But now the renowned advanced flying training and aerobatics school Ultimate High is offering flyers and non-flyers the chance to have a crack at air racing for themselves.
According to Mark Greenfield, the former City risk manager nicknamed “Greeners” who founded and runs Ultimate High, the public has expressed more of an interest in the sport since the Red Bull event took off. “People have asked us to provide a similar experience,” he says. “What we have come up with is a cross between the Red Bull Air Race and Top Gear’s Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car.”
All that is required is a dash of derring-do and a willingness to head down to Kemble Airport near Cirencester, an easy hop from central London. You don’t even need a pilot’s licence.
It is a far cry from when air racing was developed between the wars by the forerunner to the Spitfire fighter. Today the sport is continued by The Royal Aero Club through its Records, Racing and Rally Association and this year is particularly special for the sport, as 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of air racing. Although it has a lower profile today than during its heyday in the 1920s, air racing still attracts a strong following from among the piloting fraternity, and there are regular events both in the UK and abroad.
Ultimate High seeks to emulate this competition with a leaderboard for the racing season and a prize for the eventual winner. While all this sounds tremendously exciting, Greeners is keen to emphasise that safety is the primary concern. He lists the objectives for my day of racing: don’t crash, have fun, and, fly well. In that order.
It might sound like a basic request, but avoiding a crash is easier said than done when you consider that the race takes place just 700ft above the Kemble runway. To encourage safety, time penalties are imposed should the racer fly below 700 feet or for banking the wings too steeply.
An ex-Royal Air Force pilot in the back seat of the Extra 300 aircraft gives me some reassurance, as do his constant verbal cues, advice during the race and the fact that he will take over the controls if things get hairy. Not that he’ll spoil the fun. Greeners says: “It is your race – an instructor is simply there to make it safe and will not intervene unless things get dangerous.”
A typical race dayProxy-Connection:keep-aliveCache-Control:max-age=0ives competitors an introductory flight in the morning and a practice run at the race course. I asked for Greeners’ advice on what to do. “Look into the turns and look for the next gate to get your timing correct on rolling out,” he says, before adding (a little worryingly) that I should “tense the lower body to restrict movement of blood away from the head.”
To start the race the instructor performs the takeoff then positions the aircraft at 2,000 feet above the start/finish line before handing control to the competitor. The aircraft is then dived towards the start to build up speed as the stopwatch is started. It’s then a question of manoeuvring the aircraft through the course, flying as accurately and as fast as possible with verbal assistance from the instructor.
To turn around and reverse the course the pilot flies a manoeuvre known as a half-Cuban eight. This entails zooming skyward pulling three G before guiding the aircraft upside down then rolling the wings level again. “When your feet appear to be on the horizon, half roll to get the wings level again,” Greeners says.
The instructor will fly the manoeuvre or talk you through the race. Either way it is a thrill to be upside down, rolling upright before diving down towards the runway at high speed for another run at the course.
After lunch and a debriefing, during which racers can swap notes on techniques to get the fastest times, they head out for the timed race event in the afternoon. The best tip Greeners passes on before we head out to the aircraft is: “Fly smoothly. Only pull enough G to make the turn. You will induce too much drag if you pull harder.”
Naturally, once the adrenaline was surging I immediately forgot this sage advice and flew the entire second half of the course pulling five G in the turns, leading to the sensation that my stomach was being forced out of my backside and leaving my legs like jelly once we had landed.
Too much G can easily mean the end of your race. If you black out it is over as the instructor will take back the controls, although this has never happened.
Once back in the crewroom the flight is debriefed over a coffee. The flying is surprisingly hard work but tremendously exciting. It is disorientating rushing towards the ground at 250mph and the nature of the sport ensures that any natural competitiveness soon comes through. Ultimate high? It’s certainly not far off.
LEGAL HIGHS THE FACTS
The Air Race Day costs £495 per person, which includes a practice flight, lunch with your pilot and the race itself. It lasts for a whole day. Dates for 2009 are: today, 14 July, 11 August, 8 September and 13 October.
Ultimate High is a highly regarded advanced flying training school offering courses in aerobatics, formation and spin/upset emergency recovery training.
All instructors are current or former military fighter pilots, including Red Arrows, Harrier and Jaguar display pilots.
Ultimate High, The Control Tower, Kemble Airfield, Cirencester, Glos, GL7 6BA
Tel: 01285 771200; mobile: 07973 119001