The Red Bull Air Race World Series returned to London and the River Thames in early August. The rather unsttled summer threatened to spoil the party but in the end it was one of the most exciting races of the 2008. The London round provides one of the most dramatic backdrops of any aviation event in the UK and as well as the racing features a number of "side acts." It is however a huge logistical task to get the race in London at all with London City Airport and the busy River Thames having to close when flying is in progress. Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports from the capital. All photography copyright of the Author.
The massive 02 arena and the financial hub of Docklands provide a awesome backdrop for the Red Bull Air Race which was midway through another exciting season of close racing. At the time of the London Air Race, Paul Bonhomme was leading the championship by six points of Austrian Hannes Arch after victory in the previous race in Rotterdam. However with the close nature of the racing, the championship was far from decided. Thw work put into getting the Air Race off the ground is phenomenal, particularly when dealing with the airspace in London. The race takes place directly under flightpaths into London Heathrow and London City Airport actually has to shut while flying takes place over the race course. In total 23 flights from City Airport are affected by the race and it's thanks to the professional running of the race that temporary closure of the the airport allows the race to go ahead.
2008 sees the series still dominated by the Edge 540 aircraft. The key to the success of the aircraft is it's modular construction which allows ground crews to modifiy it easily with different parts. Noticable changes this year include the wings and areas around the cowling and canopy as well as the engine. Walter Extra's Extra 300SR still is only flown regularly by Nicolas Ivanoff after a brief spell flying with Peter Besenyei early in the season. The Extra is a larger and heavier aircraft than the Edge but seems to only be well suited to a small number of venues. The latest addition to the red Bull AIir Race is the MXS. The purpose built aircraft has been developed by MXS and Nigel Lamb from the MX2 and is also flown by Alejandro Maclean. This aircraft, still early in development, is seen as a great prospect in future years and other pilots are rumoured to be aquiring further aircraft.
The London Podium
- 1st - Kirby Chambliss
- 2nd - Nicolas Ivanoff
- 3rd - Hannes Arch
- 4th - Peter Besenyei
- 5th - Nigel Lamb
- 6th - Mike Mangold
- 7th - Paul Bonhomme
- 8th - Alejandro Maclean
- 9th- Steve Jones
The early practice flying proved difficult for the competitors. Strong winds of upto 40mph made negotiating the air gates difficult with a number of gate hits. Spain's Alejandro Maclean racked up the largest number penalty seconds ever recorded during the second training session in his MXS.
But it wasn't just the weather affecting the training. Paul Bonhomme suffered a nasty incident when he encountered a flock of 200 seagulls during the training sessions. He hit at least three birds during an attempt at the track where the aircraft are flying close to 200mph. Paul Bonhomme explained "It
took the paint off and dented the carbon fibre. It’s compressed the skin by
about 3 to 4 millimetres. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it’s the wing
and that’s obviously a very important bit of the airplane.....I must admit I’m a little bit disappointed that no
one else spotted 200 seagulls,” he said. “When you think of all the people
watching you’d think somebody would spot 200 seagulls. I was already through
the quadro and was in the 270 (degree turn) and that’s where all the birds
were. And I found them. It puts you off your stride. When you’re training all
you want to do is concentrate on the pylons and the track – and not have to
The qualification day on the Saturday and race day saw slightly better conditions for the racing, though the final rounds of racing on Sunday did see some light rain. Both Saturday and Sunday also saw a number of side acts brought in to fill the "gaps" between rounds. Opening the event were the Tigers Parachute Display Team who dropped into the River Thames rather than dry land which is always an interesting spectacle.
Their jumpship, a Royal Navy Sea King HU5 from 771 NAS at RNAS Culdrose also put on a display of search and recue work with a local lifeboat. It made for a very dramatic sight against the skyscrapers of Docklands as it arrived. In complete contrast to the Sea King was the elegant Founier RF4 "Redhawk" flown by Bob Grimstead. It's been a long time since we've seen an RF4 regularly on the display circuit and the Redhawk is certainly an eye catching aircraft. Later in the afternoon there were demonstrations by the Army Air Corps Lynx AH7 and the Red Bull sponsored Bo207 experimental helicopters. Klaus Schrodt also demonstrated his aerobatic prowess in his Extra 300S. All the "side acts" had to fly special adapted display routines because of the confines of the flying area which has crowds on both side of the river.
The Arizona Lightning
Kirby Chambliss is
one of the best known pilots in the World Series. Chambliss,
who has been flying since age 13, became the youngest commercial pilot at his
U.S. air carrier at 24. By the time he made it to captain at age 28, he was
already polishing his aerobatic skills – an interest acquired during aerobatic
training for his job flying a business jet.
who has won five U.S. National Aerobatic championships, is clearly a man
obsessed with flying. He is married to a fellow pilot and they live with their
infant daughter on the “Flying Crown Ranch” between Tucson and Phoenix in
Arizona with a hangar and runway in the backyard.
The racing itself is fast paced and slickly presented. 2008 saw another new format to the racing. The qualification rounds on the first day see each pilot fly twice. The simple aim on Saturday is to qualify as high as possible by recording the fastest possible time. Penalties are awarded for incorrect attitude for the type of air gate, flying too high through a gate or striking a gate. Flying too low is deemed as dangerous flying and the pilot is disqualified
The windy conditions during qualification made for some interesting flying with Air Race rookie Glen Dell finding it particularly tough. Sergei Rakhmanin was also finding things tough due to illness and doctors eventually advised the Russian aerobatic champion to withdraw from the event. By the end of play on Saturday Bonhomme, Arch, Mangold, Besenyei, Chambliss, Lamb, Ivanoff and Maclean had qualified into the super eights round while Dell, Goullian and Jones were left to fight it out in the "Point One" fly-off on Sunday.
Sunday dawned and rather than wind, London was subjected to some drizzly showers which lasted much of the day. The first racing action of the day was the "Point One" fly-off which provided the first of two very spectacular pylon strikes. Mike Goullian hit part of the quadro during his flight very heavily resulting in some fabric become temporarily attached to his Edge's wing dragging the nose of the aircraft down. As Dell once again struggled it was left to Britain's Steve Jones to claim the solitary point flying a slow but clear round.
The Super eights proved a "topsy turvy" affair with some of the pace setters on Saturday really struggling. Both Paul Bonhomme and Mike Mangold hit Pylons on their rounds, and Paul capped it off trying too hard and having to leave the track leading to instant disqualification. Nigel Lamb was also in the penalties when the judges made a controversial call over incorrect attitude though a gate. Maclean also struck a pylon in almost a carbon copy version of Gouilian's earlier incident.
The semi finals and finals saw Arch, Ivanoff, Besenyei and Chambliss fighting it out for victory. Ivanoff capitalised on a Arch error to make it to the final where he would meet Chambliss. Arch eventually beat Besenyei for the 3rd place while Chambliss took the win in a rather one-sided final.
Red Bull Air Race continues to impress as perhaps one of the most entertaining aviation events of the summer. While the style of presentation and participation at the events may not be to everyone's taste, it has atmosphere, colour and passion that airshows often don't have. We hope the "racers of the sky" return in 2009 to the UK.