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Red Bull Air Race’s Youngest Pilot Reveals The Secret To Cheating Death In The Sky

Staying alive is the first part of the job. Going faster is the second.

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The Red Bull Air Race has been an integral part of the energy drink’s publicity juggernaut since it first took off back in 2003. As evolution in sport would go, the global air races would eventually attract some of the world’s most fearless flyers in the game.

“I think that when people see it for the first time they think, ‘Wow, these guys are crazy!’ But really it’s not like that…”

Mikaël Brageot is one of these men with balls of steel who helms the cockpit for the Breitling Racing Team’s MXS-R, an ultra-agile aerobatic plane with a maximum speed of 426km/h.

As part of the Master Class contingent, it’s Brageot’s job to take on the clock via set slalom courses that involve launching through ‘Air Gates’ at preposterous speeds and angles in order to score style points. The pilot with the most points at the end of the year is crowned the Red Bull Air Race World Champion. Brageot tells us that the notion of danger doesn’t phase him as much as it would a normal civilian.

“I think that when people see it for the first time they think, ‘Wow, these guys are crazy!’ But really it’s not like that. We are well prepared and safety is the highest priority. We are not risk takers but managers of risks.”

Brageot’s flying career began in 1999 when his grandfather took him to the flying club to discover aviation. At the time he just wanted to see if he could fly and become familiar with an aircraft – he discovered he could do more than just  fly.

The 21-year-old was hooked on the primal relationship between man, machine and physics. With no clue or idea about the future possibility, Brageot continued to learn more about the world of aviation and he soon found his way into aerobatics. This was a path that would eventually lead him to the highest form of competition where he’d represent France at the World Aerobatic Championships.

“I don’t really have any scariest moments in the air,” Brageot recalls.

“I always try to keep everything simple and under control, therefore it has prevented me from any scary situations – knock on wood.”

Whilst the sport has given some pilots a daunting dance with death, the Frenchman has flown more than 3,000 hours without an incident or accident and says that he’s hoping to keep it this way. Competing at the highest level of aerobatics isn’t just about dexterity and 20/20 vision. Pilots are essentially athletes with the added talents of physical and mental strength under extreme pressure.

Brageot lists cardio and endurance as a mandatory in a pilot’s CV but also notes that fast reflexes are their main trait and what they routinely train for.

“A typical person can handle about 5G and will often pass out at 8G from the blood rushing out of their head. We will often fly to 10G.”

Another aspect of air race competition is to be able to deal with the effects of G forces. This lesson takes time and is improved by flying and “pulling G”. For the uninitiated to aerobatics, a G force is the effect of gravity on a body. Pull into a turn at high speed and the G force pins you against a seat under the multiplied effect of gravity.

“We are only allowed as part of the Red Bull Air Race rules to pull up to 12G during the race and it must be for less than 0.6 of a second otherwise we will be given a penalty.”

For reference a typical human can handle about 5G and will often pass out at 8G from the blood rushing out of their head.

“We will often fly to 10G but this is not a level that we will sustain for a long period of time. You will see that the G is higher when we turn around at the end of the track in the vertical turn manoeuvre,” says Brageot.

“It is an art to be pulling good G but not too much that you stall the plane. A lot of this is learned through repeated practice and a certain amount of muscle memory.”

The secrets to flying an aerobatics plane in competition is a bit more convoluted than most would thing. There’s people like sports psychologist involved to help the pilots focus, a state that requires them to be in the sweet spot somewhere between relaxed and hyped up, if there ever was such a place.

“I’ve recently been using meditation as a technique to help me with all of this” laughs Brageot.

Being a one trick pony will get you nowhere at the top level of flying. That’s why Brageot and his team are always looking for ways to get around the track faster than the other pilots. The key to this is a plane that is always in peak condition.

Add to this a technician, a track analyst who uses a matrix program to find the fastest path through the track and a team coordinator to look after logistics and you have a winning formula.

“The rest is under my responsibility,” says Brageot. “There is always something to improve and you hope that during the training you can find the boundaries before the racing starts.”

“Plenty of hours flying high-performance light aircraft is a must before you can even think of becoming an air race pilot.”

At the end of the day it all comes down to timing if you want to reach the podium of a Red Bull Air Race. Since standardised racing engines were introduced in 2014, all teams have had the same power to weight ratio and this has led to more competitive and closer track times. The aerodynamics is where the teams are allowed to experiment and showcase the engineering prowess.

So what advice does Brageot have for someone wanting to do his job?

“Plenty of hours flying high-performance light aircraft is a must before you can even think of becoming an air race pilot.”

Whether it’s aerobatics or crop spraying, Brageot stresses that candidates need to first gain enough experience to be safe when flying at a low level before they can handle a highly tuned aircraft that is more of an extension of one’s own body. Besides that, there’s the dedication and discipline required to stay in the sport and the mental trait of being able to remain calm and focused under pressure.

“You must never allow yourself to become complacent, which is the rule to stay on the safe side.”

In other words, staying alive is the first part of the job. Going faster is the second.

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