Afloat With The Airgators

How the racetrack experts handle a season on water

In 2019, all the Red Bull Air Race stops feature racetracks over water, the toughest scenario for the Airgators team who maintain the pylons. Team Captain Holger Leprich explains the challenges and how they handle them.
“Generally, working on water is more tricky for us than on land. But not all water locations are the same,” says Leprich, whose team numbers 16 hardy souls. “This year we’ve had a closed bay in Abu Dhabi, a river in Kazan and Lake Balaton in Hungary, and next is the season finale in Chiba, Japan, which is on the open sea.”
Abu Dhabi was familiar to the Airgators, as the World Championship has opened there for 12 consecutive seasons. Because the bay is tightly surrounded by land, the team did not have to deal with high waves or a current as they helped Racetrack Operations to set up roughly 100 tonnes of Air Gate equipment, or when they manned speedboats to repair pylons, which are designed to burst harmlessly when grazed by a raceplane. 
The Russian stop over the Kazanka River was familiar as well, and happily, the Airgators had no Race Day pylon hits to address, a stark contrast to the 13 pylons dinged in the 2017 edition. But the race at Balaton was an entirely new destination. As the largest lake in Central Europe, it is known as the “Hungarian Sea,” and winds were a factor for pilots and Airgators alike. “Lake Balaton is a huge lake surrounded by flat land, so we knew we could have strong winds and rough waters. This makes the work with the pylons very special and also dangerous,” Leprich explains. “But we are trained for any conditions that can happen, which gives us the chance to do a perfect job even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.”
The brand-new site required careful study by Racetrack Operations and the Airgators. Leprich describes, “First thing when we come to a new location is to find a proper spot to set up. All Air Gates are built up on land and then lifted by crane to the water, so we needed an area that was big enough, with solid ground and access to the lake. Usually, to find such an area we go on location checks months before setup begins. But at Lake Balaton, we had a short preparation time, so tasks had to be organised and timed very accurately, to be sure we could get everything done.”
Then, when the racing started and the pylon hits commenced, as always the Airgators restored the Air Gates as fast possible, with a target of just 90 to 120 seconds to get a collapsed pylon erect again.

See the Airgators in action HERE!
September’s season finale in Chiba will be a fierce showdown for the pilots determined to clinch the World Championship, and it may be the year’s most challenging race for the Airgators as well. On the open waters of Tokyo Bay, the racetrack can be affected by high and low tides, and just anchoring the barges that bear the pylons takes extra effort. On a lake, for example, every Air Gate requires at least 400 metres of steel wire, while at Chiba each needs 550 metres because the water is deeper. And when winds kick up big waves, the barges toss, so the Airgators need all their strength and agility to clamber up and wrestle with the pylon fabric.
For safety, the Airgators are required to go ashore when winds exceed 80 km/h, but such a situation rarely happens, and they are ready for whatever the season finale may bring. “All in all, we Airgators prefer working on water, and water locations provide great views for the spectators,” Leprich remarks. “We’ve had races in Chiba before, but this is the first time that the World Championship will be decided there, and we’ll be doing our part to keep the action flying.” 

See the raceplanes – and the Airgators – in their element at the Red Bull Air Race season finale in Chiba, Japan on 7-8 September 2019, get your tickets HERE.

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