The exhilarating -- and highly dangerous -- sport of air racing
Flying through the air at 200 mph at low altitudes, slaloming through the sky ...
Are these highly skilled pilots stunt artists, thrill seekers or just plain crazy?
Air racing is quickly gaining popularity and comes to New York City this weekend
Flying through the sky at 210 mph, his airplane careening out of control, the water below approaching rapidly, Adilson Kindlemann was in trouble.
Kindlemann is a 37-year-old rookie pilot on the Red Bull Air Racing circuit, and he had just entered the racecourse over the waters of the Swan River in Perth, Australia, on April 15 for his first practice flight of the weekend. In Red Bull Air Racing, pilots maneuver one at a time through a series of 65-foot-tall inflatable gates and cones -- think slalom skiing in the sky -- at heights as low as 10 feet and at speeds as high as 235 mph. There's an oh-so-delicate balance between maintaining control while fighting organ-moving G-forces and achieving top speed through the course, and now Kindlemann, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was about to live out the worst fear of pilots in air racing: crashing in the water.
As he sliced through the gates on this gray afternoon, an unexpected gust of wind -- perhaps as strong as 40 mph -- blew across the water. In an instant, the left wing of his propeller-driven MXS-R aircraft stalled, losing aerodynamic lift. At a little more than 200 mph, the lightweight carbon fiber plane plummeted left wing first into the river. A geyser of water shot into the air and enveloped the plane, and it flipped once. When it finally came to rest upside-down, Kindlemann was conscious but disoriented. Water gushed into the cockpit. He grabbed the oxygen bottle that every pilot carries, but the cold, murky water poured in so quickly that he lost hold of the bottle after only a few breaths. With more than 140,000 fans on the shoreline watching, it appeared that Kindlemann was about to become the first fatality in the history of Red Bull Air Racing.
Two days earlier Kindlemann had spent several hours in a swimming pool in Perth simulating this exact scenario. Along with other Red Bull Air Racing pilots, Kindlemann experienced being submerged upside-down in a makeshift cockpit, and was taught how to calmly evacuate. It had seemed so easy then. But now he couldn't breathe. He couldn't see. For the first time in his life he experienced an entirely new emotion, one that he never felt in his more than 1,200 hours of acrobatic flying: he was terrified.
The moment Kindlemann splashed into the water, three divers perched atop high-speed Sea-Doos at river's edge hit their accelerators, buzzing toward the crash site. Time -- what a racing pilot lives by, what he's constantly challenging, monitoring, fighting -- was more precious than ever now. Within a minute, the divers reached Kindlemann's overturned plane and jumped into the water.
Another minute passed. The crowd was silent; the wind whistled off the water, everyone's eyes riveted on the downed plane. But then a diver emerged with Kindlemann in his arms. The two were pulled by safety workers into a rescue boat, which raced to land. Ten minutes after he went into the water, Kindlemann was on a gurney in the emergency room at Royal Perth Hospital. Lying here, looking at the ER ceiling, he couldn't believe his luck: Aside from whiplash, he suffered no injuries.
"I will never stop flying," says Kindlemann, who was released from the hospital 24 hours after his crash and will return to racing when the circuit stops in Berlin in July. "It was really dark and scary being in the water. I didn't like it. In this sport things happen in fractions of a second. I know the risk. Looking back, it seems like it wasn't me. Because when I see video of it, I think one thing: That guy in there is dead. He must be. I only believe he's not because, well ... I'm that guy. I wonder some times who we are. Sometimes, it's hard to believe what we do."
It is hard to believe, virtually everything about air racing. On Sunday the Red Bull Air Racing circuit, which consists of 10 races around the globe, will swoop into New York City for the first time for a race over the Hudson River between Lower Manhattan and Jersey City. With the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop and the skyscrapers of Midtown looming the distance, the pilots will attack a 3.2-mile course with seven gates and 13 pylons. "The New York City track is so tight that it will be like watching bumble bees in a jam jar," says one pilot. "The will be no cigar moments for the pilots, no time to enjoy the scenery."
So what is the seductive allure of air racing? Why do some well-heeled fans pay $1,700 to sit in the Red Bull High Flyers Club to drink Champaign, nibble on steak and lobster dishes served by model-worthy waitresses, watch the race, and mingle with the pilots afterward? Why have Bill Gates and Sir Ben Kingsley attended races in Abu Dhabi, and why has John Travolta gushed breathlessly about the day he attended an event in London? They will all tell you the same thing: It begins with the sensory overload of the total experience, of seeing these speed machines dance through the sky with the silkiness of Astaire in a ballroom, as if gravity doesn't apply, as if watching Hollywood's best special effects come to life, in 3-D, just a football field or two away.
First the plane, which has taken off from an airport miles away, appears as a speck on the horizon. Over a PA system, the race director announces that the pilot has been cleared to compete -- the equivalent of Gentlemen, start your engines! As the plane nears the course, the thrill of possibility pumps through the crowd of the thousands that have lined up along the water, the noise level rising with every heartbeat. Then, suddenly, the plane swoops down from 1,000 feet to 20, the roar of its 350-horsepower engine so loud you feel it sledgehammer your eardrums, thump your chest, and tap your temples. The plane weaves though the course, executing impossibly sharp turns just a few feet above the water at over 200 mph. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, the plane thunders away into the distance, once again becoming a speck on the horizon. It is an intoxicating minute of racing -- a dazzling display of hand-eye coordination, stamina, and, let's be honest here, profound guts.
"This sport is as close as you'll get to achieving the dream of strapping wings onto your back and seeing what you can do," says pilot Nigel Lamb. "I actually feel as if the plane is strapped to me and I use my body to find the perfect line through the track. It's beautiful."