Returning after a three-year hiatus, the Red Bull Air Race lands in Texas Sept. 6-7. Fans will watch pilots flying up to 230 miles per hour through pylons staged at the Texas Motor Speedway just 15 meters over the ground.
"It's high G, it's high speed, it's low-altitude, and it's in a tight arena," said Mike Mangold, former Red Bull Air Race pilot and expert commentator on the tour, listing the reasons he thinks the sport will garner fans. "Most of the course is inside a NASCAR course (at the Dallas race), but you're operating at 250 miles per hour."
When a pilot turns an aircraft at high speed, G-forces cause blood to flow from the brain to the feet. For safety, the air race allows no more than 10G -- which still feels "like a house sitting on your chest when you're trying to breathe," according to Chambliss, and "akin to getting slapped," according to Mangold. "Your body feels like it weighs 2,000 pounds," Chambliss said. What makes it tolerable, racers said, is the short duration. It takes Chambliss less than 6.5 seconds to turn 270 degrees.
Flight suits also help withstand the Gs. Created by a German specialist and also used by fighter pilots, who have to withstand the forces for longer periods of time, they're mandatory for air race pilots. Tubes filled with fluid line the suit and expand to squeeze the pilot and prevent the blood from flowing toward the feet.
"They help a little bit -- maybe one to 1.5 Gs," Mangold said. "They're not the end-all solution, but we'll take any help.
Perhaps the most noticeable change since the race's premiere in 2005, the trademark red-and-yellow pylons that create air gates on the course have changed in shape and structure.
Weighing 40 percent less than standard printer paper, the fabric bursts on the slightest impact. To the pilot, "it feels like a tug on your shirt sleeve," Mangold said.
Replacing a pylon took 20 minutes in 2003; now it takes 90 seconds. The shape has also changed to become asymmetrical to create a better flight window.
Pilots pick their planes, but the majority are flying one of these two. Nine of the 12 pilots are flying the Edge 540, which was crafted by a family business in Oklahoma and is known for its straight-edged wing. The MXS-R, flown by two pilots, is constructed of carbon fiber.
While the engines are standardized, it's impossible to make two engines exactly alike, Mangold said. He attributes the Americans' struggles this season to slower aircraft.
"(Chambliss) is almost perfect as a pilot, but you can't win the race without a fast horse," he said.
Pilots in the race come from aerobatic flight backgrounds. In fact, the race originally featured more aerobatic maneuvers.
"In order to take something relatively dangerous and make it relatively sane, you've got to have pilots with experience," Chambliss said.
The white tailsmoke is required so that fans can follow the maneuvers. Forget to flip the switch to turn it on, and you're disqualified.
Although there have been no Air Race fatalities, there have been some close calls. Australian Matt Hall's plane touched the water in a 2010 qualifying round, but he was able to land safely. And Brazilian Adilson Kindelmann crashed into the Swan River in Australia during a training session when his plane stalled during a turn; he was uninjured. Over the three years the race was on hold, safety protocols were reviewed and tweaked. The minimum altitude is now 84 feet, for example, and the track design is safer. Engines and propellers are now standardized.
Still, it's a calculated risk, Mangold said, and every participant has attended funerals of other friends.
"We all have a list of dead friends, and it only get longer," Mangold said. "We continue in their honor and learn from their mistakes. When I look at it from the outside I go, this is crazy, but once you do it, it's an adrenaline rush that you can't find anywhere else."