2007 Red Bull Air Race World Series: Round 9 — San Diego, CA
Later in this column you’ll read what one of the pilots told me about some of the challenges that they all face in these air races, but first I’ll give you some background. The Red Bull Air Race World Series kicked off San Diego’s “Fleet Week” (a month-long plus celebration honoring the men and women serving in the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps – see www.fleetweeksandiego.org). The air race series is a truly international motorsports spectacle, with events in the Middle East (Abu Dhabi), Brazil (Rio de Janeiro), Turkey (Istanbul), Switzerland (Interlaken), England (London), Hungary (Budapest), Portugal (Porto), Australia (Perth) and the United States (Monument Valley, which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, and San Diego).
The inaugural San Diego round took place over San Diego Bay by the Embarcadero – right next to downtown! Unlike the river courses found at some of the other stops in the series, the additional width of San Diego Bay made for a very different course with more twists and sharp turns. That gave the pilots more flexibility in the racing “lines” that they chose.
The pilots represent countries from around the world, including the United Kingdom, Hungary, Spain, Austria, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany and the USA. Several are commercial airline pilots, as well as stunt and air show pilots. Their hobbies include hang gliding, skiing, off-road motorcycling, skydiving and car racing. These are thrill seekers who love speed.
Friday was qualifying day. While I was waiting in line for my Media credential, a cameraman told me that some lucky (?) journalists got thrilling plane rides the day before in a special two-seat version of planes used for racing. He added that he’d secretly asked the pilot of the stunt plane to perform an extreme stunt maneuver while his producer took her ride. He did and she apparently enjoyed it tremendously. I have a whole year to decide whether or not to try getting my own ride next time – for photos to share with you.
Before qualifying began, we were treated to the first of several air shows over San Diego Bay. The Navy and Coast Guard performed a demonstration of how they recover people from the water. One of their helicopters hovered so low that spectators on shore were showered with water for a few minutes. That felt good on this sunny afternoon but it left a stubborn coating of ocean water on my camera’s lens.
Other aerial displays included a performance by Red Bull’s elite skydiving team, MiG and vintage WWII military aircraft flybys, and a special helicopter demonstration which included some incredible upside-down flight.
Qualifying was next. Since qualifying flights are done one plane at a time against the clock just like the race flights are, they were equally exciting to watch.
The planes are lightweight, aerodynamic racers made of rigid composite materials and with a high power-to-weight ratio. They are said to be more agile than modern fighter jets. The best and most popular of these is the Zivko Edge 540, with a top speed of 265 mph and a weight of only 1,168 pounds. It can withstand forces of up to 15Gs (15 times normal gravity).
The course was marked by huge inflated pylons, which sat atop substantial floating barges. Their conical shape helps make the pylons stable. They can resist winds up to 33 mph. Yet even though the pylons look quite solid, their fabric is designed to tear easily and give way quite safely if planes strike them – as some photos that I took of a plane’s wing hitting one show.
Pilot Michael Goulian explained what happens after a pylon is hit and how that affects the other pilots waiting to take their turn on course: “We all have 50 liters of fuel so it’s about, what, 14 gallons. They will let us know the second somebody hits a pylon. We all throttle back and start saving fuel.
Their job, as the pylon crew, is to get the pylon back up within five minutes.” “I don’t know if you can tell but the pylons are actually made in layers, so when somebody hits one, they know which layer broke. There’s a zipper on them, a plastic zipper, so they actually unzip that one and zip a new one on and blow it back up.”
I was curious to hear how these pylons get hit so I asked Michael about that. He told me “because the wind is blowing a certain direction, what ends up happening is it’s a judgment call. When you go through the third gate, the fourth gate is out here, so you’re looking at it in the airplane going ‘well, okay, how far do I actually have to go to make it to this gate?’ If you pull it too tight and there’s a crosswind, the airplane actually comes sideways. So although the nose is pointing between the pylons, the airplane actually has a sideward drift and that’s what happens. . . . You think you’re flying straight but the airplane’s actually going sideways.”
Once cleared to start their run, each pilot has to turn on their plane’s smoke (which makes it much easier to see and follow them) and then pass between the start/finish pylons doing, which starts the electronic timing. At that point they were doing about 190 mph. On this course they were experiencing up to 10Gs (ten times their normal weight) as they sharply banked their planes left and right while maneuvering through the course, twice.
Penalties are assessed for not passing through gates at the correct height, incorrect level or knife-edge crossings, touching a pylon and so on.
Despite predictions of rain – something absent from San Diego’s weather for months, each afternoon’s races were held under beautiful blue skies.
