1. Kirby Chambliss is a pilot. That sentence is somewhat accurate, since many, many people are pilots, and their quality, skills, and ability to peel a plane away from gravity and send it bouncing end-over-end through the air vary greatly. Your friend who has 100 hours of flight, and is perhaps capable of crash-landing a Cessna without killing everyone on board? They are a kind of pilot, and not the kind of pilot Kirby Chambliss is.
2. Red Bull is a company apparently capable of space travel, mind control, and countless other potential technologies it ignores in favor of a.) selling energy drinks, and b.) subsidizing outlandish, speed-freaky sports in the name of self-promotion. It is very good at both, and that is why you see Austrian teenagers with their fear glands removed diving sideways in wingsuits off the tops of Norwegian fjords wearing its logo all over YouTube. Occasionally they invite a journalist along to do one of these stupid things, and usually the journalist refuses because these things are very, very stupid.
3. The exception to that is me, because I am stupid and actually want to get in the plane with Chambliss, a tall, easygoing dude from Texas who talks like a pilot, walks like a pilot, and has a supernatural ability to speak clearly and easily while throwing his plane into G-heavy vomit spirals. He has to do the Air Race in a few weeks, and a show, and then take his plane, a twin engine commuter prop to our left, back home to his ranch in Arizona. This ranch is built under waivered airspace in the desert somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix, meaning he can fly over it any time he likes. His home comes with its own hangar, and his neighbors alternate complaining about the noise with telling him about how they liked that cool thing he did yesterday with the plane. Chambliss can practically roll out of bed and into the air.
4. Kirby smiles. "That plane's tail would come off if we did what we're going to do today in the race plane," he says, pointing to the commuter. The race plane is built of carbon fiber and reinforced to the gills to stand the intense forces of race flight, a nice thing to tell your brain when you're climbing in, putting on the double harnesses keeping you in place, and pondering the physics of how you, a 300 horsepower engine, and a man you just met will not simply fall from the sky like a hammer falling onto the nail of your mortal, breakable self.
5. Taking off over the khaki nothing surrounding the airfield in Lancaster, California, that seems so very, very likely. The plane feels like it's made of carbon fibery nothing beneath you, and because this is a two-seater, the passenger rides forward of the pilot. The sensation is that of being alone in a levitating capsule made of spun gelatin, even though the cabin is so compact you can see Kirby's feet under your seat. There are no hand holds, only bars that make up the airframe holding us inside the plane.
6. There are two black sticks I could grab on to in event of an emergency mounted on either side of the cockpit. I really should not grab these, ever: they are the release pulls for the cockpit. If they are pulled loose, the entire canopy flies off the plane, turning this into a convertible instantly. This would be disorienting and therefore bad, but there is one more reason why I should not do this. The canopy could fly clear through the tail, shear it off, and effectively destroy the plane. Then I would have to use the parachute I am wearing, a big if since I probably can't get out of a spinning plane anyway, and also have never used a parachute. The only serious thought I have is that I can relax, because at the relatively low altitudes we'll be flying at I'd be dead quickly after a short but very stimulating trajectory into the ground. (Plus, the perfectly good chute wouldn't have to be repacked for the next lucky passenger.)
7. I'm wearing an airsuit that has been vomited on recently.
8. Taking off is fine: there is a brilliant, clear blue desert sky, and little postcards of burnt-colored nothing below us. I can see these because there are little windows in the floor of the plane, as well as yellow pieces of metal molded to the wingtips to help the pilot verify precise angular relation to the horizon. There is also a streamer attached to each wingtip. If it runs backwards, it means you are falling backwards, and have either done the "Falling Leaf" trick, or have violated every law of physics known to man. There's going to be smoke in the cockpit, he says, but don't worry. I hear the first part of the sentence, and the second part, well, my brain discards in favor of THE PLANE IS GOING TO BE ON FIRE THE WHOLE TIME. There is a plastic bag attached to my console if I feel sick and need to vomit the coffee and little else I have in my stomach into something. He asks that I please try to do this: we are riding in a fishtank, and anything turned loose in the cabin has a tendency to do its own aerobatics through the cockpit.
9. And then Kirby starts talking, and I hardly notice what he's doing. He's saying numbers: 90, 180, 270. These are angles he's turning the plane through, stopping on hard points of the compass as he says them. There is the earth, then the earth running parallel to us, and then the perpendicular opposite angle, and then the earth, ticked level again with a flick of the stick. We flip upside down, and ride there for a moment. The plane, so feather-light it felt like a stiff hiccup of the wind could dash it into a mountainside with ease, is something else entirely now. It has invisible control points it hits in open space: level, sideways, upside down, and all the points in between. This is not flight, but geometry, and it could be measured in stances like dance moves or diagrammed like phase changes.
10. "Okay here we go and---" I sort of lose track of Kirby's exact words at this moment, because the dance moves get more complex. The plane tumbles end-over-end, and I see the same farmhouse swing two or three times past my field of vision. I distinctly remember him making a joke about a flat spin being something that Tom Cruise did not like, and then realizing we were in a deliberately induced flat spin, the mountains of the California desert pivoting around us on either side. That little streamer I mentioned went limp as Kirby kicked the plane full vertical, let the sun blast our eyes from our heads for a moment, and then let the plane fall backwards, tail-first, toward the ground. I saw it, staring aghast out toward the wingtip.
11. There was a flurry of other tumbles, spins, mid-air full-stops. The good thing about being tossed into an experience you cannot comprehend with any part of your tiny, ape-like brain is that many of its higher functions shut down under intense stress. I couldn't be anxious because anxiety, it turns out, is pretty high-level stuff, and with G-forces stripping my brain of blood most of that was funneled to things like preventing brain death and making sure I didn't shit myself. Whatever other fear I had was cut short by the awe-inspiring handling of the airplane itself. Precise barely explores the fringe of its motion in the hands of a pilot who knows what he's doing. Kirby could park it in an unstable position, hold for an instant, and then swing the entire plane around on a needle's point the other direction, creating forces that yes, would have torn other planes apart like confetti. The plane seemed alive, but a very specific kind of alive under the stress of aerobatic flight. It seemed like it was bored, and desperately wanting to do more.
12. Kirby Chambliss and that plane together are basically an Australian Shepherd performing obedience trials or astonishing an NBA halftime crowd, and I was the tiny, confused macaque riding on its back.
Flying the world's fastest plane
13. That monkey, namely me, could take every sensation and stress save one: the payback for taking out credit against gravity. Every sequence ended with a leveling out, a coming to parallel with the horizon when gravity would reset, grab you by the bloodstream, and then pull it through the floor. Your eyes baffled like an unbalanced washing machine, the horizon blurred, and the feeling of something trying to push you into the seat with the heel of a boot came over you. Psychologically, I was either fine, or too overwhelmed to assume I was anything but fine. On the third series of aerobatics, my stomach decided to bail out of the plane.
14. G-tolerance is evidently like drinking: you have to build up a tolerance for it, or risk painful, repeated bouts of nausea. So I grabbed the Ziploc bag, waited a minute, and then rode the rest of the way back to the airfield heaving up the morning's coffee, and then frothy yellow bile into the bag. It's not as bad as it all sounds. I lasted two and a half minutes, which is pretty good for your first time in a lot of contexts. I also wasn't the one who had to dispose of the bag, which I handed to an unfortunate crew member as I stumbled out of the cockpit and thought about getting breakfast for the second time.
Kirby Chambliss and the rest of the Red Bull Air Race runs this weekend at Rovinj, Croatia.