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.
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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.
The British were represented by Sukhoi Su-31 pilots Steve Jones and Paul Bonhomme, an airshow duo known as the Matadors and more accustomed to performing in practiced synchrony than to competing against each other. Their airshow act does not include, for example, anything like the sequence that must be flown at the finish of the Red Bull race: After executing two points of a four-point roll on a vertical line begun at ground level, the pilot must fly a half inside or outside loop to point the airplane, at 800 or 900 feet, straight down, from which attitude the pilot then does a touch-and-go, putting the main gear down on a chalked Red Bull logo, about 20 feet square and 680 feet from the reserve seat grandstands (see diagram, p. 45).
Paul Bonhomme admitted that the demanding sequences were "quite close" to the edge of what was sensible for airplane and pilot. "But I think that's what makes it exciting," he said. "And I think the good thing about the guys doing this is that they're all old and ugly enough to know when to back off. At the end of the day, what you want is Sunday afternoon everyone grabbing a cold beer saying, 'What a good laugh that was!' "
At Reno, more than at the previous racing venues, the pilots had to remind themselves that discretion is the better part of valor. Reno is at an elevation of 5,046 feet, but the density altitude-the effective operating altitude, taking into account temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity-can be over 8,000 feet. At that altitude, an engine produces only 80 percent of its rated horsepower.
To give the pilots a chance to practice their chops in Reno conditions, Red Bull set up an aerobatic box and some inflatable gates at Beckwourth, a reliever field to the northwest of the racing grounds. There Mike Mangold, an F-4 Phantom pilot turned 767 captain and aerobatic champ, ran through the two-point-of-four vertical roll to the touch-and-go sequence no less than 15 times, trying to determine both the proper strategy for the stunt and the feel of the airplane when he got it right. Throughout the days of practice, the pilots discussed two theories. One says you slow the airplane down and get really good at hitting the target, assuming that the two or three extra seconds required to set up the approach carefully will be fewer than the five penalty seconds added to your time if you miss the target altogether. The other says you race through the figure, put the gear on the ground as best you can at speed, and accept any penalty you might incur as the price paid for keeping your energy up. Surprisingly, Mangold, the hard charger, decided to slow for an attempt at a no-penalty touch.
The pilots weren't the only ones who had to practice. On Wednesday morning while the airport slept, Red Bull manager of race operations Hannes Arch had over a dozen pickup trucks assembled at the staging area near the Red Bull chalet. The drivers of the pickups were about to practice the rapid deployment of the inflatable race course, what Reno's Tom Gribbin called "the running of the bulls." Because of Reno's tight show schedule, Arch needed to assure himself that in less than three minutes from a standing start, he could deploy the ground crew and video team, inflate the pylons, position the judges, erect the starting flags, and clear the aerobatic box.
When the radio crackled with the go signal, the convoy moved out in double time. In minutes, all was in place except the start/finish flag. As the flag unfurled, Arch called over the radio to the crew to put everything back to the start line. Not fast enough. One more time.
The three-person judging team, led by former U.S. World Aerobatic Team judge Alan Geringer, was stationed on a long, raised platform set up near the home pylon of Reno's traditional race course, on the opposite side of the aerobatic display box from the grandstand. From that vantage point, the judges observed the race and monitored the pilots for infractions, such as passing through the gates higher than, instead of below, the tops.
During the rehearsal, Kirby Chambliss dragged a wingtip through a pylon in gate three, but the touch was so deft that the judging crew didn't notice it at first. It was no accident. Chambliss had acquired more time flying through this configuration of gates than anyone at the airport. He nipped the pylon at the request of Sue Gardner, who was in the audience with the media, watching this full dress rehearsal to decide whether to let the guys do their thing in front of spectators. She wanted to see how the Red Bull team would handle a busted pylon, so Chambliss broke one for her.
As soon as Chambliss exited the course, the pylon replacement crew rushed in while the next racer was held on the end of the runway. In six minutes, they had removed the deflated pylon, uncovered and inflated the reserve, and cleared the course-a performance that satisfied Gardner that the team could recover from a pylon cut quickly without having people and raceplanes on the course at the same time.
Later in the rehearsal, however, the driver of a Red Bull pickup truck thought he heard an order to proceed, and he drove across an active runway. Fearing a language barrier, the Austrian Hannes Arch and American pilot manager Sterling Price worked for three hours that day to draft a line-by-line script to follow so that Arch could monitor Price's air traffic control and manage the supporting vehicles of the race accordingly.
Despite the runway incursion, Gardner approved the Red Bull Air Race for exactly one public performance on Thursday. Keeping the Austrian air circus on a tight leash, she wanted to watch the first heat before deciding if the team should be allowed to operate the remaining three days under the RARA's mentorship.
Overnight, all of the pilots seemed to settle into the rhythm of the course, and the race went off without a hitch. Satisfied that the race design and operations were sound, Gardner signed off on a waiver that allowed the remaining three races to proceed.