While I was talking to another journalist, she noticed a familiar face in the crowd. It was Milka Duno, Grand American Rolex Sports Car Championship and IndyCar Series driver. I went over and spoke with Milka for a few minutes about her somewhat disappointing IndyCar season this year. She is looking forward to a time when she will have a more competitive race car.
After taking some pictures from areas that were reserved for the Media, I left and easily found good, different vantage points for taking photos on the shoreline amongst the spectators.
Typically at the automobile races that I cover, the drivers are busy and mobbed by fans wherever they go. I’ve never been able to get much, if any, of their time one-on-one to ask them questions. The situation here was refreshingly different.
When qualifying ended on Friday, members of the Media were taken by bus from the Embarcadero and driven to Brown Field. Located close to the border with Mexico, this airfield is where the race planes took off and landed from. Since it was rush hour on a Friday afternoon, I especially appreciated not having to drive there; or having to search for (and pay for) a new parking place when I returned on Friday evening to downtown San Diego.
At Brown Field the race planes were arranged for our viewing pleasure. There were also a few historic airplanes there. Late afternoon made the lighting dramatic.
In front of each race plane stood its pilot, who posed for photos and answered our questions.
Pilot Michael Goulian spoke to us at length. It was fascinating to hear what he had to say. A journalist asked Michael if he was bothered by the wind today. In response he told us that “I can’t say bothered by the wind but it added another challenge. The wind all week has been coming from the north; today it came from the south, so everything that we did in practice – you can throw it away.” I followed up with: “Is that why sometimes people went too high?” (which incurs a time penalty), to which Michael replied “What ended up happening is your ground speed through the first gate was faster than it has been, which makes everything else more difficult. I don’t know if you can tell but you come through the chicane in the beginning and then you try to get to that third gate? It’s almost impossible. If you don’t get it correct in the chicane you’re not going to get it. . . . If you’re even a little too fast, if you’re not in shape there, you’re going to have trouble with the third gate – which is what you saw happen today.”
Someone asked: “Are you working the throttle much or is it just full throttle?” Michael’s reply began with a short burst of laughter, followed by: “We have all the engine’s tuned so all the cylinders are very even in temperature. We lean the engines out, get maximum power, get it right to the red line. . . . We’re running them about 2,875 rpms. These things will give you about an inch and a half rise in manifold pressure, so about 31 ½ inches. This track, the way this track is set up, the starting speed? – I look for 190 on my airspeed indicator. Some guys might do 200, other guys might do 180. For me 190 is a good number that I can get through the chicane and then into gate three really well.”
“Some other tracks, like Portugal (which) we were just in, it’s just as fast as you can make it, so 230, 240, as fast as you can get down there. Here it is so technical from gate one to the chicane and gate three, that speed is not as much of a factor as doing it right.”
I asked him how, when and why he got involved in this: “I grew up in an airport. My family has an aviation business. I just started, like all of us here, flying aerobatics. This is one of those things that grew out of the aerobatic world. For me, I fly air shows half the season and do this half the year. . . . I go back and forth. . . . I’ve done all (these) races except for London.” “I have one dedicated race plane and one aerobatic plane.”
Given that these planes move at high speeds through the air, I asked if it gets hot in the cockpit: “Yes, there actually used to be vents on the side of the canopy but we fiberglassed them in so there’s no air in them at all.”
I asked if they wear parachutes: “Legally you have to wear a parachute, so everybody’s wearing a chute. We know of some people that have essentially bailed out of these airplanes over the years.”
Then the discussion turned to the subject of what is carried on the plane and how it affects its racing weight. Here is an example: The smoke is produced from “a very thin paraffin-based oil.” “In the air show plane you want it to put out as much smoke as you can; in the race plane, as little as you can. It’s weight, so what most of the guys are doing is turning the pumps down and we have huge restrictors in there. In my air show plane we’re pumping a gallon a minute, here a quarter of a gallon a minute. It’s just enough before the race guys say hey, your smoke is too thin. It’s all weight, you know.”
“We’re required to carry 50 liters (of fuel) for the race, which is enough fuel to get up there, loiter around a bit, let a couple guys hit some pylons and then still have enough fuel to get back.” . . . “When you’re on the track (fuel consumption is) about 33 gallons a minute.”
After our informative interview and photo session, we were driven back to the Embarcadero. From there we were taken by another bus to the USS Midway – the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy and now a floating museum. On its flight deck, hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served, and we had an opportunity to enjoy its historic military aircraft and the nighttime San Diego skyline.
Later the party moved downstairs, into the huge interior of the carrier. Flight simulators were there for us to try and there was a large dance floor. I’ve never seen so many photographers at a dance, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind us as we all circulated about and took photos.
Red Bull certainly knows how to throw a great party for a large number of people. I stayed too late – and paid for it the next day.
