“I’ll take the race plane to 12G, we may take the plane to 8G today depending on how you go. Most people pass out at 4G.”
And that’s how our Monday morning began with Australia’s Red Bull Air Race pilot, Matt Hall.
This was no average start to the working week with Red Bull offering us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly with not only one of the world’s finest aerobatics pilots, but also a decorated fighter pilot who served for the Australian and American airforce.
Origins Of Red Bull Air Race
Let’s get the vitals out of the way. The Red Bull Air Race has been an integral part of the Red Bull juggernaut since its inception in 2003. It’s an international series of of air races which attracts the world’s fastest, most experienced and ballsiest players in the flying business.
Set over an entire season which can go from February through to November, these pilots partake in a daring race against the clock via set slalom courses. Manoeuvring through ‘Air Gates’ at preposterous speeds is also mandatory in scoring style points against competitors. The pilot with the most points at the end of the year is crowned the Red Bull Air Race World Champion.
Riding shotgun with the man who’s currently sitting pretty in third of the 2016 Master Class series? Yours truly.
A Crash Course In Competition Flying
There’s no doubting Matt Hall’s talent behind the cockpit. He’s a third generation pilot in his family whilst his granddad served as a fighter pilot in WW2. By the time he was eighteen Hall had years of flight experience under his belt and could fly a plane before he could even drive. This eventually drew him to the air force.
Realising his natural abilities to conquer the skies, Hall quickly outgrew the local air combat training schools (including our version of Top Gun) and was invited to the U.S to further develop his training.
“I was under thirty and achieved everything I could in the airforce flying fighters. I went to America for three years on a training course,” Hall tells us.
Eventually he’d go from dropping bombs in downtown Bagdad before ending up in America post-conflict. That’s where he re-ignited his passion for lighter aircraft. “I don’t fly just for the sake of getting airborne anymore, so I bought an aerobatic plane and started doing competitions,” he says.
After countless wins, Hall was headhunted by Red Bull to try out for their elite squad – 25 of the world’s best pilots out of 20,000 applicants. Hall succeeded and has since risen through the Red Bull ranks to fly against the best pilots from Germany, Austria, the United States, France, Britain and Japan.
In his current role in the Red Bull Air Race series, Hall is required to call upon eighteen years worth of fighter pilot training to prove to the millions across the world that he’s the best.
“It’s complete dominance of the aircraft so it does exactly what you want it to do,” he says. “When I fly the plane in competition it has to show that I am in complete authority of the plane. It doesn’t even go into turbulence because I counteract it. I need to know exactly where to put the plane, I’m not thinking about how to fly it.”
What kind of pressures do these pilots face in the Red Bull Air Race series? Think twelve times the force of gravity squeezing against you during a stunt trick at speeds of well over 300km/h.
Today Hall intends to bring us close to those limits. Eight times the weight of gravity acting on the body to be exact and flying at 350km/h from one direction to another in three seconds. Throw in a few 360 degree spins, dives and that’s about it. Fun times ahead…If I don’t pass out or throw up, according to Hall.
As a civilian whose closest experience to an acrobatic plane is being pushed on a park swing too hard, this was easily one of the most daunting, eye-opening and memorable experiences I’ve encountered. We also made the mistake of asking Matt what we’d be doing up there pre-flight.
“You really want to know this?” he smiled. “We’ll blast off steeply and aggressively. I’m going to educate you on how not to pass out and not to get sick. And they’re the two main things we work on. We’re going to push ourselves pretty hard.”
“Then we’ll get you used to pulling a 2G turn – that’s a bit more than an airline. At 3G you’ll feel your cheeks pulling down but you wont pass out yet. Then we’ll go to 4G – that’s where you can pass out and that’s where I’ll work on having you not pass out with breathing techniques.”
The Matt Hall Racing joy flights can last anywhere from 7 to 8 minutes but the multitude of tricks Hall runs through makes it feel a lot longer. Planted squarely between the front of your feet is a 300hp engine which propels the lightweight 670kg aircraft to insane speeds in a matter of seconds.
Hall was nice to us initially, taking off to reach 200km/h in not time before embarking on a quick scenic flyover of Lake Macquarie. We say initially because his job at the end of the day was to test my human ability to withstand G-forces and test he did.
The 2G turn was barely noticeable. The second trick was a 4G turn which brought four times the weight of gravity onto our body. It’s a weird sensation which combines the feeling of being on a roller coaster whilst having a fat guy sitting on you. We survived that test relatively unscathed and even managed to crack some banter.
At 6G is where things start to get real. The easiest way to explain the sensation of blacking out can be compared being spun in a washing machine. In spin cycle your laundry would stick to the side of the wall. In the human body, replace that laundry load with blood rushing out of your head and you have the right idea. We didn’t pass out but we could feel our draping cheeks and light headedness. Hall saw my enjoyment and thought it was time to step it up a notch.
After a few 360 degree rolls, flying upside down, a trick called the ‘Hammerhead’, the 8G turn came about – something Hall thought I could handle considering I’ve remained conscious thus far.
The 8G turn was short but easily one of the most enduring forces on the body. Trying to look up into the canopy was near impossible as the force of gravity pushed your eyeballs back down along with all the blood in your head. Your vision gets a bit hazy on the corner of your eyes but it’s over before you can pass out. Us – 1, gravity – 0.