Whether it was the focused practicing, the need to convince Gardner, the intensity of race day, or the prospect of performing for a live audience, something had made the pilots sharper. During Thursday's provisional heat race, even the rookie pilots displayed a disciplined élan in the air, pausing for just the right amount of time to slice cleanly through the gates and arcing around between them with competitive urgency.
By race time on Friday, the cold and wind had arrived and it was blustering, near the limits of what was safe for aerobatic performances. Red Bull course designer Martin Jehart pumped up the pylon pressure a little and declared the course viable in the wind. Sterling Price polled the pilots, who elected to race.
Mike Mangold attacked the course first. In ski racing and auto racing, there is a certain trajectory through a turn that will leave a competitor set up to enter the next turn. The best combination of these is "the line," the most effortless path a racer and his machine can trace through the course. It's not always the shortest, but it will be the fastest. Mangold found the line; his intense rehearsals at Beckwourth field had paid off. He positioned the two-point-of-four roll strategically and coasted over the Red Bull logo slow enough to make it easy to jab the stick forward and nail the center point-blank. Two gates later Mangold startled the field with a no-penalty, 2:09.68 flight. That lead would never be in serious jeopardy. Both British pilots, justifiably cautious in the unfamiliar density altitude and flying ponderous radial Sukhois, were eliminated in the opening rounds. Chambliss, already in the final by virtue of his earlier wins, ran through the course in his best airshow display manner, showing the Red Bull logo to good advantage and taking second.
On Saturday, Besenyei, Chambliss, and Mangold, all flying Edge 540s, were joined by Michael Goulian in the Castrol Cap 232 to vie for the U.S. National Championship.
First on the course, Chambliss turned in a flawless 2:03.04, the best time to date. Second up, Mangold crossed the start line
7 mph slower than Chambliss and was over a second slower at the first time mark, but aggressive flying through gate 6 enabled him to gain ground. By the next time mark, at the touch-and-go, Mangold was leading by more than seven seconds, despite a two-second penalty for touching down in the entry buffer zone. Chambliss was fast but Mangold was faster; finishing with 1:54.12, he became the first pilot to break the two-minute barrier on the Reno course. Michael Goulian had a good run, but his Castrol Cap couldn't compete with the Edge. He posted 2:12.61. That left Besenyei, who blasted through the start gate in the two-place Edge at 255.7 mph, the fastest start in any race. Besenyei led at the first time mark by .03 second, but lost time on the remainder of the course and had to settle for third. Mangold upset Chambliss and Besenyei to become the U.S. Red Bull Champion.
In the month after Hungary, all air racing fans could talk about was how close Besenyei would get to Chambliss in the final; on Saturday all anyone wanted to know was who was Mike Mangold and could he do it again? Now, in the stands, it was a race. Regardless of who took the world title the next day, Red Bull had already won; it hooked a U.S. audience.
The sky was overcast on Sunday, but the winds had died down. The air was cooler and thicker and the pilots were now more familiar with the course, so speeds would go up. Goulian flew a perfect routine-but couldn't break the two-minute barrier. Besenyei set a second consecutive entry speed record, 262.88 mph, but his flight fell apart as a pylon on the number-three gate collapsed after he sped past; that cost him 10 seconds, and an overshot touch-and-go added five more. It was an unexpected disaster, and the errors cost him the world championship. Without them, his time would have been an unbeatable 1:53.43.
The tension in the stands rose as it came down to the final two, the presumed champion versus the unexpected challenger. Chambliss greased the course. Despite a five-second penalty for the touch-and-go, he managed 1:59 even.
But Mangold stuck to his line. He worked through the final turns in less than 30 seconds, and fans in the crowd who weren't standing were on the edge of their seats. His time was rapidly approaching Chambliss' when Mangold dove to the final gate.
When he pulled up, it was into a victory tumble that put an exclamation point on a remarkable win. His time: 1:54.84.
In 2005 the Red Bull World Cup is expanding: Ireland and the United Arab Emirates have signed on; Moscow is pending. In the United States, Reno will not host the race, but San Francisco and Miami will. At each site, there is sure to be a party like the one held on the top floor of the Golden Peacock hotel on the Saturday night of Reno's 2004 race weekend.
On one end of the penthouse, away from the flashing lights and throbbing techno of the dance floor, a big screen ran video of extreme sports: vertical skiers, base jumpers, gravity gamers with bikes and snowboards and parafoils, and the aerobatic virtuosos of the air races. The worldwide scope of the Red Bull investment and its energy message flashed powerfully in the thrills on the screen. There wasn't a checkerboard pylon in the place and no sign of a Mustang or Bearcat. There was just this screenful of Red Bull logos on young athletes executing daring stunts and flying into a future full of challenge and fun. Had airshow celebrity Bob Hoover and Reno racing legend Darryl Greenamyer elbowed their way to the bar to order a scotch, no one at the party would have had the faintest idea who they were.
Originally published in Air & Space/Smithsonian, April/May 2005 . All rights reserved.