Air Racing Can Be a Flight to the Death

In the sport of air racing, the grand prize is being able to walk away with your life.By Joshua Davis

Hurtling 140 miles per hour upside down above the Arizona desert, a cactus zipping past my head, I realize I should never have gotten on this airplane. The pilot, a 49-year-old Texan named Kirby Chambliss, handed me a parachute before we boarded: bad omen number one. He said with a laugh that I wouldn’t be needing it. But as he revved the engine of this cramped, 1,200-pound carbon-fiber plane at the top of his private runway, he clarified: The parachute wouldn’t do me any good because he liked to fly three feet off the ground. I’d never make it out alive if I jumped.

Chambliss is an elite competitive air race pilot, a pioneer in a sport for people with a death wish. Think The Fast and the Furious, except instead of burning rubber and peeling around streetlights, pilots rocket just above the ground at speeds of up to 230 mph and careen through 65-foot-high inflated nylon cones. Sound lethal? It is: At the 2007 Reno National Championship Air Races, an annual amateur event, three pilots died in crashes, and another died in a practice flight there this year. Statistically, air racing is likely one of the deadliest sports ever invented.

In the Red Bull Air Race World Series, pilots like Chambliss navigate the obstacle course one by one, racing against the clock. (At the Reno races, planes speed through the course in packs of eight or six, allowing them to easily collide—and dramatically increasing the risk of fatalities.) Course layouts vary by location, but they usually cover a three- to four-mile “track” marked by several pylon gates, which pilots must pass through at exact 90- or 180-degree angles, plus a slalom of additional cones. (Most pilots finish in little over a minute.) Made of a thin sail-like material, the pylons are designed to disintegrate on contact, but hitting one could be deadly, as it can still throw the plane dangerously off-balance. Even if a pilot survives, the collision will earn him a major time penalty: 10 seconds, a virtual disqualification.

The sport has existed in varying amateur forms since the early 1900s, with one-off races staged sporadically all over the world ever since. Back then pilots competed in boxy wooden biplanes, but competition fueled innovation. By 1933 biplanes had largely given way to the more aerodynamic monoplane and wood had changed to steel; today most racing planes, which can cost as much as $300,000, are made of superlightweight carbon fiber.

Despite air racing’s long history, it wasn’t until 2005 that Red Bull gave Chambliss and his kamikaze brethren the opportunity to become full-time professionals. In three years the company has created an inter­national circuit traditionally consisting of 10 closed-course races, each taking place in a different city over a period of eight months between April and November. The series champion is determined via performance-based point totals accumulated over the season (Chambliss is second in the overall standings heading into the final race in Perth, Australia on November 2).

Thanks to the skill and daring of the circuit’s 12 elite pilots, an international roster of mostly forty- and fiftysomething daredevils who’ve won numerous aerobatic competitions in their respective countries (meaning they’re masters of rolls, dives, and other stunts), the sport has taken off. Though initially more of a draw overseas, air racing has recently struck a chord with American fans: This year’s race in San Diego saw 120,000 spectators, while 750,000 people attended the June race in Detroit.

But those sunny stats belie air racing’s frightening reality. Over the Reno race’s 45-year history alone, 19 pilots have died. And while no one has been killed yet on Red Bull’s pro circuit, some pilots suggest it’s just a matter of time. Two months later I see Chambliss at work in San Diego, the first U.S. stop of the 2008 series. He bolts out of the sky above the harbor and roars past masses of awestruck spectators, pushing himself to the limit in a 10 G turn. F-16s max out at 9 Gs, and most humans black out at six. Chambliss’ face puckers as he tries to stay conscious, but he survives, qualifying for the next round. The crowd aahs.

Along the shore spectators throw back beers and gawk at the spectacle of a plane buzzing past them at 230 mph, looking as if it’s about to shear their heads off their shoulders. Beside me is a group of car racing fans in their 20s who drove as much as four hours to attend their first air race. Says Logan Lopaz, a 25-year-old Porsche mechanic, “If I’ve got a choice between watching one horsepower or 340, I’ll take 340.”

“The things I do push the limits of what’s possible,” Chambliss says after landing. “But no one would watch if I was flying slow.” Chambliss’ wife, Kellie, says her friends “think he’s crazy.” But she knows risk-taking is in her husband’s blood: His father was a sky­diving instructor in Corpus Christi, Texas, and some of Chambliss’ earliest memories are of huddling among parachutes at 10,000 feet. After earning his pilot’s license at 18, he enrolled in an aerobatics class to improve his ability to handle engine failure. But from the first time he flipped a plane upside down, he knew he’d found his calling: “That first roll just blew open the possibilities of what I could do.”

From a hangar across the taxiway, 41-year-old Austrian Hannes Arch eyes Chambliss. Arch is a top air racer and one of Chambliss’ main rivals. Before joining the Red Bull series, Arch tested paragliders for a living. South African Glen Dell was a helicopter pilot in his country’s air force, and British racer Nigel Lamb has been a Hollywood stunt pilot. For many of these guys, racing might actually be a less risky career choice. “The game we are playing is really dangerous,” Arch says in thickly accented English. When I ask him why he does it, his eyes flash. “We are flying for ego—to be the best.”

They’re certainly not flying for prize money: There isn’t any. Red Bull pays its flyers a flat fee to subsidize their expenses—reportedly, about $50,000 per race, including transport for their planes to locations as far away as the United Arab Emirates. But so as not to incentivize recklessness, there is no monetary award for a first-place finish. That, of course, doesn’t keep the racers from becoming a bit obsessed with winning.

Another plane roars straight at the crowd, causing a collective jerk. At the last second the pilot banks hard to the right and enters the slalom. This is Chambliss’ chief rival: Mike Mangold, a cantankerous 53-year-old from Cincinnati. For years Chambliss consistently beat Mangold in amateur aerobatics championships. Mangold now views the Red Bull series as an opportunity for retribution; last year he took the title from Chambliss (2006 champ) and has poured all his resources into his plane during the off-season in an attempt to repeat. His tinkering pays off; Mangold wins the race.

Making matters more challenging here in San Diego: All the pylons are floating on barges. That means even the slightest wave could shift one of the 46-foot-wide gates each pilot must thread. At the least, it forces the pilots to slow down; at most, it could kill them. That’s partly why the flyers refer to this series as the most dangerous motor sport in the world. “In NASCAR you smash into a wall, most of the time you get out and throw your helmet at the ground,” Chambliss says. “One mistake in an air race, you’re dead.”

The air racing community is all too aware of the risks—but the danger only seems to motivate them. Smokey Young, a former F-111 Air Force pilot, watched one of his closest friends die in a collision last year in Reno. But he was racing again when the competition resumed the following day. “I was born to do this,” he says. “Racing is what we do. It’s who we are.”

Young explains that he briefly tried working as a commercial pilot after leaving the Air Force, but it left him unsatisfied. “Air racing allowed me to let my fangs out again,” he says.

Chambliss, who flew Cessnas in the ’80s for La Quinta hotel execs, agrees. The rush of racing has him hooked, even after a near-fatal crash during a 2001 exhibition over a river in Jilin, China. He hit the water at 170 mph, broke his ribs, and tore open his head. But he pulled himself out of the wrecked cockpit and was flying again a month later. Why? “It’s like being on a roller coaster in the sky with no tracks.”