The Red Bull Air Races were at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway this past weekend (October 11 &12) and they are as close to being an aviation event as NASCAR is to an automobile race. Red Bull Air Races are all about Red Bull promoting Red Bull and producing a TV show for the sports channels. Now do not get me wrong—the pilots are some of the best in the world but the rules have changed and it creates a conundrum for them. More about that later.
I was fortunate enough to have both a press pass and a ticket given to me for the Sky Lounge. The Sky Lounge is located in the infield of the race track and is the closest spot from which the race can be watched. It was a great photo platform (see my photo review). The Sky Lounge retails for $800 a pop for the weekend but is a food and alcohol extravaganza which seemed to be mostly inhabited by corporate sponsors and their guest as well as those connected to Red Bull and their guest. The general admission crowd which was supposed to be at 30,000 did not seem to approach that number even accounting for the track which holds 100,000 plus.
The tour of the inflatable pylons which including getting in one was a highlight. The pylons have evolved since their earliest design but still emphasize safety. They are made of sail type material that is thickest at the bottom and paper thin at the top. When inflated, an aircraft wing time can easily slice through the pylon and not suffer any damage. The pylon can be repaired by zipping in a replacement panel and re-inflated in a couple of minutes (actually record time was 90 seconds). Pylons are kept inflated by electronically control fans which keep the pylon inflated at a low pressure until the race and a high pressure during the race. This makes the material tear easier if hit by a wing. The pylons are made to stay inflated up to about 30 knots but have trouble staying erect at higher wind speeds (see photos).
The rules of the races are pretty precise. Master class Aircraft all have the same engine issued by Red Bull which is a change from previous years. Even though the aircraft are different, the engines are the same. There is also weight criteria and 10 Gs cannot be exceeded during course reversals which is down from 12 three years ago when the last race circuit was run. This change was said to be for safety and I can understand that since the average age of the Master class pilots is about 47 (range 30 to 58) and unfortunately, pilots G tolerance decreases with age. Aircraft have to past between the two yellow circles on the pylons and cannot enter the race course faster than 230 miles per hour. If a pylon is cut or other rules broken, penalty seconds are added and there are certain disqualification rules as well.
This is definitely a white man’s show. Although the pool of minority pilots to draw from in this expertise level of pilots may be small, there are no women and only one man of color (in the Challenger group) if you count Malaysian in that category.
Red Bull makes a point of saying that they were trying to concentrate on pilot skills as the deciding factor by making all the aircraft use the same engine and propellers. However, if one was trying to isolate pilot skills, they would also make everyone use the same aircraft. Every pilot has the option at their own expense of refining the qualities of their aircraft for speed and race agility. However, many of these refinements may exceed $50,000 which a hefty price for as little as a half second improvement in two lap race. If you want to test pilot skill head to head, everyone should fly the same aircraft.
The pylon height was raised 16.4 feet to 82 feet for safety clearance from the ground. Pilots must pass the pylons between the lower yellow stripe and the top yellow tip which creates a flight window of 33 feet. Wing spans are approximately 26 feet and the gap between pylons is about 43 feet. However, gusty winds on the Sunday race day could close that gap to about 37 feet.
Red Bull Air Races can be great entertainment value for the general public but I doubt you would ever see the Races at AirVenture or an AOPA event. It’s all about Red Bull and aviation is just the medium.