By Sheiban Shakeri… On the 13th and 14th of June, the Red Bull Air Race will make their first trip to Canada. Already a successful series in Europe, the Middle East, parts of the United States, and Australia, Canada is new territory but definitely not one that is alien to the concept of air racing.
The first Red Bull Air Race in Canada will take place in Windsor on the Detroit River where 15 of the world’s best pilots will be racing in two countries simultaneously in this cross-border classic.
The Red Bull Air Race can easily be described as the Formula 1 for the skies. In its short history, it has achieved the distinction of being the top tier of aerosports and has garnered attention from many in the motorsport community including Formula 1 and NASCAR drivers.
What is the Red Bull Air Race?
The Red Bull Air Race is a high-speed, low-altitude race against the clock for the world’s best pilots.
The aircraft are light, nimble and custom-built for the job that they’re supposed to do: navigate a low-altitude track at high-speeds and tolerate g-forces as high as 12. That means that they push 12 times the force of gravity on their body and their aircraft.
In comparison, when taking off on an airliner, they push a maximum of 1.5 g’s; a Formula One driver will feel a maximum of five to six g’s when cornering; and going downhill on some rollercoasters will be about three g’s.
The pilots have to be mentally and physically strong and the planes have to be able to take the pressure that they’re subjected to in order to avoid the unthinkable.
A Red Bull Air Race track is denoted by a series of inflatable pylons, or ‘air gates,’ which have to be navigated through in the fastest time possible. They are two different colours – red and blue – with the former meaning that the pilot will have to fly at a knife edge of 90 degrees, or a ‘knife-edge,’ between them while the latter means that the aircraft has to be perfectly horizontal, or a ‘level-flight.’
There are also different types of air gates that are utilized.
The chicane is a series of three pylons that are lined up. The pilot and his aircraft have to fly in a slalom style around these pylons.
Rookies Matt Hall of Australia and Pete McLeod of Canada have both said to me that this is the most enjoyable gate.
Another gate is known as the quadro. This is four gates arranged in a square formation and is flown through twice per lap.
The way that this is done is the pilot will attack the gate in a knife-edge formation, make a steep 270-degree turn and then go through again from the other end.
These are the most common gates that are seen in a Red Bull Air Race. In some races, the odd gate will be absent, but that is due to space and safety constraints.
As well, navigating a gate with an incorrect knife flying (IKF) or incorrect level flying (ILF) will add a penalty of two seconds to a pilot’s time, and with fastest time being key, two seconds has the potential of being the difference between first and fifth place. Should a pilot hit a pylon with their wing or any other part of their aircraft, six seconds are added to their time.
The third round of the Red Bull Air Race will take place in Windsor on June 13 and 14.
This will be the first time that a Red Bull Air Race will be hosted in Canada, but it won’t be the first time that it has been exposed to Canadian audiences. Last year, Detroit hosted a Red Bull Air Race and it was a hit in Southern Ontario, even though only about a quarter of the actual race was held over the Canadian side of the Detroit River.
Still, history was made in two respects: the fact that the Red Bull Air Race broke into Canada and also that a sporting event was held in two countries simultaneously.
The Canadian debut of the Red Bull Air Race also coincides with the centennial of the first flight of the Silver Dart and marks the homecoming of Canada’s first air racing pilot and the youngest man to participate in the series, rookie Pete McLeod at 25 years of age.
So far, the seventh season of the Red Bull Air Race has been anything but predictable. The 2008 world champion, Hannes Arch of Austria, has been keeping his diligence in staying at the top.
By winning two qualifying sessions out of two and taking victory in the season opener in Abu Dhabi with a third place due to a seagull hit in San Diego, Arch has the overall lead in the world championship, but barely.
Paul Bonhomme of Great Britain, last year’s championship runner-up, has not lost his touch just yet and is very much in the hunt behind the Austrian. He currently has one of the heaviest aircraft in the field but the aerodynamic modifications to his Edge 540 are impeccable.
The biggest surprise of 2009 so far is Nicolas Ivanoff of France. After a terrible 2008 season due to an aircraft that was just too slow, the Frenchman has upgraded his wings to a brand new Edge 540. After just two races, Ivanoff has stood on the podium twice and on the top step in the previous round in San Diego after setting the track record in the final round.
The Red Bull Air Race in Windsor will take place over the Detroit River with the temporary runway – the airport where all air racing pilots and aircraft are located – located at a nearby airport on Canadian soil.
All eyes will be on Pete McLeod in Windsor. He may be a rookie but he is making an impact with the Red Bull Air Race. Currently, the 25-year old Canadian is currently in last place with no points after finishing 15th and last in the first two rounds.
