A Red Bull Air Race pilot typically navigates a multi-kilometre racetrack of 25-metre-high pylons in under 60 seconds, packing in chicanes, high-G turns and a minefield of possible penalties. Winning requires split-second reactions while flying at 370kmh and bearing G loads equivalent to around 1,000kg.
"People don't understand how hard the race is. You have to try to eke out the very last little bit," says US pilot Michael Goulian.
Because the margins can come down to one ten-thousandth of a second, even the slightest bauble – a momentary hesitation or the stutter of a wing stall – may cost a team the race. So penalties, ranging from one second all the way to disqualification, are downright devastating.
Petr Kopfstein emphasises, "You have only one chance. It's one minute to fit everything in, and there's no room for any mistake."
Take one of the more common calls, Incorrect Level Flying. In the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, pilots receive a two-second penalty if their wings are 10 degrees or more out of level when they pass between the two pylons of an Air Gate.
How hard can it be? Let's talk roll rate: If you imagine an axis running from the raceplane's nose to the tail, "roll" is rotation around that axis as one wing goes higher than the other. A World Championship raceplane has a roll rate of 420 degrees per second. Now think of trying to suddenly find level when your plane can roll over a full revolution with every tick of the clock!
Canadian pilot Pete McLeod explains, "You have about a half of a tenth of a second to stop it there. These kinds of values are amazing when you think about human reaction, and we're doing this well over 300 kilometres an hour."
With the raceplanes flying so fast, the Air Gates are flashing by. The time pilots have to accurately initiate the sport's iconic, high-G Vertical Turning Manoeuvres is minute as well. McLeod describes, "It's instant. It's 0.03 seconds to 10Gs."
G-force refers to the pull of gravity or acceleration on the body. If you experience 2G, your body feels twice as heavy as your weight; threeG, three times as heavy, and so on. The maximum allowed G in the World Championship rules is 12, and while the highest G levels are momentary rather than sustained, G force is what Goulian calls "the invisible enemy in the cockpit."
"It's there to try to knock you off your game," he relates. "Your hand weighs 10 times [or more] its weight. And when you're trying to move the stick just millimetres to make the right amount of G, it's very difficult to get that precision."
When Australia's Matt Hall is fully kitted out with equipment including his parachute and helmet, he weighs 75kg. "If you pull 12G, you're looking at about 900 kilos on my entire body. My spine has got to support that weight," he reveals. With Hall having one of the smaller statures in the lineup, 12Gs of force is likely to equal nearly 1,000kg for others.
"Twelve Gs is much more than even F1 drivers are experiencing, so it's really tough on the body," admits Kopfstein. Spain's Juan Velarde describes an accordion effect: "Your whole body is stretched and compressed, but your hand still has to be smooth and clean."
How do the pilots manage to compete at such a high level, especially factoring in stress and potential distractions that surround each high-profile race?
Intensive physical and mental training is a must. But also, like any top motorsport, success in the Red Bull Air Race requires a team. "Make sure that you've got a team you know and trust. The team are looking after the plane, and they're looking after you," Hall states.
Then, the best runs happen when the pilot is in the zone, or as live broadcast commentator Paul Bonhomme says, "On rails."
McLeod refers to muscle memory, and Kopfstein elaborates, "Everything has to be automatic... precise."
Goulian concurs: "A really good race pilot doesn't think about anything except flying fast. You have to be able to withstand the pressure of all those external factors, and that's the difference between winning and losing: How well can you can fly on the edge under pressure?"