Las Vegas Sun

March 26, 2019

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway:

Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss: ‘There’s always a sense of danger’

Kirby Chambliss-Red Bull USA

Red Bull USA

Kirby Chambliss.

Click to enlarge photo

Kirby Chambliss.

Click to enlarge photo

Kirby Chambliss.

Red Bull Air Race

Death-defying Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss admits that “there’s always a sense of danger” when he battles 10G forces zigzagging sideways and upside down over 200 mph just 80 feet in the air, but laughs it off saying spectators are in more danger if they forget their sunscreen.

Welcome to the greatest air race in the world.

Kirby, who has flown everything from a Boeing 737 to a single-seat, 17-foot wingspan plane, is the star attraction this Saturday and Sunday at the mind-blowing Red Bull Air Race for the first time at our Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It’s only the second U.S. race this season, which wraps Oct. 25 in Austria. The 2014 eight-race championship flew in Croatia, Malaysia, Poland, England, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and Fort Worth, Texas.

Here the pilots explain how they endure the 10G pressure forces while racing and how they keep their minds fully focused to deal with the extraordinary challenges of race day.

Kirby is one of only two U.S. pilots competing in the series’ Master Class. He lives in Eloy, Ariz., with his wife and daughter, where he has a hangar and runway on his property.

With two Red Bull Air Race World Championships (2004 and 2006) and eight race victories to his credit, Kirby is one of the most successful pilots in the history of the series. He has been competing in the Red Bull Air Race series since 2003 and has been flying since age 13.

The Red Bull Air Race World Championship features the world’s best race pilots in a motorsport competition that mixes speed, precision and skill. Using the fastest, most agile and lightweight planes, pilots navigate a low-level aerial track made up of air-filled pylons 80 feet high at speeds of as fast as 230 mph.

“This is not an air show — it’s a real race,” Kirby told me in an early visit to Las Vegas. “Of course there’s the danger element to it, but everything is calculated to make it as safe as can be.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie, so this is my kind of flying and racing. It’s just that when you pull back on that stick and it’s pressing me into the seat, it feels like a house is sitting on my chest.

“What’s really great with this race is that it’s exciting for the pilots and spectators. I really enjoy that thrill, especially the dives from the sky. The spectators are really looking down on the plane instead of looking up in the sky because it’s speeding so close to where they are sitting.

“The zigzag of the pylons make it like downhill skiing as we come out of horizontal gates. Every course we race is different, and every race is different particularly if the winds change — and that could make Las Vegas extra challenging because of your desert winds.

“Once I close that hatch, I have one goal and that’s I’m here to win. How fast can I go in 90 seconds, and can I shave fractions of seconds off my previous times? Those pylons come right up at you. Fortunately, nothing happens to the plane if we hit them out of the way except we get penalty points.

“There’s a yes and no answer as to whether it gets tougher as one gets older and younger pilots join the race. It gets harder — not easier — but you have to balance it with the years of experience.”

I asked the aerobatics champion who will be 55 on Oct. 18 to sum up the experience for himself and the thrill-seeking crowd.

“It’s adrenaline pumping for both of us,” he said. “We’re all here going full out to win. The planes go right through the pylon course like a hot knife through butter, and that spirit of competition can be felt and heard right there inches away in the stands.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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