However, after completing the previous round in San Diego, he has had special modifications made to his Edge 540 racing plane which will make their debut in Windsor. Perhaps the first points for the first Canadian in the first air race in Canada?
Overall, the first ever Canadian round of the Red Bull Air Race is looking to be really unpredictable for the main championship protagonists. With many modifications made both to Pete McLeod’s aircraft and that of the other 14 pilots, anything is possible.
By Sheiban Shakeri… In the Red Bull Air Race, two laps around a low-altitude, high-speed track, are performed with a prescribed set of maneuvers. The biggest and most complex maneuver is the half-Cuban eight.
Usually, at the end of a pilot’s first lap, the half-Cuban eight is performed in order for the pilot to re-enter the track and start the next lap. However, this isn’t always the case and the only city where you cannot find a half-Cuban is San Diego.
It’s a very important move to make simply because turning around requires a lot of energy and space, hence critical time will be used up. When completing the gate before the half-Cuban, a pilot must waste no time in pulling the maneuver.
For every second wasted after the exiting gate, a pilot tacks on another second for re-entering the track and thus compromises his race. So, this has to be done with precision and speed. Basically, pull too early and you get a penalty; pull too late and you lose time.
The half-Cuban eight is also the maneuver that subjects a pilot to the most g-forces—sometimes as high as 12. Any higher and you’re disqualified, as was seen with Paul Bonhomme last year in Porto: the result of pulling over-g during a half-Cuban.
To execute this particular maneuver, a pilot goes through the exiting blue gate and once complete, pulls up on the joystick until he’s fully inverted and turning back into the track. While making his descent into the track, the pilot rights the plane from its inverted position and continues on with the race.
It sounds easy, but when looking at the various angles or lines that pilots take to minimize their loop time, they can either go very steep which results in less drag, but more loop time, or they can go for shallow angles which result in less loop time but pulling drag and thus a slower re-entry.
It’s a gamble and no two tracks have the same conditions for performing an effective half-Cuban. Abu Dhabi requires a shallow loop with a bit of deviation while other places like Porto require a steep angle.
It is examples like this that show how much wiggle room the Red Bull Air Race has in its tracks and how much, for lack of a better word, creativity, pilots can use when it comes to air racing.
by Sheiban Shakeri… Pete McLeod, the 24-year old Canadian aerobatics pilot who received his FAI super-licence to fly in the Red Bull Air Race came to Toronto and sat down with me for a one-on-one interview about the Red Bull Air Race.
As well, Pete does a Final Five session with me, which is basically five questions that are strictly about himself. Finally, he answers fan mail from all over the world that was contributed through e-mail, Facebook and YouTube. So, without further ado, here’s Pete for all of you.
On September 18th, The Windsor Star reported that Windsor may get top-billing over Detroit for next year’s Red Bull Air Race. If you were to get a race seat, would you have anything special planned for the first ever Canadian stop?
I don’t have any knowledge myself for the 2009 schedule. Canada has a rich aviation history and next year will be the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in Canada. Any year would be great to have a stop in Canada, but it would be better if there was a Canadian as well! It would be special for Canada to have a stop and this past year, we got a taste of it with the Detroit race being so close. Windsor jumped on board and supported the race and it created a buzz in Southern Ontario. It would be good for Canada to have a race. It would be special for me, but I don’t know if I could do anything for it. Hopefully, I can be present!
Which pilot on the current air racing circuit would you like to have most as a mentor?
There’s a lot to learn from any of the teams in the top five or six. I’m friends with Hannes (Arch) outside of the air race and he’s a nice guy and runs a smooth team and has a good airplane. Over the last couple of years, the goal of the air race is something to build up to, it’s not something that you can wake up today and say that you want to be a part of. Any of the guys would be a good mentor.
What’s a greater thrill: going through the Breitling gates at over 350 KPH at such a low altitude or getting the opportunity to fly in some of the most interesting places in the world?
Ooh! I think it’s a combination of both. When I’m in the track, I can imagine that the location disappears. Outside of the track, it’s great to see different spots, experience different cultures… In the last few months, I’ve had the amazing opportunity of flying in Europe and experiencing the culture. They’re equally spectacular but in different ways.
How were your results in Europe?
I finished 12th out of the international field. Because I’m Canadian, I’m considered an independent entry. If I had placed 3rd or even 1st (Podium positions), I wouldn’t be considered a European champion. It’s a way to differentiate. I was pretty happy with my results considering that it was my first time in the international scene and it was a judged sport.
