Red Bull’s Rodeo

Take two parts aerobatic skill, add daring, throw in obstacles and speed: Air racing’s got a brand-new bag.

On Reno's hallowed ground, Red Bull deployed dashing new racers and elegant graphics. (Caroline Sheen)
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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.

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