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How to become an Air Race pilot

Sammy Mason on what it takes

Since the Red Bull Air Race first took off in 2003, only about 50 pilots have earned the right to race through the Air Gates in the Master Class and Challenger Class. What does it take to break into these elite ranks?

Even from the early days, the pilots flying for the Red Bull Air Race title were in a class of their own. The same is true now, and the introduction of the Challenger Cup feeder category in 2014 has added an important first stage for aspiring candidates. Today, a minimum of one year’s experience in the Challenger Class is the compulsory first step toward earning the Master Class Super Licence that entitles a pilot to participate in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Whether they come to the sport from competitive aerobatics, military flying, airshows or commercial aviation, most Red Bull Air Race pilots have been passionate about flight from childhood, and all have spent years building their skills. For example, this season’s newcomers to the Challenger Class – Vito Wyprächtiger, Patrick Strasser and Sammy Mason – have a combined total of more than 12,000 hours in the air, as well as experience that ranges from serving as a test pilot and flying an air ambulance to performing in airshows. All three have won aerobatic championships.

Take Mason, a third-generation aviator. Barely 25, he is the youngest pilot in the history of the Red Bull Air Race, but he already possesses outstanding credentials. “I grew up on an airport. My mom flies, my dad flies, my grandfather flew, uncles, cousins… everybody. It’s all I know and it’s my passion,” he shares.

Mason avidly followed the careers of Air Racing pilots Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and I set up my career with an end goal of making it into the Red Bull Air Race,” he recounts. At age 21 Mason was one of the youngest ever to be invited to give an airshow performance at the world-famous EAA AirVenture fly-in, and by now he’s been competing in aerobatics for nearly nine years, plus he also flies private jets. “It really takes about that much to get your name out there, and the experience you need to compete in the Red Bull Air Race,” he explains.

Like Mason, all aspiring contenders write their resume in the sky. Candidates are typically discovered by expert internal scouts, who check out events worldwide. However, Mason’s potential was originally identified through a recommendation from Goulian, a Master Class pilot since 2005. “It’s funny, but I see a lot of myself in Sammy as far as growing up around planes and being an ‘airport kid’ like I was, though Sammy is way more laid back than me – I think it’s the California in him,” Goulian says with a smile. He goes on, “I think Sammy is the ideal type of pilot that will be successful in the Red Bull Air Race. He is already an awesome aviator.”

If a recommended pilot seems to have what it takes, including significant aerobatic experience and a minimum of flight hours, Red Bull Air Race Aviation may decide to conduct an interview. Next, just a handful of pilots are invited to attend a multi-day training camp. There, they are put through the paces, from conducting aerial exercises to learning to navigate actual Air Gates, all under coaching and observation from key figures in the sport, led by Race Director Steve Jones.

The ultimate test comes at a designated Qualification Camp. Those rare few who meet all requirements and confidently demonstrate the necessary skills are issued the coveted Challenger Class Super License that authorises participation in the category.

But there is still one more milestone: mastering 'Shallow Water Egress Training.' In SWET, pilots practice underwater escape techniques with the guidance of a specialist rescue team using a stripped-back fuselage submerged in a pool. The experience takes many pilots out of their comfort zone, but becoming adept at the procedures is absolutely mandatory.

Only after all these achievements can a pilot know the thrill of seeing his or her name in the Challenger Class lineup. Wyprächtiger and Strasser will premiere as the 2019 calendar continues, while Mason made his debut at February’s season opener. “It was a great moment… when I landed I kind of had chills,” Mason recalls. “I’ve been working toward it for 10 years, so it’s good to finally be here.”

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