Already strapped in, with a stranger tightening my parachute, it becomes jarringly clear Red Bull race planes don’t have ejection seats. “In the event of an emergency, the canopy flies open, and I’ll be yelling ‘Bail! Bail! Bail!’” instructs François Le Vot, my French aerobatic pilot. His voice, competing against the engine through the helmet’s erratic mic, is hard to hear. There’s no chance I’m actually comprehending his words. As he progresses to some pretty vital details — how to unbuckle the safety harness; at which angle jump to avoid getting decapitated by the plane’s tail; where not to pull on my parachute — it’s all too much. I envision a fiery plane crash scenario. Is it unlikely? Yes. But it distracts me from another current crisis. For a person who doesn’t like flying, barrel rolls and controlled free falls scare me to the bones. And then there are the g-forces. I know there’s no way I’m ready for those.
The azure Las Vegas sky is calm, lucid and alarmingly inconsistent with my internal tempest. Somehow I agreed to this, but the whole situation feels rushed. In the seven minutes since arriving at the airstrip, I’ve slipped into a flight suit, met Le Vot and allowed myself to be gently shackled into a plane that’s slightly longer than a Suburban. Nothing’s been explained. Those safety waivers I signed in our New York office? Maybe I should’ve read them more meticulously.
“That’s the problem with the positive g-force. All the blood tends to leave the brain to go to the lower part of the body, and of course, no blood in the brain, no ideas.”
Someone closes the canopy and we start rolling down the runway. “Don’t worry”, Le Vot says. “You have little to fear. This plane runs like a Swiss-made watch.” If he means to calm me down, he fails. After two days listening to pilots, industry professionals and thrill seekers, I know my body’s going to be physically punished, no matter what, by g-forces. Loosely defined as the acceleration of gravity on a body, g’s are contingent on a plane’s speed and aerobatic prowess. Increased speeds and sharper maneuvers equate to higher pressures exerted on a pilot’s body. The Red Bull Air Race allows for up to 10 g’s, meaning that, for that moment, the pilot feels like he weighs ten times more than he actually does. To put that in perspective, pilots face the same amount force in a 50-second flight as a weightlifter benching a small car — twelve times.
As we take off and ascend into the sky, I’m vaguely aware we won’t reach the 10-g crescendo of an actual air race flight. But my body’s still in line for the ringer. Augmented g’s have a nefarious toll on the body. “That’s the problem with the positive g-force,” Le Vot had explained on the ground. “All the blood tends to leave the brain to go to the lower part of the body, and of course, no blood in the brain, no ideas.” Loss of consciousness — what pilots refer to as “greying out” — is a very real, very scary possibility.
But understanding g-force isn’t as deductive as simply staying under 10 g’s. There are two parameters to consider: the proper value of the g-force and the duration of their application. “For example, if you experience 5 g’s for 4 seconds,” says Le Vot, “that’s the same effort as experiencing 10 g’s for half of a second. Ten g’s isn’t a problem for half a second, but 5 g’s could become a problem after 10 seconds.”
Which is why competing pilots must wear G-Race suits, explained to me by professional team Breitling pilot Nigel Lamb the day before. The suits, which were introduced this year and are part of the sport’s new set of rules after its hiatus since 2010, are lined with fluid-filled tubes to harness hydrostatic pressure, contracting around certain muscles — mainly in the legs and abdomen — and preventing blood from flowing away from the brain.
After a weekend of hearing Lamb vehemently complain about his — “I cannot tell you how much I hate [the suit]. It’s 14 pounds and oh my god, it’s horrible” — I’m still lamenting not wearing one. Lamb was concerned with comfort in an already stifling cockpit. I’m focused on the suit’s ability to alleviate up to 1.5 g’s — the potential fine line between me throwing up or passing out.
pilots face the same amount force in a 50-second flight as a weightlifter benching a small car — twelve times.
