Part of an attention-getting display in downtown San Diego
Part of an attention-getting display in downtown San Diego


High-speed racing over San Diego Bay

After an absence of eight years, the globe-spanning Red Bull Air Race series returned to picturesque San Diego in 2017.

2008 Red Bull Air Race in San Diego

In Red Bull Air Race competition, pilots maneuver their purpose-built, single seater, prop driven aircraft through the high G-force course one-at-a-time. Their goal is to set the quickest time within the rules, which demand incredibly precise and high-speed flying.

The racecourse is defined by a series of Air Gates – towering, inflatable pylons that are placed individually and in pairs. In the case of the San Diego event, these pylons sit atop floating bases in San Diego Bay.

Even the souvenirs are cool

The electronic timing is activated when a plane crosses the start line, and ends when the raceplane crosses the checkered Air Gate at the finish line.

Matthias Dolderer crossing the checkered Air Gate

USS San Diego (LPD-22) — San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock — crossing the checkered Air Gate

In between, the pilots must fly the course horizontally…

Note the struck pylon, which is inflated with high pressure air

… except for in the Chicane, where they must negotiate a challenging line of single pylons – quickly turning in and out between them, slalom style.

Chicane pylons on floating platforms in San Diego Bay

Any way you look at it, the visual backdrop for the San Diego round is absolutely spectacular.

The San Diego skyline

From the San Diego side of San Diego Bay you would have seen the peninsula of Coronado and the picture-postcard-perfect, long and curving, iconic Coronado Bridge.

Coronado and Coronado Bridge

USS America LHA-6 — Amerca-class amphibious assault ship passes under the Coronado Bridge

Alternatively, from the Coronado side, the view is of San Diego – renowned as “America’s Finest City” and “the birthplace of naval aviation.”

San Diego Convention Center

This year, marking a first for San Diego, there were two classes of competition: the Master Class and the Challenger Class.

Side act: AquaFly

The Challenger Class was created to help prepare the next generation of Red Bull Air Race pilots to obtain their competition license for the Master Class, which is at the pinnacle of the competition. To qualify for the Challenger Cup, the Challenger Class pilots must fly in a minimum of three of the opening seven races of the season, and only the top three results of each pilot will count in the overall standings, so fans may not necessarily see some of the Challenger Class pilots competing at any particular event. After the seventh race the top six pilots will be qualified to compete in the final.

Side act: Bo105 aerobatic helicopter demonstration of death-defying looping flight

Fifth Avenue, downtown San Diego, in The Historic Gaslamp Quarter

Publicizing the return of the Red Bull Air Race to San Diego in 2017

Taking the San Diego Trolley to the San Diego Convention Center is the quick, easy and inexpensive way to travel to the Red Bull Air Race

This year’s Challenger Class includes Mélanie Astles, a five-time French Aerobatic Champion who in 2016 became the first female pilot in the Red Bull Air Race. She did not compete in San Diego. Following the September event in Portugal, Florian Bergér of Germany – who won in San Diego – is comfortably in first place in the Challenger Class Championship, followed by Kevin Coleman of the USA.

In San Diego’s Master Class, 14 pilots competed. Matthias Dolderer of Germany emerged from the Saturday qualification rounds on top of the standings. The three top qualifiers (Dolderer, Michael Goulian of the USA and Martin Sonka of Czechoslovakia) were separated by less than a second. Dolderer “once compared the precision flying of the Red Bull Air Race to trying to park a car in a garage while travelling at nearly 400kmh” (that’s VERY fast).

Inflatable pylon tour. Note the nine segments of progressively lightweight material & the straight inner edge.

Climbing inside an inflatable pylon

Sophisticated electronics and agile crews on a speedboats keep the pylons inflated

A crew reinflating a pylon that was hit

Peter Podlunsek of Slovenia – a past graduate of the Challenger Class – shone in the Master Class competition’s “Round of 14,” taking a convincing early lead, but he lost that lead in the “Round of 8” to Japan’s Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya. The stage was set for a shoot-out with the quickest four pilots, who would soon determine the San Diego champion.

A crew reinflating a pylon that was hit

Pylon reinflated and ready for the next air racer. Note the straight inner edges that create a perfect flight window.

Ready to reinflate the next downed pylon

Podlunsek posted a solid time to beat. Dolderer accepted that challenge but, in doing so, earned himself a three-second penalty for clipping a pylon. He finished in third place. American Kirby Chamblis also received a time penalty for “Incorrect Passing of an Air Gate: Flying Too High.” That left “Yoshi” Muroya on top, with a clean best run and maximum points (15).

(left to right) Florian Bergér (1st. Place – Challenger Class); Master Class: Mathias Dolderer – 3rd. Place, Peter Podlunsek – 2nd. Place, “Yoshi” Muroya – 1st. Place & Kirby Chambliss – 4th. Place

Ever the optimist, “Yoshi” is known for having brought pre-race meditation to the sport, which certainly seems to be working for him. His path to the Red Bull Air Race began with flying gliders at his university glider club in 1991. He transitioned to aerobatic flying in 1996.

Yoshihide “Yoshi” Muroya, Japan: 1st. Place, San Diego Red Bull Air Race

With just two events remaining, including the final in Indianapolis (the second of the two US events), the series championship is far from decided. Just ten points separate the top four pilots: Martin Sonka (Czechoslovakia), Pete McLeod (Canada), Kirby Chamblis (USA) and “Yoshi” Muroya (Japan). The next round, sure to be exciting, will be the weekend of Sept. 16-17 in Lausitz, Germany. For more information, visit


Jan Wagner

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