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Thrill and adventure

Aerobatic air racing captivates millions worldwide

Imagine seeing an Extra 300 aerobatic plane flying beneath a bridge at 250 mph with only what looks like a wingspan separating it from blue sky and eternity. Gasp. Cringe. Shriek. Welcome to the wild world of aerobatic racing.

Red Bull Air Race

  • Time to simultaneously inflate all air gates: 4 minutes
  • Time to change an air gate when destroyed during a race: 5 minutes
  • Amount of transportable equipment required for a race: 100 tons

The Red Bull Air Race World Series was dreamed up by Hungarian aerobatic ace Peter Besenyei to challenge pilots as well as entertain the public by mounting high-G competitions in places where you normally wouldn't see airplanes. Besenyei was afraid audience interest in the sport was waning.

"Something new had to be created...something exciting, really exciting," he said of the sport that began in 2003 in Austria and Hungary. "And besides, I was no longer happy with the way aerobatics were judged. We pilots are all too dependent on the personal tastes of the judges, who of course can't be absolutely objective. I wanted a more objective way of scoring our efforts."

What could be more objective than a clock? The elaborate timing system uses local position measurement (LPM) wave reflection technology, which allows the airplanes to be tracked 1,000 times a second in a defined area. Each airplane carries a transponder that allows for a continuous stream of data such as G forces, speed, and the pilot's heart rate.

But to make it all work, the course had to be defined first. An Innsbruck, Austria, company called Bellutti Protection Systems along with Martin Jehart and his team developed the "air gates," 62-foot-high conical shapes made of spinnaker material. Because of the shape and the fact that they are continuously pumped with air, the air gates can withstand winds of up to 34 mph without blowing over. The gate crew is developing one in the form of an arch for contestants to fly under. The system allows course designers to be endlessly creative. They can place the gates on bridges, skyscrapers, cliffs, mountains, glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, oil rigs, and dams.

The gates are set up in a certain order, and the aerobatic maneuvers are predetermined. Only a handful of the best aerobatic pilots in the world are invited to compete. Pilots fly through the gates sometimes straight and level and sometimes at knife edge as the clock ticks away. The winner is the pilot who manages the best time with the least penalty.

What happens if you hit a gate? American aerobatic champion Kirby Chambliss ripped right through one with the tail of his Edge 540 while competing in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The only thing damaged was his score.

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