Talk about a small club. It is estimated that only .2% of the American population are pilots. Guess what percentage of that percentage (which would be mathematically wrong) are fighter pilots. Now estimate an even smaller number, the number of Air Race Pilots not just in the US but the world. It’s a small fraternity of pilots, specifically Red Bull Air Race pilots. You can count them on your hands and toes.
I guess I can brag that I’ve flow as low as five feet AGL. These guys can’t fly lower than eighty feet, so I got them beat. But, I’m going straight and lever in a Stearman at 80 mph and they are going well over 200 kts. and up to 270 degree of bank at 10g’s plus.
Designed to be as agile in the air as possible and streamlined to perfection, the race planes flown in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship are at the forefront of light aviation technology. Constructed to be as light as possible to ensure maximum speed, they also have to be extremely robust, and tolerate stressed of up to 10 times the force of gravity (10Gs) and sometimes up to 12Gs. These propeller-driven machines are highly maneuverable, pulling up into a vertical orientation at high speed with very little effort. (One item of note: looking at the planes, the spar goes through the fuselage forward of the cockpit, mid-fuselage, and is of one-piece-construction in order to absorb the loads on the airframe. Any other design and the plane would not be able to handle the loading the pilot has to take without a weight penalty.)
In previous years, the race teams were allowed to modify their aircraft, but for 2014, the engines and propellers have been standardized for all teams. The Lycoming Thunderbolt AEIO-540-EXP engine and the Hartzell 3-bladed 7690 structural composite propeller have both undergone rigorous testing and have performed to specification. Both the pilots and their teams have instead dedicated their efforts to perfecting airframe aerodynamics, as well as pilot skill and ability. Red Bull is trying to make the races all about pilot ability and not aircraft performance, a lot like NASCAR has with auto racing.
The Edge 540, manufactured by Zivko Aeronautics, is as precise and controllable as it is aggressive. The small, one-seater aircraft is a favourite amongst Red Bull Air Race pilots, largely due to its fuselage.
The computer optimised, steel tube frame makes the Edge 540 an extremely light, very durable and easily repairable plane.
Using an unconventional straight-edged wing, the Edge 540 sparked much interest in flying circles around the world, particularly after Kirby Chambliss began using it for aerobatic competitions. The plane has since evolved into the highly refined and technologically advanced version of the original prototype, with the radical wing now acknowledged as a pioneering feat of design.
Edge 540 V2
ROLL RATE: 420°/sec
CLIMB RATE: 3,700ft/min
TOP SPEED: 425.97kph (230kts)
MAX G: +/-10G
WING DESIGN: Symmetric, carbon fibre
V2 PILOTS: Bonhomme, Goulian, Ivanoff and Muroya
V3 PILOTS: Arch, Chambliss, Dolderer, McLeod and Sonka
For 2014, a number of the pilots have upgraded to the race-bespoke Edge V3. The V3 is different from the 540 in various ways:
It has an increased tolerance of G-loads. The body has been finely tuned to increase aerodynamics and reduce drag. Modifications range from a sleeker canopy design and improved exhaust, wing root and rear wheel fairings to enhanced winglets, shorter landing gear legs and upgraded cowlings
ROLL RATE: 420°/sec
CLIMB RATE: 3,500ft/min
TOP SPEED: 425.97kph (230kts)
MAX G: +/-12G
WING DESIGN: Symmetric, carbon fibre
PILOTS: Hall and Lamb
The MXS-R represents the latest in state-of-the-art design and technology. The ‘Edge beater’, as it’s been named due to being a worthy match for the Edge 540, was designed using advanced computer solid modelling with an emphasis on aerodynamic efficiency. As a result, it has already gained much respect in the racing arena and is considered a work of art among pilots due to its graceful, flowing lines. What makes the MXS-R a stand-alone plane is that it is constructed entirely of aerospace-grade carbon fiber, which gives it superior strength and durability unlike any other.
ROLL RATE: 440°/sec
CLIMB RATE: 4,300ft/min
TOP SPEED: 444kph (240kts)
MAX G: +12G/-10G
WING DESIGN: Symmetric, carbon fibre
Designed in 2007 by Andras Voloscsuk and the Hungarian University of Aviation specifically for Peter Besenyei, the Corvus Racer 540 is a relatively new plane on the block. Despite only debuting during the last World Championship, the aircraft has already attracted attention from other race teams, including Team Bonhomme. Built using chrome-molybdenum tubes in a TIG welded construction, the plane is a high-performance rocket. The wing, empennage and fuselage covers are high-strength composite parts primarily composed of carbon fiber.