In your opinion, when watching a Red Bull Air Race, what do you think it takes to win: pilot’s skill or pilot’s ability, the plane’s speed or the plane’s agility?
That’s a tough one! The plane has to be fast. When I think of speed, I think of agility and that is what speed is! It’s about how fast it can get through the track. You see different tracks that are technical like Detroit, or Porto which is a drag race. Everybody needs three things: they need to be a really good pilot, have a fast plane and fly well that day. If someone flies as well as you, but with a faster plane, he’ll be faster than you.
You’re a University of Western Ontario graduate; during the time that you were in school, did you do any flying or was it all about being in the books?
That’s (University) when I really got into the competition and aerobatics. I didn’t start airshow flying until I graduated. I did a bit of flying in September and October. I would start the season again in April after school’s done. During the school year, the airplane was in the hangar and during the summer, the engine was pretty much hot.
Do you have any advice to young pilots who have aspirations to fly in the Red Bull Air Race?
It’s not easy but if someone really wants it, and is truly passionate to give some things up in their lives, it’s something to pursue. I don’t know how many times that I’ve been practicing and my buddies are on the golf course! If you have the motivation, you can accomplish it. Get good training and stay at it. Keep working on it. But I’m still waiting for the call.
The Final Five
Five places I’d like to visit in the world would be:
Japan, Australia, Russia would be cool and that’s three. I just like to go out. Everywhere I’ve been, I like to check out what is there.
What songs do you have on your iPod?
I like music but I’m not a huge music fan. I like to listen to a mix of everything. I just don’t have a whole lot of country! I don’t mind country, I just don’t have a lot of it. I’m not a huge iTunes freak.
Apart from air racing and aero sports, is there any sport you like to follow? What about playing?
I don’t follow the whole season, but I like tennis. I like to watch the Opens. I was a big hockey player growing up, so I follow that, but I can’t really give the stats on a player. I follow a lot of sports and I’m starting to gain a little bit of interest in Formula 1. It is elite auto racing with some potential connections to the air race. When it comes to playing, I have to be careful of not getting an injury… I try to stick to things that minimize the risk.
Do you have any hobbies?
Umm… I like to hunt and fish! I also like to play around with the financial markets, but lately with flying around, I’ve been busy.
Do you have a hidden talent that Red Bull Air Race fans don’t know about?
Probably, since not a lot is known about me… I can cook pretty good!
The Fans Ask
Through Facebook, YouTube, and e-mail, fans sent in their questions they had to ask Pete about the Red Bull Air Race, his career as an aerobatics pilot and other things.
What plane are you going to fly with if you qualify for the 2009 season? Do you have to buy an airplane of your own?
- Andre Millet, Austria (Facebook)
Yes, you have to buy your own airplane. I won’t be racing the Giles if my race status is active for 2009. It’ll be an Edge 540 or an MXS.
What type of aerobatic planes do you currently fly? What types of planes have you flown before
- Ciaran Walker, Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom (E-mail)
I fly a Giles for aerobatics and flew an Extra in Europe. I have flown a Pitts before. Most of my float time is on a 180 but I haven’t flown a lot of types of airplanes. I’ve flown the basic types but I’ve spent time on only a handful of types.
How do you improve your g-force tolerance?
- skydivingpipo, Bern, Switzerland (YouTube)
For me, the best thing is to fly to keep it up. When I’m not flying, it’s overall fitness. Spending four or five days in the gym and doing a lot of situps. There is some weight training, running bores me and bicycles go against my interest in engines! It’s not about bulking up but being lean and strong to get the extra edge. Keeping a strong core is key.
What do you need to do and prove to become a Red Bull Air Race pilot after getting your commercial license? How many hours of aerobatic experience did you need to do this?
- Akshay Samel, Mumbai, India and many others (Facebook, e-mail and YouTube)
The hours are going to be independent. You would need about a couple of hundred hours of just surface-level airshows to get used to flying at low altitudes. It’s really a combination of experience and time. After that, you have to get certain rankings in national competitions. If you have everything in place, those other things fall into place. You have to learn to compete in order to transfer yourself to a competitive environment.
Have you spent any time in Oshkosh, Wisconsin at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In and seen any pilots that have given you inspiration for your flying?
- Allen, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA (YouTube)
I’ve been to Oshkosh, but I haven’t flown there. I’ve been there two years ago for some sponsor stuff. I’m at airshows all summer long and it’s the centre of general aviation for the US and Canada. I think I’ve been to one airshow ever before flying my first airshow. I know about pilots like Jim LeRoy, Kirby (Chambliss), Sean Tucker and Mike Goulian. When I paid attention to aerobatics, these were the big ones at the time and they still are. I also paid attention to the Russians who are more into the competitions than freestyle. All these guys are great pilots and showmen and I try to learn from them.
