Red Bull’s Kirby Chambliss flew like a man on a mission in San Diego but came up a few tenths short and finished runner-up to Paul Bonhomme.
Speed, precision and superhuman skills are all necessary traits of a winning motorcycle racer, but two-wheeled competitors aren’t the only one’s who live or die by that proverbial racing sword. If you were at the Red Bull USGP at Laguna Seca earlier this year you might have seen the big blue airplane on display at the Red Bull hospitality center in the paddock. We saw it, and after checking out the Red Bull Co-Pilot ride-along video we were ready to experience the action first hand. What better opportunity than the Red Bull Air Race in San Diego at the end of September to get our first taste of a racing phenomenon that is gaining worldwide attention in this age of extreme sports.
The sound is like nothing you’ve heard before and the tiny aircraft spinning, flipping and turning violently in front of you is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Diving down, hard left, followed by a equally hard roll to the right, the Red Bull Air Race pilot yanks back hard on the control stick and buries the throttle – the 327-horsepower Edge 540 responds by climbing straight up, pulling nine-G’s just a scant 20-feet above the blurred blue-hue of the ocean – the airspeed indicator pegged in the yellow at over 250 mph. The aerobatic ace levels his wings with authority and sneaks through the 46-foot wide air gate with only a few feet of clearance to spare on either side of the wings, then tugs back on the stick again, flips a 180 and prepares to do it all over again. When flying at redline and dangling on that razor’s edge between a fast lap time and disaster- speed, precision, and skill are your only lifelines.
MotorcycleUSA had a chance to see these globe-trotting aerobatic superstars at work during round eight of the 2007 Red Bull Air Race that kicked off a month-long Naval celebration also known as “Fleet Week” in the aviation history rich city of San Diego, California.
Thirteen of the best pilots in the world all converged on ‘America’s finest city’ for a two-day event that thrilled the 50,000 spectators in attendance. These daring airmen come from all corners of the world with rich and diverse flying resumes. One of the most popular pilots on the tour is Team Cobra’s Mike Mangold. Not only is Mangold a former U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter pilot, he is also a true-life fighter ace who Tom Cruise’s character “Maverick” was said to be inspirited after in the infamous movie Top Gun.
Defending Red Bull Air Race champion Kirby Chambliss became a commercial pilot at 24, then the youngest person to ever reach that level in his company’s history. At 28 he earned his Captain status. Maybe, knowing that someone like this is at the controls of that jumbo the next time your flight hits a bit of turbulence, it might not be so scary for you.
Here’s a birds eye view of the Red Bull Air Race course held at Seaport village at Marina Park in San Diego, California.
Team Matador’s Paul Bonhomme of Great Britain is an avid motorcyclist and, along with many other competitors makes his living logging thousands of hours as a pilot in the commercial airline industry. When he’s not flying inverted 20-feet above the water, you can find him aboard his Kawasaki Ninja ZX-9R spinning laps around legendary circuits like Donington and Brands Hatch. He also has his KTM SMR 450 equipped with a set of 17s wrapped in some black sticky-icky for some crossed up, tire-sliding supermoto fun.
In the sky, Bonhomme plies his trade in one of the most advanced aerobatic planes in the world-the Zivko Edge 540. This highly maneuverable aircraft boasts mind-blowing performance; such as the 420-degree per second roll rate and a 3,700-feet per minute rate of climb. The entirely composite 98-square foot wings allow the 1,200-pound propeller driven aircraft to climb, dive, and fall end-over-end out of the sky like nothing you’ve ever seen. A person with a weak stomach can feel uneasy just by watching the plane tumble uncontrollably out of the sky and then in an instance regain composure like some kind of surreal Hollywood movie stunt.
Despite what the name of the race implies, the competition isn’t exactly a race pitting plane against plane at the same time. Instead, each pilot flies solo; navigating through a challenging slalom-style course filled with 13-specially designed inflatable air gates. The Red Bull Air Race isn’t just about outright speed though. Precision is crucial to success because any mistakes (flying too low or too high, hitting pylons, dangerous flying) incur penalty points which are then added to the pilot’s time. The pilots compete against the clock in knockout-style rounds with the two fastest pilots going head-to-head in the final. Just think of it as a kind of winged, propeller driven version of World Superbike’s Superpole-with the ultimate winner being determined by lowest time.
There was plenty of organized aerial chaos throughout both days to keep spectators entertained. From Red Bull’s own sky dive team-diving in formation from over 15,000-feet to Red Bull’s 500-plus mph fly-by in their candy-red painted vintage MiG-17. Our nation’s military also stepped up and had an assortment of aircraft and helicopters wowing the crowed with various coordinated maneuvers over the harbor with the might of the U.S. Navy battleships serving as a backdrop.
When Friday afternoon’s qualifying got under way it looked like Team Red Bull’s Kirby Chambliss was going to be the man to beat come Saturday’s finals. Chambliss qualified the fastest with a time of 1:26.56. His Hungarian teammate Peter Besenyei was a scant six-tenths seconds behind and our two-wheeled hombre Bonhomme qualifying third.
Navigating these flotaing nylon gates at 250 mph less than 50-feet of the surface off the water has to be exciting. It is a site to behold if you’ve never seen it before. Here’s Red Bull pilot Peter Besenyei trying to make the cut.
On Saturday Team Matador’s Steve Jones, Team Breitling’s Nigel Lamb, Chambliss and Bonhomme all duked it out, under less than ideal conditions that included strong winds off the coast which made the task of precision flying even that much more difficult, to see which two would make it to the final. Lamb ended up acing Jones’s time putting him in third place-his best finish of the season.
In the final Bonhomme posted a time of 1:23.80 besting defending champ Chambliss’ time by 1.11-seconds.
“If someone had come up to me a week ago and offered me a win here with Mike back in fifth,” explained Bonhomme, “I would have snatched it with both hands. I’m in a much better position now than I had been. I had been hoping to go to Perth not being any points behind.”
With Bonhomme’s San Diego win, the English-pilot regained control of the championship point’s lead over hometown hero and 2005 champion Mike Mangold. It all goes down to the last race being held in Perth, Australia, November 14/15th to decide who will emerge as this years champ.
“Steve did a nice job,” said Mangold graciously after losing to Jones in the quarter-final. “He did well. He’s on. I’m not. It’s not a very good position to be in. We did the best we could under the circumstances we’re flying under here. We’ll just have to regroup and see what happens down there in Perth. It doesn’t help my cause (falling so far behind Paul). He was amazingly fast. I don’t know how he pulled that one out. He’s obviously in a great position. We’ll go down there and battle it out.”
The Red Bull Air Race is more than just an aerobatic show. It’s an experience that any motorcycle racing enthusiast can relate to and enjoy. The surgical-like accuracy of the pilots to put their 25-foot wide planes within feet of where they need to be is amazing. The skill and mental fortitude required to operate these planes at that level is on par with the likes of Valentino Rossi, Troy Bayliss, and Mat Mladin. Bohomme’s stellar performance proves that people who ride motorcycles know how to get it done not just on land but also in the sky.
Word’s don’t do these guys justice, go on a virtual ride with the Red Bull Air Race competitors at www.redbullcopilot.com or check out www.redbullairrace.com for more information on the latest craze to hit the motorsports scene since…the motorcycle race.
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