The races are held mainly over water near cities, but are also held at airfields or natural wonders. They are accompanied by a supporting program of show flights. Races are usually flown on weekends with the first day for qualification then knockout finals the day after. The events attract large crowds and are broadcast, both live and taped, in many nations.
Maximum speed entering the course is 229.9 mph (199.7 kts.) or 370 Kilometers per hour. (Remember, these are international events and everything, speed and distance are metric.)
Pilots are required to complete the 5–6-kilometre (3.1–3.7 mi) long track and fly between the Air Gates following a predetermined race track configuration. Failure to do this correctly results in penalty seconds being added to their race time. Penalty seconds can be added for an incorrect passing of an Air Gate, incorrect passing through the Chicane and for touching an Air Gate. For more serious breaches of the rules, such as accelerating so that there are over 12 Gs in the cockpit, pilots can also be disqualified.
Three different gate types require a specific manner of crossing. Blue gates must be crossed in level flight, red gates must be crossed in “knife-edge” or vertical flight, and slalom flying through the chicane gates (knife or level flying not mandatory).
So now you have the basics of the planes and the courses, what about the pylons? These are structures that they have to fly through but not hit. So what happens if one is hit, is there an FAA Go-Team investigations? Nothing besides penalties and a group of guys battling time to put up another one.
For the 2014 season, the race pylons will be bigger and better than ever, retaining their iconic cone shape, but with marked safety improvements. “The most obvious change for the new pylons is their overall height – at 25m high, they will stand 5m taller than those used in the 2010 Red Bull Air Race World Championship.
The one-sided, asymmetrical pylon cones will once again have a straight inner edge with an inclined outer edge, creating a perfect rectangular flight window between the Air Gates. But crucially, the change in pylon height has elevated the flight window by 5m, from 10m to 15m from the ground– improving the overall flying safety of the race track.
Red Bull Air Race pylons must serve two fundamental purposes – rip apart instantly on contact without impacting the pilot or plane, but also remain stationary in all weather conditions.
Since the first races in 2003, 30 different materials and fabrics have been assessed for their suitability as Red Bull Air Race pylons. This process has involved rigorous assessments, from simple ‘pylon hit’ simulations using cars with mounted wings, to highly sophisticated computer calculations.
A closer look at the pylons reveals that each cone structure is manufactured using different materials. The nine segments that make up each pylon are all defined by their maximum strength allowed – the requested strengths vary from less than 30kg, up to 300kg per 5cm of material. With the change in height, the shape of the new pylons had to be adapted, and the materials used to make the Air Gates re-evaluated.
The result is that the pylons now have a base diameter of 5m, and a top diameter of just 0.75m. The top part of each pylon is made from spinnaker fabrics – lightweight, flexible materials used to make boat sails. The spinnaker fabrics used in the new pylon tops weigh around 40% less than standard printer paper.
1 second penalty
– Not emitting smoke during the race
2 seconds penalty
– Flying too high through or over an air gate
– Incorrect level (horizontal) crossing through an air gate
– Incorrect knife (vertical) crossing or direction through an air gate. This is when a pilot angles his plane to the left when it should have been to the right, or to the right when it should have been to the left. The penalty seconds are also added for exceeding the described angle of bank.
6 seconds penalty
– Pilot cuts through or otherwise touches a pylon with the aircraft. If the particular event is determined as dangerous, this may result in a disqualification.
– Any form of dangerous flying
– Flying too low
– Crossing the crowd line
– Flying over 10g
– Flying over 200 knots (370 km/h; 230 mph) through the start gate
– Not flying the course
– Course deviation from the prescribed course
– Not executing prescribed aerobatic maneuver
The Heart of the Air Race
After a three year absence, the Red Bull Air Races came back to the skies in February, 2014. The series started in 2003, and features pilots who fly through a series of lightweight plastic pylons at speeds well over 200 miles per hour, with several aerobatic maneuvers required to complete the course. Many of the courses have the pilots flying just a few feet above the ground, and one even includes flying under a bridge. The series was put on a hold after the 2010 races as the increasing speeds and high-g maneuvers raised safety concerns.
Beginning in Abu Dhabi, a 12-pilot field once again is competing in a slightly modified Red Bull Air Race series for 2014. Like the original, the updated series consists of pilots flying through the course which requires them to fly either level, or in a 90 degree bank through each of the pylons (which tear like paper and collapse if clipped by a plane). But the minimum altitude pilots fly through the pylons has been raised from 65 feet to 80 feet, and some of the most extreme high-g-force maneuvers such as the sustained 270-degree turn called the “Quatro” have been eliminated.