If you were asked 5 years ago as to what you’d be doing, did you think that the “Red Bull Air Race” would have been your answer? If not, then what would it have been?
- Hien Nguyen, Toronto, Canada (E-mail)
Pretty close. I was doing aerobatics before the air race started and it dominated my life. It included many things that I liked about it like the sport, the competitive side, the aerobatic side, and the speed side. It was a matter from then to devise a plan that would have me go from where I was to the air race. It was a matter of getting myself out there. Nobody is going to call you no matter how experienced you are and say “welcome to the air race.”
In an ideal world, where you could select anyone from any time within the last 100 years, who would you choose to create your perfect dream team?
- Jasmine Hamade, Toronto, Canada (E-mail)
Dream team? I don’t know how to answer that. I know what I want in a team. After everyone fits well together, I would want someone whose done great things in design and racing. Someone who is savvy with media, sponsors and other things would be a good coordinator… I’m not a history buff and I don’t think I can name anyone off the top!
Overall, the interview with Pete went very well. He has sacrificed a lot to get to this point, and now, it’s up to the people over at the Red Bull Air Race to determine if he’s good enough to fly with them.
Should Pete get a race seat, he will be the youngest ever pilot to race in this series and also be the first Canadian to make it to this point. Quite a feat.
When talking with him, he did not seem to have the cockiness that a young person in such a high position would have; he was level-headed, realistic and calculating. Provided he makes it as an Air Race pilot, Pete has the potential for a lot, but don’t expect it too quickly because unlike Formula 1 and a certain British driver, it’s the entire team that needs to learn.
Special thanks goes to Hart House at the University of Toronto for allowing this interview to go through, Jasimin Curtin for helping with the videotaping, Jasmine Hamade for editing the questions, all the fans for sending in their questions, Red Bull for putting the writer in contact and to Pete McLeod himself for making the trip to Toronto.
If you would like to ask a personality in the Red Bull Air Race a question in the future, check the YouTube channel for Red Bull Air Race, ask on or e-mail at when the announcement is made.
by Sheiban Shakeri…
Pete McLeod, the 24-year old aerobatics pilot from Canada who received his FAI super-license to fly in the Red Bull Air Race came to the University of Toronto to chat with me about a whole host of stuff regarding the Red Bull Air Race, his previous experience and a little bit about himself.
This week, Pete talks about his career as a professional aerobatics pilot, more about the Red Bull Air Race quali camp and we dip our toes into a bit of technological stuff!
Why and how did you first get into flying?
I don’t remember getting into flying. My first flight was with my father at six weeks old. I remember aviation being part of my life and an option. It was always an option to get into the airplane and go flying. Most people don’t remember how to walk, and that’s flying for me. I did do the licensing process but I didn’t do any learning there.
What do you find most exhilarating about flying and aerobatics?
Aerobatics for me is definitely the most exciting form of flying. I like to toy with different kinds of flying. I really like the “seat of your pants” type of flying. I never played around with a flight simulator. It never did anything for me. I like the whole experience and that plays into a lot of my flying style. Aerobatics gives me a three-dimensional sense when flying.
What is your favourite maneuver aerobatically?
Different gyroscopic maneuvers really interest me. They’re really technical and difficult to master to the point that you can do a wild maneuver like most people can’t imagine, take it, tame it and make it controllable so you can exit where you want.
Can you integrate any of those maneuvers into the Red Bull Air Race?
The thing with racing is that it’s becoming more pure-racing. It’s becoming a thoroughbred sport. The key instead of integrating aerobatic maneuvers is to fly to the limit and fly really aggressively without going past a hostile environment and you need consistency. If you watched (Paul) Bonhomme’s performance, it was all about consistency.
In your opinion, what makes this series more interesting than the Reno Air Race as an example?
Reno’s a cool display of high performance machines. It’s not a series nor an international event. It’s nowhere close to being a global motorsport like F1. It’s more where you have guys with cool toys like to go and play with them. I’ve never raced Reno and don’t know if they have plans to grow. I wouldn’t compare the two because I don’t know if an Air Race team can be successful in Reno and vice versa. It’s like monster truck racing vs. F1.
Is there anything that goes through your mind when you hit an air gate? Have you hit an air gate?
I haven’t hit an air gate yet! There were a couple of us that haven’t hit a pylon. I’m looking forward to experience that because it’s something you need to do so it can be one less question. What goes through my mind? It’s all about flying in the track. If your mind is somewhere else, you’re definitely not flying fast nor flying smoothly.
