One by one the racers charge the course. They dash and dance through a prescribed sequence-climbing corkscrews, knife-edge passes, precise rolls-all racing the clock through an obstacle course of 50-foot-high inflatable gates. The performance is mesmerizing and utterly alien to the hundreds of fans drawn year after year to the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.
Fans have come to Reno since 1964 for the World War II charisma of piston-powered racers that roar, six to a heat, around fixed, lethal-if-struck pylons at 500 mph. Last September, the fans got that hit of adrenaline-and they were introduced to the other race. One has guts and thunder; the other, grace and cunning. One is homegrown and flown in a pack; the other is a European import and solitary. The question before the Reno Air Racing Association last year was: Is there room in this town for both?
Shortly before last year's races, RARA president and CEO Mike Houghton seemed to think so. "It appears to have an enormous amount of fan appeal and excitement," he said of the aerobatic race sponsored by Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink company. "Each aircraft has a wingtip cam, a tail cam, and a cockpit cam. They will be doing live broadcasts on three huge screens in front of our crowd."
But first, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had to decide if the Red Bull Air Race could be flown in U.S. airspace.
The prime directive of FAA airshow operations is that no airplane will have its energy directed toward the crowd during an aerobatic maneuver. The rule is intended to prevent gasoline or chunks of airplane from being hurled at spectators should a pilot lose control of the aircraft. Red Bull's race course has pilots turning airplanes every which way while careening through five slalom gates. So Reno vice chairman Tom Gribbin, with help from aerobatic competitors Mike Goulian and Kirby Chambliss, rearranged the route through the five paired pylons so that all hard turns would be flown away from the crowd.
Susan Gardner, the FAA's national airshow coordinator last fall, was responsible for approving the event. "My first reaction was that it was incredibly exciting, number one, and different," she said, but she also thought, "Oh! Well. We can't do some of these things here." She continued, "We have pretty stringent criteria when you compare America to many other countries." Criteria that preclude, for example, flying under a 25-foot-high stone bridge to start and finish a race-as the pilots did in Budapest last August.
But Gardner approved a demonstration, and the pilots took the stage. Eight pilots, selected by Red Bull to compete because of their experience in competition aerobatics and low-altitude airshow performances, used the early part of race week at Reno to learn the course.
Peter Besenyei is a craggy-faced Hungarian airshow star, an aerobatic champion who pitched the concept of an aerobatic race to Red Bull. "Our idea was to create something new in aviation sports, something colorful, something exacting," he said. "It's also very spectacular, because we are flying low, we are flying fast, we are flying between the gates."
Besenyei is quiet; among the other aerobatic performers, he often disappears into the background. But in an airplane, he is a wild man. At dawn on Wednesday, when the pilots were presenting the dress rehearsal to Gardner, Besenyei made one of the most memorable flights of the event. From the judging stand, his Edge 540T appeared mostly in silhouette against the pale sky: a dancer spinning against the purple of a horizon that faded upward to light blue. His performance was flawless.
Four-time U.S. Aerobatic Champion Kirby Chambliss was in Reno to claim another title, having won both previous 2004 Red Bull events (in Hungary and England). Among those following the series, it was a foregone conclusion that Chambliss would take the 2004 Red Bull World Championship, which was at stake in Reno, unless he made a mistake that let Besenyei slip past him. What everyone else was racing for was third.