Red Bull Air Race World Champion Kirby Chambliss is at his best when he's flipping his race plane around at high speeds, enduring the kind of gravitational forces that turn stomachs inside out. I've always wanted to "do a barrel roll," but I wasn't sure I could do so without splattering the cockpit with vomit.
(Full Disclosure: Red Bull covered my plane ticket to get me out to LA and back for this event. Those flights were very different from this one, thankfully.)
On my "avgeek bucket list" (yes that's a thing), one of the items I listed was barrel roll. Hell, I just wanted to go upside-down in a plane! This ride was so much more than that. I arrived at the Torrance Airport just in time to see Kirby taxi by in his Zivko Edge 540 with Amelia Rose Earhart in the front seat, on their way out to the runway. At this point, I went to the hangar and met the entourage from Red Bull, and then signed my life away on the obligatory waivers. I knew that if I died during this flight, at least it would be while doing something I've wanted to do for many years.
Me, interviewing Kirby Chambliss. Photo by Carlo Cruz for Red Bull.
Once it was my turn with Kirby, I asked him a few interview-style questions (which I'll post in a follow-up later this week), we took some photos together and then I was helped into the front seat of his plane. Oh wait, first, they put a parachute on my back. First time wearing a parachute: check. Once I sat down, I was buckled in. Once I was buckled in, I was ratcheted in. Everything from my shoulders to my hips was rendered immobile, and for good reason. They showed me how to escape the harness quickly, should the need arise. I was shown where it was okay to hold, and what not to touch or step on.
Me, strapped in pre-ride. Photo by Carlo Cruz for Red Bull.
We were rolled out of the hangar, where Kirby closed the canopy and fired up the engine. We taxied out to a pad adjacent to the runway, where he did some engine run-ups, and tested the flaps, rudder and brakes. They all checked out so he requested take-off clearance, and we departed out over the water near Long Beach. While over the coast, I could see the Queen Mary and the former domed home of the Spruce Goose.
Notice the whale, just above the Red Bull logo on the plane's nose. (GoPro Screen Cap)
Once we reached the designated "box" for our joyride, Kirby told me there was a support boat down below us, just in case we ended up in the water for some reason. I suppose that made me feel safer. We also saw a very large white whale! I don't know what kind it was, but we made several circles over it at about 1,000 feet so that his team in the boat could also see it.
After a few minutes of that, Kirby told me that his race maneuvers take him past 10Gs, but that we'd only get up to about 5.5 or so. That was still far more than I had ever encountered. What followed for the next several minutes were the most joyful, yet violent moments I've ever spent on a plane. The video below has all of the highlights.
Looking back at the video clips now (captured on GoPro cams) a couple weeks afterward, I can't believe I actually did that. In an airplane. Over the water. Not once did I ever reconsider my acceptance of the offer. Thankfully I adhered to the advice of Red Bull's PR guy, and only ate a light breakfast. Prior to the flight, I was told that nausea usually only hits people only toward the end of the flight. I thought that was weird, and mentally blew it off. Then, at about 25 minutes into the flight, it hit me. I was ready to land. A combination of the flight and the heat of the cockpit and flight suit finally got to me. I think Kirby noticed my waning enthusiasm at that point, when he said "I want to show you one more thing, and then we'll head back, because I want to keep this as an enjoyable experience."
Upside-down in an airplane: Check!
With the airport in sight, I whipped out the zip-lock baggie that was in a little pouch in front of me, and began dry-heaving into it. If my stomach had had any contents at that point, they would have been lost. I'm not proud of it, but that's what happened. But hey, at least I didn't tell Kirby to tone it down, like Angels Pitcher C.J. Wilson did. I took everything Chambliss threw at me, and had a blast while doing so. I'm extremely grateful to Team Chambliss and Red Bull for the opportunity.
This coming weekend, I'll be in Las Vegas for the Red Bull Air Races. The current leader for the World Championship is Paul Bonhomme, trailed closely by Nigel Lamb and Hannes Arch. You can still get tickets for the event, priced at $59 for adults for both Saturday and Sunday, or $39 for a single day. The event will be held at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and more ticket info is available here.