Red Bull Air Racing

Now, there is something new in air racing. The Red Bull Air Race World Series is as different from conventional air racing as Formula One is from NASCAR. Sponsored by Red Bull Energy Drinks, the series was introduced in Europe in 2003 with only a half-dozen competitors, but it was remarkably successful.

A product of the fertile imagination of aerobatic pilot Peter Besenyei, the Red Bull Air Race is different from anything you’ve seen before. In keeping with the vertical and inverted nature of aerobatic flying, three-time world aerobatic champion Besenyei reasoned that airplane racing should be more of a three-dimensional sport, and accordingly, the Red Bull races are a cross between high-G, low-level, air-show manoeuvres and conventional, closed-course pylon racing.

Pilots fly individually against the clock on a tight, 2,000-meter course that keeps most of the action directly in front of the crowd rather than several miles away. Competitors must fly a specific attitude (usually knife-edge or straight-and-level) between five sets of inflated pylon gates that stand only 60 feet tall, meanwhile manoeuvring through a slalom-style course. Distance between the twin rubber cones that comprise each gate varies from 33 to 45 feet, depending upon the difficulty of the entry and exit manoeuvres. Despite the tight course, racers typically reach speeds as high as 250 mph on some diving recoveries. Turns between pylons can be so tight that they demand an up-and-over in order to make the radius to the next pylon gate.

Pilots not only must navigate the course between pylon pairs in minimum time, they’re required to execute specific manoeuvres during the flight, usually a four-point roll, a two-of-four-point vertical roll, two low-level knife-edge passes in opposite directions between two pylons and a 11⁄4 vertical roll-up followed immediately by a touch-and-go landing on a specified section of adjacent runway. The latter sounds almost impossible out of a near-vertical dive, so Besenyei made it even tougher. To compound the difficulty, the runway touchdown mat is only 39 feet long, and penalties are assessed if the aircraft touches ground outside the centre 12-foot target zone.

There are three possible flight plans for the course to keep things challenging for the racers and interesting for spectators. All use the same basic plan form, but specify different manoeuvres in varied sequences. Time penalties of two, five or 10 seconds are assessed for flying too high through the pylons, any in-complete or missed manoeuvre, missing or touching a pylon and failing to touch down inside the designated zone on the touch-and-go. To be competitive, a racer must fly the course clean, with no deductions. In a recent competition, the winning margin was only .03 seconds.

(Interestingly, one cause for total disqualification is “hitting an obstacle with one’s propeller.” This has happened several times, fortunately, with no consequence worse than a bruised ego. Pylons are made of thin rubber designed to disintegrate on contact. So while a collision may be temporarily disorienting, it’ll simply destroy the pylon, not the airplane.)

Unlike standard, closed-course pylon racing where virtually any decent pilot with a penchant for speed, reasonable formation skills and enough money to afford a race plane can compete, Red Bull racing demands expert aerobatic skills plus a fast, highly manoeuvrable airplane and a willingness to fly close to the edge. By definition, all competitors must be comfortable flying their aircraft to the limits of the performance and control envelope, a special skill confined to a select group of aviators and a special type of airplane.

Red Bull kicked off the series in 2003 with two events, one in Austria and the other in Peter Besenyei’s home country of Hungary. In 2004, the schedule included three races, two in Europe and the third in the U.S. The first of the 2004 events was held in June at Kemble Air Day in Gloucestershire, U.K., the second in August at Budapest, Hungary. The latter race attracted several hundred thousand fans who lined the banks of Budapest’s Danube River to witness a wild race on a course that demanded a flight beneath the city’s famous Chain Bridge. (Imagine trying to get the UK CAA to approve that.)

The final race of the season was held in conjunction with the world’s premier racing venue, the 41st Annual National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev. Eight pilots flew in each of the competitions, and the Red Bull Air Race World Series Championship was decided at the Reno event.

The eight pilots who were invited to compete for the top prize at Reno included some of the best aviators from the U.S. and Europe. All are former or current national or world aerobatic champions or established air-show performers.

Predictably, the pilots fly some of the world’s most agile high-performance aerobatic mounts. The French CAP 232 is a dedicated aerobatic airplane that has carried its pilots to more world medals than any other type. Walter Extra’s remarkable German Extra 300 is a total favourite of air-show performers around the world, and they include U.S. Aerobatic Champion Patty Wag-staff. The Russian Sukhoi has been a star on the aerobatic circuit for years, both in its initial SU-26 and later SU-31 versions. Perhaps the most popular of the Red Bull aircraft, however, is the Edge 540, an all-American product.

more information is available on the Red Bull website