Evolution of the raceplane
When the Red Bull Air Race began back in 2003, pilots competed in several different aircraft. Paul Bonhomme explained that it was a "run what you brung" set up. This meant whatever was in your hangar at the time was competitive enough to be flown in the Air Race.
It's a completely different story now. Pilots are backed by structured teams. The race hangars are full of tacticians, aerodynamicists and technicians all trying to discover a new way of shaving time off the pilot's run.
To discover how the raceplanes have developed over the years, we spoke to Kirby Chambliss, who has been racing since the start of the series and has experienced first-hand the changes and developments within the sport. "When we first started out back in 2003 we were flying in Sukhois [Russian-built aircraft with big radial engines], straight wing Extras, and I was flying the two-seat Edge," explained Chambliss. "Nicolas was flying a CAP232, which is a fantastic aerobatic aircraft, but a horrible raceplane."
A line up of early raceplanes, including a CAP232, Extras, Edges and a Sukhoi Su-26M
As the series progressed and the time difference between pilots dropped from 3s to 0.03s, the teams began to explore ways to make their planes slicker and faster. But the modifications don't always go how the team wants. "For me I find it frustrating sometimes when you're trying to make these raceplanes faster and your mod doesn't work," said Chambliss. "We were kidding the other day about how many parts I've got in the back of the hangar that don't work, even though people told us they would. It's amazing how much money you can spend on mods – it can make your head spin. The only consistent thing I've learned is that if it works, you pay. If it doesn't work, you pay. No matter what, you pay!"
Chambliss' early Edge 540, with straight wingtips and a large canopy
Currently there are two types of raceplane, and both look very different to the standard models that roll off the production line. "These days, there are two different raceplanes, and they're highly modified. The Edge 540 V3 and MXS-R were built specifically for racing, and we're still modifying them. It never stops. It's changed so much over the years," said Chambliss.
One thing is for sure – the competitiveness of the series has made the World Championship much more thrilling. "When we first started it wasn't unusual for times to be 3 seconds apart. At one race this year there were 12 of us within half a second. That's not very long, and makes the series so much more exciting," Chambliss concluded.