Even though it was late by the time that I got home, I still had work to do. Before going out on the second day’s shoot I wanted to spot-check some of my photos on my computer’s large monitor, since the tiny, low resolution monitor on my cameras is too small to reveal possible problems like soft focus. It was while checking some photos that I discovered a rather large, nasty speck of foreign material visible in many of my shots.
That is a nagging, ongoing problem that affects cameras with interchangeable lenses. Every time you remove a lens and replace it with another, especially outside on location at shoots, you run the risk of having dust and debris get blown into the camera. That can end up on the back element of a lens. This problem is compounded in digital cameras, which utilize an extremely delicate and expensive electronic sensor instead of film to capture each image. If this foreign material finds its way to the image sensor, one or more telltale blobs will appear in every single photo – although they may not be noticeable in some, depending upon what they are covering.
Nikon does not recommend that users attempt to clean these sensors, since they are very easily damaged and very expensive to replace. So, in the past when my image sensor got dirty, I took the camera to Nikon’s service facility in the Los Angeles area to have it cleaned. After they did so they shipped the camera back to me. However I did not have the time to do so. I had to return to taking more photos almost immediately. I had no choice but to try to carefully clean it myself – for the very first time. I used up precious time on Saturday morning researching how to safely do that, and then went for it. The photos that I took later show that I was successful. Frankly, with a little common sense and caution, it was easy to do.
By the time I was ready to leave and drive back to the race, it was early afternoon. I had committed to do my first live radio call-in to “You-Auto-Know” – a KCEO AM1000 San Diego radio program that I now co-host on a weekly basis with Dave Stall, longtime San Diego automotive and motorsports personality. The show is broadcast between 1 and 3 PM on Saturdays, so I needed to phone in sometime during those hours.
I got to the north end of downtown about 2:15, leaving me ¾ of an hour to park, walk somewhere near the air race and make my call. That should have been plenty of time but traffic had slowed to at a snail’s pace. It seemed like with every change of the traffic lights, only a few cars were making it across each downtown intersection. When I finally got to the San Diego Convention Center, where I thought I was going to park, it was about 2:30 – and the lot was completely full. I politely explained to the parking attendant that I needed to park so that I could do a live radio remote before three but to no avail – he would not let me enter the lot. I tried two other places and had the same result. I even asked if they would just let me pull in temporarily so that I could file the report from my car, but they refused. By 2:40 I was getting desperate, so I pulled over into a loading dock.
I got out of my car, grabbed my papers with some talking points, spread them out in the hatch of my car and tried calling into the radio station. After explaining that I was not phoning to enter the CORR contest, for which they had already declared a winner, I was put on hold – and then my Verizon cell phone dropped the call (“can you hear me now?”). I phoned in a second time and the call got dropped again, shortly thereafter. I tried walking to the other end of my car and I called a third time. This time the call was not dropped I got on the air with Dave.
Things were going just great with my call-in until a pedestrian stopped nearby and started shouting at someone across the street. I was directly in-between him and the object of his attention. Since there was no one to ask him to be quiet and I dared not move for fear of having my call dropped by Verizon again, I did my best to ignore his shouting and finish answering Dave’s questions about the Red Bull Air Race and my recent experiences with the 2008 Ford Focus. As I said, that was my first time phoning in a live report by cell phone to our show. Hopefully the next time will be a little easier.
The racing action on Saturday was much like the qualifying action on Friday, except that many more spectators were there to enjoy it. I learned afterwards that the crowd was estimated at 50,000. That’s great for a first time motorsports event in San Diego.
After the competition was over and before the awards presentation, the Navy entertained us with a very special air show. While a Navy spokesman told us about what we were watching, we got to see a mid-air refueling demonstration, a “dirty” flyby (landing gear down), a high speed flyby and more.
The San Diego Red Bull Air Race was won by Great Britain’s Paul Bonhomme (Team Matador) with a fast time of 1:23.80, followed closely by Kirby Chambliss (USA – Team Red Bull) and then Nigel Lamb (Great Britain – Team Breitling). At the closing awards ceremony, special recognition was given to the invaluable efforts of Mayor Jerry Sanders, the U.S. Navy and Stephen P. Cushman (Commissioner, Unified Port of San Diego).
Bonhomme’s win erased his two-point series deficit and moved him into a two-point lead over American Mike Mangold, who finished a disappointing fifth in San Diego.
This Red Bull Air Race was very exciting as you will be able to see for yourself on television. Watch for it on FSN on Nov. 11, 12 and 14.
This year’s race is over but hopefully the Red Bull Air Race will become an annual event here in “America’s Finest City,” just like the previous weekend’s Thunderboats Regatta. The final race of 2007 will be held in Perth, Australia on Nov. 3 and 4. To learn more, go to www.redbullairrace.com.