Even without a suit, there are a few ways to restrict blood flow and avoid blacking out from g-forces. The idea is to make it as hard as possible to allow blood to move where it wants to: away from the head. Firstly, I’m told to pressurize my lungs and chest cavity by taking a deep breath. And then, while experiencing intense g’s, I’m supposed to breathe short quick breaths, or as Lamb puts it, act “like a little goldfish.” Through the big turns and drops, I should tense my whole body, squeezing my stomach, thigh and calf muscles. By looking at the horizon, I’m told, I can avoid disorientation, which leads to panic and nausea.
Next is fitness — and believe it, these pilots are athletes. Le Vot has a very specific training regimen. “It’s not a question of endurance, but more a question of being able to deliver one’s maximum energy in eight minutes. For example, running long distance is a very bad preparation for the g-force. You must prepare the heart to go very quickly in high reps, slow down quickly, and then rev up again.” He bikes, swims and lifts weights, intensely and in quick bursts. Handling the high Gs is something racers get better at with practice.
Regarding diet and hydration, François says it’s just common sense. “Drinking water is very important,” he says. Under the canopy, pilots get hot. There’s no room for air conditioning and the G-suits are heavy and unventilated. Le Vot drinks water throughout the day, in small quantities. Otherwise, piloting calls for a normal diet — but eating is vital, because blood glucose levels are key when battling against high g’s. If they’re too low, your chances of fading into the “grey area” increase. For pilots, eating before a flight is second nature. But with the fear of death from a very high altitude staring me in the face, I don’t find it so easy to choke down a slice of banana bread before the flight.
A few minutes into our ascent, I’m thanking god I scarfed it down. We’re well over a thousand feet in the air and a silence has fallen over the cockpit. I anticipate a quick jibe or some trivial comment, but Le Vot remains tight-lipped. The Motor Speedway lingers below, too far away to tell if it’s started to fill up for the day’s event. Then the doomed words arrive. “Alright, I’m going to dive to gain some speed. And let’s go.”
They were wrong to say my eyesight would be first to go. It’s my hands. With nothing designated to hold on to, the bottom of my seat makes do. And I’m gripping the shit out of it. Coming out of our initial dive, Le Vot takes us into a barrel roll, and the g-forces attack me. My head, chest and psyche are all targets. It’s not quite as intense as getting hit with sledgehammer. But then again, we only maxed maxed out at 6.7 g’s.
They were wrong to say my eyesight would be first to go.
The flight briefly turns into a blurry succession of quick breaths, stomach losses, and plenty of Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!-ing. But soon after, the scare factor dissipates. I use the horizon trick, staring down the propeller (straight ahead) or at the left wing (when barrel rolling). And I realize it’s all out of my control. Le Vot manipulates all the strings. Only if he utters the most feared word in the American language — Bail! — will I have to do anything. And if that happens, let face it: I’m as gone as a bottled butterfly. It’s why bungee jumping is scarier than sky diving: the former requires you to jump. Tandem sky-diving only requires you to close your eyes. As we advance to larger-scale, more competitive maneuvers, I’m filled with a fragile confidence. I’m still worried about dying, but I’m also able to take more of the experience in.
Safely back on the ground, I have time to think about the men behind this wild spectacle, and how beautifully strange and unexpected these pilots’ lives are. It’s not just that they do the insane things I just did, and more, on a daily basis. With an array of military backgrounds, they’ve all been given a rare opportunity to be pioneers in a new sport. There’s no Top Gun bravado. No ego. Average age is in the upper 40s, and each pilot I meet is amiable and conversational. Despite competing against each other, they all share something: the hope that the Red Bull Air Race will grow.
Climbing out of the cockpit, François bullshits, telling me I’m a natural. Flattering, but there’s no shot. The truth is I’m mentally done. Besides, something tells me that Red Bull can attract better flying recruits than me. After all, they’ve got a hell of a product. Soaring upside down as the world watches in awe, the world’s fastest motorsport is nothing short of spectacular. Being a spectator is immense. Actually flying in a plane? Crazy.
Gear Patrol goes behind the scenes and into the cockpit of the famed Red Bull Air Races in Las Vegas, Nevada. Read the Story