Every time I visit Ascot I’m blown away by the venue. Long time followers will have read about my scepticism about the Air Race – particularly regarding the local airspace (it’s just across the M25 from Heathrow) and the motives of the event organiser. However, I’m happy to say that after three years of attending my worries have been put to bed, not by the commercial success, or the crowd numbers, but overwhelmingly by what I saw this year.
Our focus at the Air Race in 2016 would be slightly different from previous years. Having had plans to display three aircraft, two accidents and a stroke of bad luck robbed us of this opportunity and so we shifted our emphasis indoors. With the help of the Aviation Skills Partnership and Bigatmo sunglasses, we would concentrate on our stand and work to give interested passers-by personalised advice on routes into aviation that would suit them. The questioners were varied, many having just been inspired by the flying they had seen, others having harboured a wish to become aviators for much longer. The questions however, were the same as ever – “how much does it cost?”, “where can I do it?”, “do I need to be good at maths?” While it was rewarding to be able to provide answers, allay fears and dispel myths, it did make me wonder how effectively the aviation community is communicating with these people. Many of them had an obvious and sincere desire to learn more, to join a club and to start flying as soon as possible. Few knew where their local flying club was – fewer still had even heard of gliding. In the information age, it disappointed me that the flying “club” still appears to be a closed shop, despite dwindling memberships and a soaring average age.
It also got me thinking about Red Bull – a hugely successful brand that clearly has little trouble targeting and inspiring the sort of audience that aviation desperately needs. They have their own “Air Force” for crying out loud; from warbirds to wingsuits – they even have an AH-1 Cobra! The company obviously has an interest in aviation and would be an invaluable ally in promoting it in younger circles. But between all the exotics and the highly customised Edge-540s and MXS-Rs of the Air Race, it all seems a bit more ‘tree-tops’ than ‘grass-roots’. Or so I thought.
We are very fortunate to enjoy tremendous support from Hartzell Propeller, who arranged for us to spend some time in the hangars with the Race Teams. With qualifying about to kick off, pilots were understandably in short supply and we spent a while chatting to Hannes Arch’s race engineer Nigel Dickinson who showed us around the aircraft. With winglets various, aileron fences and vortex generators in plain sight, it was clear to see the level of modification that the aircraft undergo, even over a weekend. “Just don’t take any photos of the interior,” we were told.
I’ve often wondered whether at least some of the competitive element in the Air Race is orchestrated for show. Not if Nigel’s attitude was anything to go by. The amount of money that is obviously being poured into the design, rapid-prototyping and construction of modified parts is breathtaking and, as usual, regulation is an obstacle. Teams must submit designs to the magnificently bearded Air Race technical director Jim Reed, also of The Spaceship Company, to ensure that they conform both to the Red Bull regulations as well as FAA legislation. He’s backed up by technical manager Wade Hammond, who was the brains behind his own rocket ship; the Edge 540 piloted to victory in three championship seasons by Paul Bonhomme.
With carbon fibre parts being used for just a couple of races, and heavyweight sponsors like Breitling, the amount of money involved in running this show must be eyewatering. Yet despite this, there is an obvious vein of dedicated grass-roots aviation passion flowing through the Air Race pit hangar. Nigel took us through the technicians’ personal projects; “that guy is re-building an Auster”, “this bloke has a lovely old Taylorcraft.” Almost all the engineers and team support personnel are themselves pilots, and they were all happy to talk about their flying experiences. Most split their time between the Air Race and other enterprises, describing the people that they work with and compete against under the Red Bull banner as “family”.
In order to ensure its sustainability, Red Bull have worked hard to create a pathway for potential pilots coming into the sport. Things are not so easy for the technical side, and by the sounds of it engineers and technicians of the right calibre are hard to come by, and getting fewer. Jobs with the race teams demand an unusual set of skills – the need for performance demands creativity and rapid turn around, but work must meet rigorous standards and above all must be safe. Furthermore, the aircraft are maintained under the American ‘Experimental’ category, which requires that those working on them must be FAA qualified. Add to this the amount of time that the teams spend away and its easy to see why the pool of potential candidates is less than extensive.
Red Bull clearly have their brand to think about, the high-octane motorsport image is obviously a profitable one and there is no doubt that the teams are there to compete and to win. Underneath that, I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of people who would seem to be as at home at Damyns Hall as they are in Abu Dhabi. If there were a way to connect the grass-roots passion that sits in the heart of the Air Race with the mass-appeal of its parent company, then I could probably fold Get Into Flying and spend my time doing something else – maybe working for one of the race teams?!