If you were to get a seat, what would be your preferred equipment?
I do like the Edge and I fly a Giles in the airshow world. It’s a derivative of the MX2 and MXS. I’m familiar with the construction and setup but it’s still different. Probably, one of those two but the reality is that for a rookie, when you have a top airplane, your setup is not going to be 100% for at least a year because it’s not just the pilot but the team that’s also learning. You don’t need the fastest airplane in the track in your first year because there’s so much to learn. I’m still on the fence as to what type of aircraft it’ll be.
Alejandro Maclean told me in Detroit that the MXS was a very responsive aircraft. So for you, how responsive is too responsive?
I fly the Giles in the freestyle world which is one of the more sensitive aerobatic planes in the world. I flew the Extra in the qualification camp. It’s considered to be a high performance aerobatic plane and compared to the Giles, the controls are half as efficient. I have experience with handling airplanes, but in the track environment, it’s important for me for the plane to be predictable. You don’t have the margin of altitude to realize that you’re five degrees off, etc. It’s a comfort thing that Alex talks about.
What does setting up an aircraft consist of?
Technical regulations limit quite a bit of stuff and keep things to a standard. A lot of it is about safety. In an airplane, you need the engine to get you through the racetrack and back to the temporary runway. I think the setup of the engine is one of the biggest things. In my opinion, there’s a lot of room to develop the aerodynamics like the wing tips, different wheel fairings, etc. Hannes (Arch) has a cool-looking but very aerodynamic canopy as an example.
Now that you have the super-license, do you feel that there’s a greater responsibility because of your young age? Usually the pilots who get this license are in their 40s and 50s.
The average age is something like 46 in the air race. It’s a good question because in aviation in general, it’s at a high level. If you’re high up in the airlines or airshow, there’s usually a higher age associated with that. Everything I’ve done in aviation has been remarkably early. I’ve faced the issue of “is he qualified” or “is he able to” because it is a challenge and you need the experience. You just can’t get the license because if something goes wrong, what do you do in that situation?
Part I of the interview can be found here.
Stay tuned for Part III in one week’s time when we ask a few more questions about the Red Bull Air Race, five questions where we get to know Pete a little more and our friend here answers questions from fans from all over the world.
by Sheiban Shakeri…
With the final round of the Red Bull Air Race in Perth, Western Australia this weekend, all it took was one point; Arch got at least two.
All season long, Paul Bonhomme led the standings in the Red Bull Air Race, but after London, things started going downhill.
Arch was the main rival, but for the longest time, it appeared that either Mike Mangold or Kirby Chambliss would be the challengers for Bonhomme’s crown. However, after winning in Budapest and Porto, along with a penalty and a 10th place for Bonhomme, Arch drew away quickly.
Now, in Perth, all Arch needed to do was to be in the eighth position, and he made it through with ease and a first place finish. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Bonhomme or either of the two Americans who took second, it was Nigel Lamb’s yellow Breitling MXS that took the honours of second place. Bonhomme took third while the outgoing champion Mike Mangold was only able to qualify ninth and go into the Point One round.
As the newest Red Bull Air Race champion, Hannes Arch of Austria becomes the first European ever as well as the youngest pilot to win a championship at 41 years of age.
The Perth Track
The Perth track is a very interesting track in terms of natural and design phenomena.
In terms of natural phenomena, according to former Red Bull Air Race pilot Frank Versteegh, the Fremantle Doctor will play a role in this race and it will affect some pilots’ performance. In English, basically the Fremantle Doctor is the cooling afternoon sea breeze which can change direction within an hour. This has to do with the fact that the temperature on land and at sea are very different. It’s usually strongest during the summer months of December and January (Australian season), and can be felt as far the town of York, which is 100 km away.
Now, for the design of the track, the entry speeds of the aircraft will be reduced because the pilot has to execute a tight left turn in order to enter, so the g force will be high, but the speed will be lower.
Another new design of the track is a split quadro, known as the “duo.” It is a heart shape and hopes to create a bit of unpredictability. Already some pilots, including Arch have hit the gates during training when trying to handle that. It’s a complicated gate. Also, executing the half-Cuban eights here will be tighter, so expect higher angles and higher g forces.
Overall, an historical day with the ending of the Mike Mangold’s and Kirby Chambliss’ run of championships this year. Another year with Bonhomme missing out and the final race for the Extra 300SR, which is being retired due to new regulations being brought in for next year.
Stay tuned for the final race, which will be broadcast on the official website or on Freecaster.
Enjoy the final race of the season!