Air Racing at Monument Valley

Monument Valley, UT – Tomorrow over Istanbul, Turkey, 12 pilots take to the skies in the fourth event in this year's Red Bull Air Race Series. The sport was created six years ago to challenge the skill and daring of some of the world's best pilots. It's already grown into one of the world's largest spectator sports, drawing crowds of more than a million in cities across the globe. Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker went to the last air race at Monument Valley, on the Navajo Nation, and has this report on the allure of one of the newest motorsports.

SFX1: sneak up some race sound

The plane of 2006 world champion Kirby Chambliss materializes out of the sparkling desert sky and dives down to the opening gate in the 2007 Monument Valley semifinals.

AX1: Announcers calling the race: Look at this angle of descent, we're going to see a very fast start speed coming through these gates, the man's one of the best in the business, 224 MPH (with sound of plane in background), my man was cooking!

The course is made up of eight air gates pairs of 60-foot tall inflatable pylons the pilots zoom through, sometimes level, sometimes at what's called a knife edge, with one wing pointing at the ground, the other at the sky. The planes are often no more than 10 feet off the ground. After flying through the second gate, Chambliss makes a hard, banked right turn and makes it through the next gate.

AX2: Wow, look at the Gs right there! He's making it look very good right there, no problems through the first three gates.

The course ends with a maneuver called a Half Cuban eight. Chambliss pulls up into a long upside down loop, then does a half roll at the top to level out, and dives back down to the ground to fly through the finishing gate. The entire Monument Valley course takes only about a minute to complete.

SFX2: ambi/room tone during Chambliss interview

AX4: Chambliss: I'm kind of a speed junkie, I enjoy an adrenaline rush and going fast.

That's defending air race champion Kirby Chambliss. He's also a five-time U.S. National Aerobatic champion. Every pilot in the Air Race has to win an international competition to even attempt to qualify for the series. Chambliss, who lives in southern Arizona, says that's not just because the aerobatics required in the races are so difficult; it's also because pilots need that experience if something goes wrong.

AX5: Chambliss: Because there's no time to think. You hit one of those gates and it tosses the airplane upside down, you're 10 feet off the ground, so you can't sit there and go, OK, I have to back off this, it all has to be react or you're dead.

At this year's Monument Valley race, he crowd witnessed first hand the dangers Chambliss is talking about.

AX6: Announcer: Here he is Steve Jones, check out the opening speed. His speed 220 MPH. Oh oh, oh oh, oh oh

While trying to fly through the third gate, British pilot Steve Jones clipped a pylon with his propeller.

SFX: post sound of airplane buzzing over the crowd

The plane wobbled a bit, but Jones steadied the plane and buzzed low over the crowd off the course.

AX: Everything's cool, but he is unfortunately going to be out of it for this race.

It doesn't take long to figure out these guys aren't just pilots, or daredevils: they're athletes. That's something rookie Austrian pilot Hannes Arch says he learned quickly as well.

I was kind of surprised when I entered this air race, I thought it was more like a show, but it's not, it's a real sport, it's a real racing sport.

Arch looks like the David Beckham of air racing, chiseled features, spiky hair, open collared shirt. He grew up skiing in Austria, and says there are similarities between the sports.

It's the same challenge. You have to find the right line. The better you can do that the faster you are. The main challenge is that you always race on the limit. That also means it could get dangerous if you go over your limits.

When pilots push their limits, that usually means they're performing maneuvers that require them to withstand intense gravitational forces. Basically the tighter and faster the turn or loop, the higher the G-force.

SFX: Sound of plane firing up keep sound of plane in background.

The day before the Monument Valley race, German pilot Mathias Dolderer offers to take me up in a plane so I can experience what racers feel.

After getting ratcheted tightly into our seats, we're cleared for takeoff. The tiny two seater accelerates so quickly we're off the ground almost immediately.

Dolderer skims the desert floor so it seems we touch the top of the sagebrush. He flies higher, and pulls the plane up into a graceful loop.

Dolderer: You like to do some heavy G turn? Oh, yes. OK, fast left turn

Dolderer cranks the plane hard to the left, so hard it jerks my head down, throwing my headset off. I try, but I can't straighten my head until the plane levels out again.

That was five and a half Gs, you like it? Yes, but I don't want to do it again! Laugh

Formula one racers experience g-forces of up to five and a half Gs. Air racers sometimes hit 10 Gs.

Chambliss: At 10 Gs basically it feels like a house sitting on my chest.

Again pilot Kirby Chambliss.

I for instance weigh about 200 pounds, so it makes my body at 10 Gs feel like it weighs 2000 pounds, so everything's going to crush you down into your seat. All the blood up in your brain that allows you to function is trying to leave there and go down into the trunk of your body.

Before pilots make a high G turn, they tense their bodies, like a boxer in anticipation of getting hit.

You're tightening all your neck muscles and your trunk muscles in order to slow that blood flow down so you don't end up with what they call G lock, which is G induced loss of consciousness. But for me it's like breathing, I don't have to think about it.

AX: bring up race sound again, Here we go as he starts the track, 219 MPH, a jig to the left, and now he's wrapping it hard to the right 9.6 Gs, he was really giving it the business!

That's Hungarian pilot Peter Besenyei at the start of his final race at Monument Valley. The final 8 pilots fly head to head, single elimination races against the clock. Often racers are only separated by hundredths of a second. That excitement has helped draw record crowds across the globe. Neil Baker is an air racing fan who drove the 400 miles from Salt Lake City to Monument Valley.

I've always been fascinated with air races in general, the way they're so low right in between the air gates, it's pretty impressive flying. These pilots are some of the best I've ever seen.

The Monument Valley event also made fans out of air race novices like Rita Whitehorse Larson of Gallup, New Mexico.
It was awesome, I loved it the aerobatic performances, the way they compete at certain speed, and they turn, so it was really awesome. So you're a new fan? Yes I am! I sure am!

AX: post sound from race again, He's looking really solid, this is looking great, get noisy, is he going to be sub one minute, 58, 59, he is!

Peter Besenyei squeaked past British pilot Paul Bonhamme by less than a second to win at Monument Valley, the first pilot to win two races this year. He'll go for three tomororw in Istanbul.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Daniel Kraker in Monument Valley, Utah.