The Red Bull air race is a great spectator sport, but not for the faint-hearted. It’s a crazy slalom course for acrobatic planes, flying at between 350 and 426 km/h (220-265 mph) in an eight race world championship season that includes in Perth, Australia, on occasion. The races are mostly held over water.
The “air gates” the pilots fly through are just 25 metres (82 ft) high, and 10-15 metres (33-49ft) apart – leaving as little as 1.5m either side of the plane’s wingspan as it flies between gates. Sometimes the plane wings cut slice through the tops of the pylons, leading to a time penalty.
In the season’s third race, over the Adriatic Sea in Rovinj, Croatia, Australian Matt Hall, the airborne version of F1’s Daniel Ricciardo, is leading the world championship after placing third behind former champion and three-time runner up Hannes Arch of Austria. It was Hall’s third straight podium finish this season.
This is just Hall’s third season of racing, having joined the competition in 2009 (it was in abeyance, 2011-2013) and finishing his debut year in third place.
Born in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Hall, 43, is a third generation pilot and former RAAF Hornet fighter pilot and combat instructor. He was just 15 when he took his first solo flight in a glider. Surprisingly for a bloke who’s done some pretty crazy stuff in planes, including 500 hours flying aerobatics, he’s only ever made one parachute jump – and that was for fun rather than out of necessity.
Business Insider spoke to Matt Hall ahead of race four in Budapest, July 4-5, and asked how he got into such an unlikely sport.
“I had already achieved all of my goals in the RAAF as a fighter pilot, and my future flying career was looking more like a desk than an aircraft. I needed a new challenge in life, something that revolved around flying to an elite level in competition, and then the Red Bull Air Race (RBAR) came along,” Hall said.
“One of the organisers who was involved in getting me into the RBAR said to me at my first race ‘It’s like this sport was designed for you.’ – I took that statement and made it my life.”
Despite the fact that it’s a tight, low track at high speed, generating up to 10G of force on the turns, it doesn’t phase Hall, who says that once he’s there, the race happens in slow motion, even when he’s flying at 400kmh.
“When I watch other pilots in the track, I cant believe how low and fast they are flying, and have to remind myself that I actually do that!” he says.
Leading the world championship has yet to sink in, Hall says, but feels good.
“I thought there was a chance for me to win that one – as I have felt for the last 3 races! – so when the results came in there was a mess of emotions from happiness that I had achieved my error-free goal and made the podium, and disappointment that I had missed coming first again by such a small margin,” he said.
“The news of being ranked number 1 was not on my horizon, so it is just something that I was shown, not aiming for.”
He’s a long way off dreaming of finishing the season on top, saying he never looks too much past the next event.
“Like all of the sports performance and especially golf, the most guaranteed way of blowing a lead is by looking at the score board and changing from an attack mindset to a defensive mindset.
“So, lets keep attacking each race as an individual event, and see how the year comes together.”
When he’s not racing the world’s best, you’ll find Hall in the Hunter Valley, where thrill seekers can go for an acrobatic flight with the ace pilot.
Hall shares the championship lead on 25 points with Britain’s Paul Bonhomme, who finished in eighth place. Arch’s 12-point win took him to 17 points.
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