Populous Magazine 11: Red Bull Air Races

From the archive: Issue 11, 2014

Like fighter pilots dodging enemy fire, the pilots in the Red Bull Air Races fly fast, often just a few feet from the water, twisting and turning between inflatable pylons. Dominic Bliss finds out how close they are to calamity.

Matt Hall is a very lucky man. While competing in an aircraft race a few years ago, he accidentally stalled his plane, dropped out of the sky and skimmed the surface of the Detroit River. A former combat pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, it was a mark of his flying skills that he managed to recover from the potential crash and, minutes later, land his MXS-R single-seater safely on the runway.

“I came through with too great an angle to the chicane,” explained the aerobatic pilot after abandoning his race in the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario. “I stalled the aircraft. I managed to get it back to wing’s level and recover. I felt two impacts [on the water], and flew it away. Then just trying to get it back on the ground safely.”

Given the lightning-rapid manoeuvres required by the racing pilots, it’s a wonder so many of them remain airborne for so long.

Near misses like this are a common occurrence in the international series of aircraft races known as the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. Accidents are fortunately very rare. No one has ever died in competition but there have been several crashes resulting in pilot injury. Most races are staged over water, conveniently cushioning any impact. If required, pilots can bail out in an emergency. They also wear water-survival vests and carry breathing apparatus in case their plane ends up in the drink.

Given the lightning-rapid manoeuvres required by the pilots, it’s a wonder so many of them remain airborne for so long. In a typical race they will execute rolls, half rolls, banks and vertical turns, subjecting their bodies to enormous G forces throughout. From a spectator’s view, as they pitch and twist between the air gates, they look like swallows flitting through the trees. Or World War II fighter pilots engaging in dogfights.

Pilots have been racing one another since aircraft were first invented. A race near Paris in 1909 is considered the world’s first, although neither of the two pilots competing completed the course. Currently there are a handful of regular aircraft races at air shows around the world featuring small sports aeroplanes, jets, biplanes, helicopters, microlights or motorised paragliders. Thanks to great publicity, the Red Bull Air Race series, however, is probably the best known.

  • Air-racing champion Paul Bonhomme.

There are eight stops on this year’s series.

At each, the 12 pilots in the elite master-class category must fly one at a time between inflatable pylons (that disintegrate on impact) on lowaltitude courses around three miles in length.

Miss a gate, destroy a gate, or negotiate a gate incorrectly and they incur penalty points. Pilots have a choice of three standardised aircraft to compete in: an Edge 540, an MXS-R or a Corvus Racer 540. All have similar top speeds, climb rates, roll rates and body dimensions (see box).

Since the series launched in 2005, races have been staged in locations as varied as the Arabian Gulf, a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, a lake in Malaysia, motorsport circuits in the USA, and an equestrian racecourse in the UK.

The most successful pilot in the history of the series is reigning champion Paul Bonhomme. When the 50-year-old Englishman isn’t racing he flies Boeings for British Airways.

He very much plays down the danger of his chosen sport. “Flying is generally a very safe sport,” he says. “There are lots of things that can change very quickly. Being prepared to deal with those is key.”

He says what keeps him and his colleagues alive is their ability to analyse potential risks. “I wonder how much risk analysis people do before they jump in their car to drive to work in the morning? Probably very little. Before we fly, we’ll have thought of every ‘What if?’ so that, hopefully, we are prepared to deal with anything that comes our way.”

Red Bull Air Races have been staged above several Populous venues including The O2 Arena and Ascot Racecourse, both in the UK.

Designed to be light, fast and agile, the three permitted aeroplanes in the Red Bull Air Races are also very robust to withstand stresses of up to 10 times the force of gravity as they are thrown around the courses.

All three are standardised with Lycoming Thunderbolt AEIO-540- EXP engines and Hartzell three-bladed 7690 propellers.

Edge 540 V2

LENGTH: 6.3m

WINGSPAN: 7.44m

ROLL RATE: 420º/sec

CLIMB RATE: 3,700ft/min

TOP SPEED: 264mph

 

MXS-R

LENGTH: 6.51m

WINGSPAN: 7.32m

ROLL RATE: 420º/sec

CLIMB RATE: 3,500ft/min

TOP SPEED: 264mph

 

Corvus Racer 540

LENGTH: 6.57m

WINGSPAN: 7.4m

ROLL RATE: 440º/sec

CLIMB RATE: 4,300ft/min

TOP SPEED: 275mph

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