The Red Bull effect

Pylon racing makes aviation cool again

August 1, 2010

Rough roads through an industrial park on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor lead to a cobblestone street that signals the entrance to Liberty State Park. Ahead lies a historic rail station, its tracks buried under a parking lot for ferry passengers headed to Manhattan. Windows of skyscrapers forming the Manhattan skyline sparkle across the Hudson River while to the south, the restored buildings of Ellis Island provide a stage for the Statue of Liberty in the haze beyond.

Visitors usually head to the marina restaurant or the ferry, but on this late-June weekend, there is a new destination. Twelve days ago construction started on the white-tented infrastructure of a traveling circus called the Red Bull Air Race. (It takes 12 days to set up, but three to tear down.) Qualifications of 12 race pilots Saturday and the race Sunday will draw 135,000 international visitors, 75,000 of them for the race today. Qualifications provide points that determine the winner of the year-long, eight-race series conducted at equally spectacular sites throughout the world.

Austrian and British voices are heard at 8:30 a.m. directing American crews of security workers and a brigade of young women in blue and red colors—like those on the Red Bull can—with retro flight attendant caps. By 9:12 a.m., four teenagers line up at the entrance awaiting the opening of a race that does not start until noon. Behind them are six older fans. Red Bull marketing aims at situations, not age, and all who love excitement are welcome.

Six miles away at Linden Airport the maintenance technicians are stirring. The underperforming engine of the Edge 540 flown by Kirby Chambliss has frustrated its owners by refusing to yield the promised horsepower. Jason Resop is running the engine up, trying to awaken the sleeping horses. The canvas door of the traveling Red Bull hangar belonging to Michael Goulian, the only other American in the field, is one of the first to open. Goulian is also frustrated with the speed of his Edge 540, and tells Red Bull publicists that even if he flies perfectly, he’ll come in sixth.

It takes 350 workers to make a Red Bull Air Race village. There are two sets of infrastructure including race-control towers, hangars that form the race pits, VIP lounges (one of them two stories tall), a media center, a compound serving meals to race workers, and a two-story broadcast and video center. These are not just floppy-sided tents, but aluminum frameworks with real doors and windows, although they have canvas sides and roofs. While one race is running, another infrastructure is going up somewhere, or is left behind in a location where it will soon be needed. There are duplicates of all the structures moving around the world in two Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, including race airplanes and the Red Bull Helicopter. Three production companies labor over video and Internet broadcasts while renowned Getty Images provides photographic coverage.

Last year 3.5 million spectators attended, and 270 million television viewers tuned in. A single race can draw 800,000 or more spectators, but crowd size depends on the number of tickets available, security requirements, available space, and local regulations.

The marketing (er, race) begins

At noon the Red Bull Sky Divers mount up, and the aerobatic Red Bull Helicopter warms its engine as pre-race activities begin. The skydivers descend in a spin, curling the smoke from canisters on their legs, before opening vents and plunging dramatically to a landing within tossing distance of a pit where the still-burning canisters are discarded. The helicopter rolls upside down and loops while sponsors splash colorful messages across jumbo screens.

Race “partner” Volkswagen leaves its latest model next to the media center. “Global Partner” Cirrus Aircraft invites visitors to sit in a full-scale mockup of its turbocharged SR22 piston-engine aircraft. The mockup is available only to attendees at the $540-per-person (for a two-day pass) Race Club—a grassy area with cocktail tables set up near one of the $55-per-seat grandstands. Cirrus placed a small-scale model of its Vision jet in the High Flyers two-story center, where a two-day pass costs $1,700.

Kirby Chambliss

Maintenance technician Resop’s file of airframe overstress incidents is thicker than all the reports from all the other competitors combined. That’s what Kirby Chambliss does, and he’s good at it. When the G-limit is exceeded, the airplane has to come apart for inspection.

Several years ago Chambliss momentarily pulled 14.7 Gs during a race turn above San Diego. That’s when Red Bull imposed a special penalty—disqualification for turns of more than 12 Gs (the limit of most of the race airplanes). That’s a high number impressive even to military pilots who rarely pull more than 9 Gs, but it’s a brief G. That’s like people in the desert saying, yes, their temperatures are high, “But it’s a dry heat.” Most G episodes last seven seconds.

Red Bull now makes the pilots wear non-stretch G suits with four “water muscles,” filled with two pints of water per muscle, or pouch. Under G forces the water columns build up pressure, causing the fabric to contract, keeping blood in the head and upper muscles.

Michael Goulian

Take a ride with Michael Goulian

Click here to ride with Mike Goulian around the New York Red Bull race track.

Michael Goulian weighs so little at 155 pounds that Red Bull officials make him carry a lead seat pan. It’s like a jockey who is so light his horse has an unfair advantage. There’s a lot of fight in the little guy.

His father identified him as the fighter, not the lover, and his brother, Matt, as the opposite. Goulian feels he does better when something makes him angry, but he knows all things are done in moderation—just a little anger, not too much.

That’s not true in all cases. He likes to do things at 110 percent, and likes to be around people who feel likewise no matter what their job.

“If Michael had to sit still for five minutes it would kill him,” joked a member of his staff.

The Red Bull effect

Goulian gets e-mails from young people age 18 to 20 all over the planet asking how they might become a Red Bull race pilot. “It’s bringing people into aviation, but it’s bringing young people into aviation. That’s the most important thing,” Goulian said. “It makes aviation cool. This lets people know there is a whole segment of aviation out there like this, that is accessible to people.”