But not to worry, pilots will still be pulling up to 10-g’s, and for anybody who hasn’t seen the races yet, 80 feet is still crazy low to be racing an airplane at over 200 mph. The pilots will also be using a common engine and propeller combination in an effort to further increase safety (and reduce costs, we’re guessing).
Several of the former champions of the series are back, including former Southwest Airlines captain Kirby Chambliss of Arizona who says the raceway settings provide a unique perspective for spectators, because those high in the grandstands will be able to look down on the airplanes as they fly through the course.
Back in 2010, the Red Bull Air Races were finally evolving into a competitive series with racer times getting closer as more pilots learned the intricacies of the sport. In 2014 the momentum will be right where the speed-seeking aerobatic pilots left off.
The Red Bull Air Race was conceived in 2001 in the Red Bull sports think-tank which has been responsible for creating a range of new sports events across the world. The aim was to develop a new aviation race that would challenge the ability of the world’s best pilots, creating a race in the sky that was not simply about speed, but also precision and skill. The answer was to build a specially designed obstacle course which the pilots would navigate at high speeds.
Development of the prototypes of what are now known as the ‘Air Gates’ began in 2002 and renowned Hungarian pilot Péter Besenyei successfully completed the first test flight through them. After two years in planning and development, the first official Red Bull Air Race was ready to take off in Zeltweg, Austria in 2003. A second was staged the same year near Budapest in Hungary.
In the 2010 series, during training runs prior to the race, Brazilian pilot, Adilson Kindlemann crashed his plane into the Swan River in Perth. Rescuers were on site within seconds and Kindlemann was rushed to Royal Perth Hospital where it was determined that he had suffered no serious injury. As of 2011, it is the only crash in the history of the Red Bull Air Race.
2011, 2012 and 2013 series cancelled
The 2011 series of races worldwide was cancelled. The decision was taken by Red Bull on 27 July 2010 to allow for a “headquarters” restructure as well as the implementation of new safety measures.
The 2012 series was also cancelled; “There will be no races in 2012, that’s true,” said Red Bull Air Race Team spokesperson Nadja Zele in an email message to AOPA. “A revamped concept and a fixed race calendar will be revealed in 2013.”
Eventually, the 2013 series was cancelled as well. However, in October 2013, it was announced that the Red Bull Air Race World Championship would return in 2014. Training for the upcoming season took place at Olney airport in Texas. The Championship finally returned in Abu Dhabi on February 28, 2014.
The races are back
The series is back with the defending world champion, the UK’s Paul Bonhomme, among the 12-pilot field after it took a three-year break to improve safety and reorganize. There will be a number of technical improvements, including standard engines and propellers for all pilots, changes to the lightweight nylon pylon material to make them even easier to burst apart if they are clipped by plane wings and raising the height of the pylons that the pilots pass through from 20 to 25 meters.
Another safety feature and a sporting highlight is the new Challengers Cup competition that is being introduced in 2014. It will give new pilots who qualify for that stepping-stone competition valuable experience racing in the tracks at certain Red Bull Air Race stops. They will also participate in several training camps during the course of the season.
© Andreas Schaad/Red Bull Content Pool
“I am very pleased to see Red Bull Air Race come back as it is truly an event that gives worldwide exposure to air sports. The improvements made to the race format and race track by the Red Bull Air Race management are convincing and will no doubt add extra attractiveness to the event,” said FAI President Dr John Grubbström.
“I’ve missed the flying at Red Bull Air Race because the competitive racing is just fantastic,” said Peter Besenyei, one of the pilots who has been with Red Bull Air Race since its very start. Besenyei showed how much he missed racing during a display flight on the fringe of the news conference.
The starting order for Training is defined by the results of the last Red Bull Air Race World Championship standings. The highest ranking pilot starts first. Starting order for new race pilots is determined by a draw. The starting order for Qualifying is defined by the results of the fourth training session. The order is reversed so that the slowest pilot from the fourth training session starts first. The starting order for all sessions on Race Day is determined by the results in Qualifying. The order is reversed so that the slowest pilot from Qualifying starts first.
The seven races in 2014 includes two stops in the United States, both at stadium raceways. In September the air races will take place at the Texas Motor Speedway and in October they will head to Las Vegas. Other races will take place in Malaysia, Poland, Great Britain, and China.
This blog is devoted to all kinda of aviation. This is one of the most extreme and unique forms of flying I have ever seen. And one final thought, I’ve already got my tickets for the Red Bull Air Race in Ft. Worth. Do you have yours?
*This information in this article was obtained from many different sources. To get a more complete picture of the total Red Bull experience, go to: www.redbullairrace.com/en_US
Phil Wilhelm is an experienced Stearman pilot, lover of all things aviation, and regular contributor on Tally One.