Steve Jones on Challenger training camps
The Red Bull Air Race first devised the Challenger Cup in 2014 as a feeder series for the Master Class, but before pilots can join the ranks of the series they need to make sure they’re up to the task. This is where training camps come into play.
Former race pilot and current Challenger Cup Race Director Steve Jones oversees the Challenger Cup, and along with former race pilots Klaus Schrodt and Sergey Rakhmanin, ensures that the new pilots to the Red Bull Air Race are ready to compete safely.
Before the pilots are invited to a training camp, they have been spotted by one of the three trainers. “We don’t start from a status of zero information” says Jones. “Klaus would have monitored them beforehand and knows what they’re like, and what their experience levels are like. He will also brief me so I have an idea as well.”
Away from the Air Race, Schrodt is a very well-respected competition aerobatic trainer. He hosts a number of training camps for those who are competing in the World, European and National Aerobatic Championships, and knows every competition pilot there is. “Klaus will give us a call when he’s seen someone new and then we’ll take a look at them,” explains Jones. “He finds them at aerobatic competitions, but there are also airshow pilots, and military pilots that perform at airshows. There are avenues where we find other pilots, but with Klaus completely immersed in aerobatics, he often spots people first.”
The pilots are vetted not just on piloting skills, but their personality is also considered. The Air Race wants pilots that are competitive, safe, and have the ability to take the coaches' instructions onboard – they are Invited to attend a training camp by the RBAR Head of Aviation. “I really oversee Klaus – he does 90 per cent of the training at the training camps that we run. We used to share 50/50, but he’s so good at it that I really just monitor what he’s doing and where required help explain a few things,” Jones describes.
What happens at a training camp
A Red Bull Air Race training camp is held over several days, and up to three new pilots will be invited to take part.
The camps begin at a fairly easy pace for the new pilots. “The first two-to-three days is normal flying and some emergency procedures training – all flown over an airfield – with Klaus and I on the radio with them in the cockpit. We ask them to do some basic aerobatics, some high-G corners, and then we ask them to mess up some high-G corners – all at a safe height – to see what happens and what their reactions are like and how they control the aeroplane,” says Jones.
As the pilots improve, Jones and Schrodt ask them to do the same things a bit lower. The trainers then instruct the pilots to simulate some track flying – without any pylons – before slowly bring them lower and lower until they are flying at track height. “So the first few days is introducing them to Red Bull Air Race flying but at a higher altitude,” explains Jones.
“After that we start to build them a track. Typically, we’ll start with one or two gates and then we’ll build a chicane. Finally, more gates and Vertical Turn Manoeuvres are introduced. All this is to build them up slowly into track flying,” Jones adds.
“By day five or six they're getting through a track, they’ve generally got the hang of it and we can determine if they have what it takes to be a potential challenger pilot,” says Jones. But this doesn’t lead all pilots to a place in the Challenger Cup. “We have had pilots not pass. It’s not guaranteed. It’s quite difficult,” concludes Jones.