family business, the fame of which has spread through the Tannkosh air show and fly-in event.
In 2014, Matthias picked up momentum as the year went on, the high point coming in October with a podium finish in Las Vegas.
The vertical turning maneuver
This is what counts
In the world of aerobatics this would be a Half Cuban Eight, but this is racing, where speed rather than grace is the order of the day and a stopwatch, not a judging panel, is the ultimate arbiter of success or failure. The vertical turning maneuver sees pilots pass through a gate in level flight before pulling up sharply, going over the top—being careful not to exceed the 10G maximum loading—rolling the aircraft and returning to level flight traveling in the opposite direction. “The highest Gs come at highest speed when you are going around a corner,” says Matthias Dolderer. “It doesn’t matter to us if that corner is horizontal or vertical, but the most Gs we get are in the vertical turning maneuver.”
is the Red Bull Air Race Pilot impossible to rule out. When he’s on his game, the mercurial Corsican is a match for anyone and, piloting his distinctive orange Edge 540, can make winning look easy. The only question is why he doesn’t do so more often.
Ivanoff got his debut Red Bull Air Race victory in 2009, winning a thrilling encounter over San Diego harbor. When the air race returned in 2014, a poor opening half of the season ruled him out of the running in the championship, but he came back with a bang in the second half of the year, finishing on the podium at Ascot and taking wins in Fort Worth and at the Red Bull Ring.
The air gates
This is what counts
Flying Level through air gates doesn’t present the spectator with the thrill of jinking through the chicane or throwing the plane high into a graceful vertical turn, but it’s what wins and loses air races. The pylons are 80 feet high and have a flat inner surface to present pilots with a perfect rectangle, through which the plane must pass in level flight. The slightest touch of a wing tip will bring down a pylon and incur a time penalty. “It’s like on the road: Some cars are fast on the motorway, others are better for tight, twisty roads through the mountains,” says Nicolas Ivanoff. “We need the equivalent of the car for the tight, twisty roads. We need a great deal of precision in the way we fly, because you really don’t want to meet a pylon!”
is Austria’s Mr. Adrenaline. The 2008 Red Bull Air Race champion is an aerobatic and stunt pilot, flies helicopters and hang gliders and is an expert paraglider, mountaineer and BASE-jumper. He claims to be happiest when he can get away from it all, be that up in the air or out in the wild.
Arch came into the Red Bull Air Race after working as the championship’s race director. After a 2007 rookie season in which he “watched and learned,” Arch swiftly rose into the elite category and has been a regular race winner ever since.
The 2014 season saw him take victory in Croatia and Poland to finish the championship in second place for the third time in a row.
The finish gate
This is what counts
Pilots assemble their lap section by section, balancing risk and reward. There will be occasions when caution is thrown to the wind, but for the most part, the priority is to get to the final gate and put a clean run on the board. “I want to take it calm, smooth and gentle, and still be fast and precise,” says Hannes Arch. “To fly through those pylons relies entirely on feeling: It should feel like two wings attached to my body. Extracting the last knot of speed at the expense of poor handling isn’t the way to go. Air racing is like downhill skiing (and like any good Austrian, I love skiing). It’s about finding the right line, not going too wide, not making sharp edges, just smooth, energy-conserving lines.”