Mike Mangold could be forgiven for hanging it all up and retiring now. As a skydiver, former fighter pilot, member of the U.S. Aerobatic team, Red Bull Air Race pilot—and current airshow, airline, and Reno air race pilot—Mangold has done enough for two careers, much less one that’s still vibrant and intense.
Mangold became a pilot in the late 1970s after he decided to stop jumping out of airplanes and start flying them. After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy and spending a number of years in the Air Force, including as an outstanding graduate at the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center ( née USAF Tactical Fighter Weapons Center), Mangold got out, slowed down a bit, and started flying for fun.
His most public flying to this point was his six years with the Red Bull Air Race series, where he won three championships and left with the most series wins of any pilot. Wanting another challenge, he got out before the series went bust and found a new obsession—flying an L–29 at Reno. For Mangold, nothing beats flying a jet around the pylons. The competition is fast, he enjoys the people, and the jet class is still up and coming at Reno. For a guy who’s excelled at every type of flying—and falling—he’s ever tried (don’t forget gold at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships, and a national championship for skydiving accuracy and paraskiing), it’s surprising to hear Mangold say winning isn’t everything. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment, but I don’t need winning to be complete,” he says. “The journey may be more fun than the end.”
Despite flying no more than 50 feet off the desert floor, Mangold doesn’t consider what he does risky. “Our mission is to race around these pylons safely. We listen to the old guys and pick out advice.” He does admit, however, that you have to “have your wits about you.”
Mangold’s day job as an airline pilot seems downright dull by comparison. But even in point-to-point flying, challenges—and his sense of humor—abound. “The hardest part about being an airline pilot,” he says, “is getting to be where you have to be on time by yourself.”
Flying even blazed his path for love; Mangold met his wife, Julie, while they were both skydiving. She was a helicopter pilot, something that elicits a wily grin when he says it. They both ended up on the aerobatic team together, and they keep that aerobatic spark alive today with a Decathlon. It’s affordable, simple, and lots of fun, he says.
Between family, shuttling passengers around the country, and flying at Reno, Mangold is a busy man. But he has plans. “There’s still some jumping I’d like to do,” and he says he’d like to try aerobatic soaring. He should do it. I hear there’s a national championship to be won.