He gives a lot of credit to Red Bull marketing efforts. “When you go to an airshow, people come from 50 miles around. When you come to one of these, people come from hundreds of miles around.” Goulian is enjoying his tenure as a Red Bull pilot, although he still does airshows as well. “I try to look around and smell the roses. I’m lucky to be doing this.”

Kellie Chambliss, wife of Kirby Chambliss, has seen direct evidence of the influence Red Bull has had on the interest by teenagers in aviation. She is a pilot with 2,200 hours, 600 of those in tailwheel airplanes like the clipped-wing 1946 Piper Cub and Storch she owns. She has worked as a jump pilot flying a de Havilland Twin Otter for a large parachute center in her home state of Arizona. She will attend six of the eight Red Bull Air Races this year with her husband.

“It’s a sport that not only people who like aviation can get involved in, but the average Joe and young kids love it,” said Chambliss. “Some of my friends have teenage boys who are in love with this sport. They know all about the pilots. They know their hobbies and where they live. Red Bull is adding a new sport to a list of many that already exist.”

The race

The three-mile-long track of pylons is different in each city, although some aspects remain the same. There are pylons that must be flown in slalom style, reversing nearly 90-degree banks to weave in and out, while others form narrow gates.

Some of the gates must be flown in a perfect knife-edge, 90-degree bank, while others must be flown perfectly level. Hitting a gate means extra seconds are added to the total, which in New York ranged from 68 to 80 seconds. Gates are air-inflated pylons built in sections that harmlessly rip or tear apart when struck by an aircraft. Most of the trip around the circular course is spent below 65 feet, the top of the pylons.

“How many people want to see an airplane hit a pylon?” shouted an excited announcer. Hundreds of hands shot skyward, yet pylons stayed up for qualification day and stayed that way until the end of race day when one was finally flattened by an airplane’s direct hit.


Hitting a gate means extra seconds are added to the total, which in New York ranged from 68 to 80 seconds.


When pilots first saw the New York track from a practice altitude of 500 feet it seemed too small—like an “angry bumblebee in a jam jar,” according to current 2010 series leader Paul Bonhomme.

Goulian was in a position to take fourth place during his run, but a tiny mistake in aircraft position sent him down the roster to seventh. Chambliss, despite an underperforming engine, nearly took second, but Nigel Lamb of Great Britain beat him by three-hundredths of a second. Chambliss still got a 15-pound third-place trophy in the shape of The Big Apple, the same as the first- and second-place winners. Lamb later joked that in his opinion, three-hundredths of a second was quite a wide margin. Getting the New York win was Bonhomme of Great Britain.

The remaining races for 2010 are August 20 in Hungary and September 5 in Portugal. The winner of the eight races receives a pile of money, right? No. Pilots are given a budget to manage for the year, but no prize money. Pilots with outside sponsors have a bigger budget.

“There are some countries that don’t want us flying for money,” Goulian said. “England was one of them. They said, ‘Hey, if there’s a lot of money for winning, or for being on the podium, they’re going to fly like crazy.’

“All the pilots laugh, because we are already flying as hard as we ever could anyway.”

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.


“It’s bringing people into aviation, but it’s bringing young people into aviation. That’s the most important thing.” —Michael Goulian


What Red Bull pilots fly

The Edge 540 is favored

There are 15 pilots listed in the Red Bull roster, although only 12 competed in New York. Between them, they use only three different aircraft—all of them tweaked for competition.

The Edge 540 by Zivco Aeronautics in the United States is favored by Paul Bonhomme of Britain, leading this year’s Red Bull Air Race series; Hannes (pronounced Han’ es) Arch of Austria, now in second place overall; and both American pilots, Kirby Chambliss and Michael Goulian. It features an unconventional straight-edge wing, now considered a pioneering design, with a steel tube frame and composite fairings. Nine Red Bull pilots use it.

Nigel Lamb, currently in third place in overall standings, and four other pilots fly the MSX–R from MX Technologies in the United States. The all-carbon-fiber aircraft was modeled in a computer and is known on the race circuit as the “Edge beater.” Its roll rate is 450 degrees per second, compared to 420 degrees for the Edge 540. Like the Edge 540, it is powered by a six-cylinder Lycoming AEIO-540 that can range from 280 to 340 horsepower, depending on customization.

The Corvus Racer 540 by Corvus Aircraft of Hungary was specially built in 2010 for the Red Bull Air Race, and uses steel-tube construction with carbon fiber panels. It uses the Lycoming AEIO-540 engine. It has fewer panels than the other aircraft, meaning reassembly after shipping is easier. Its main feature is its egg shape with little taper behind the engine. The designer, Red Bull fact sheets say, took his cues from a fish because a fish can glide effortlessly through the water. — AKM

Next up, the Red Bull Stratos

Jumping from the edge of space

Sometime this summer, Felix Baumgartner, aided by pioneering parachute jumper Joe Kittinger, will attempt to break the speed of sound after jumping from a helium-filled balloon at 120,000 feet. The jump will be made from New Mexico.

Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960, a record that has never been broken. Baumgartner will attempt four records. In addition to breaking the sound barrier with his body and setting the altitude record for a parachute jump, he hopes to record the longest freefall of five to six minutes, and to set the altitude record for the highest manned balloon flight. — AKM