Red Bull Air Race – Round 5, Ascot Racecourse

2015, Reviews

For the second year running, the UK leg of the Red Bull Air Race championships took place at Ascot Racecourse; a track that’s more used to hosting horse racing than air racing. Staged over three days; Practice on Friday, Qualifying on Saturday and the Race on the Sunday, the weekend promised to be full of adrenaline and excitement for the capacity crowd.

Qualifying took place on the Saturday of the race weekend and determined the starting order for Sunday. For those unfamiliar with the format of the Red Bull Air Race, Race Day is broken down into three distinct rounds; Round of 14, Round of 8 and then Final 4, as described below:

Capture

As the race itself didn’t start until mid-afternoon, there was a chance to get up close and personal with both the pilots and aircraft in the pit area. It was more than a little refreshing to be invited into most of the hangars for a chat and some unique photo opportunities, with most of the participants available to answer any queries.

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It was also great to see so many people waiting at the fence to grab photos and autographs from their favourite pilots.

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Race Report

The format of the Round of 14 means that those that perhaps didn’t perform to the best of their ability during qualifying, effectively get given a second chance to proceed in the race and in the most extreme case can mean that the slowest person from Saturday knocks the fastest person out.

Importantly for the home crowd, there were two pilots flying the flag for Great Britain; Nigel Lamb of the Breitling Racing Team and Paul Bonhomme of Team Bonhomme, winner of the Ascot race in 2014 and leader of the 2015 championship.

Nigel Lamb went up against Kirby Chambliss (Team Chambliss) in Heat 5 and picked up a 2-second time penalty for ‘Incorrect Level Flying’ which meant that his chances of progressing to the next round were severely impacted. However, Chambliss then went on to pick up a similar time penalty in the last stages of his run and this meant that incredibly, Lamb was through to the Round of 8.

The rest of the field continued with their duals and after a particularly intense Heat between Matt Hall and Pete McLeod, Hall joined Muroya, Bensenyei, Ivanoff, Sonka and Lamb to take up his place in the Round of 8.

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Qualifying fastest on Saturday, Paul Bonhomme was in the best position possible to crack on with getting the job done on Sunday but it wasn’t going to be easy. Hannes Arch took to the sky first and set the fastest time of the day so far, putting his terrible qualifying behind him and guaranteed himself a place in the Round of 8. Bonhomme was under pressure to perform but just couldn’t quite put his mark on the circuit and lost out to Arch by seven tenths of a second but fortunately for Paul and the team, his time was enough to get him through to the next round as the Fastest Loser.

After a short break, the Round of 8 got underway and saw Lamb facing off against Australia’s Matt Hall. Lamb appeared to be in a world of his own as he posted his quickest time of the weekend but it just simply wasn’t enough to beat a truly stunning performance from Hall which saw the Brit instantly knocked out.

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Matt Hall joined Muroya and Ivanoff in the Final 4 with just the last place to be decided in Heat 7.

The Race format meant that Bonhomme was to face Arche once more and Paul put in a stunning time that set the bar high but unfortunately the crowd were robbed of that fight. For the second time in the weekend, Hannes Arch and UBFS Racing were unable to get their engine started and after running out of time were declared out; Bonhomme was through and within reach of the top prize.

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Unlike the previous two rounds, the Final 4 is a straight fight and the best time wins. Bonhomme was set to fly last and it was looking like all he had to do was fly a clean lap as each of the finalists picked up time penalties, with Hall guaranteeing himself second place on the podium, setting a time of 1:09.024.

As Bonhomme started his run to the first gate, 29,000 people were on their feet cheering and clapping with encouragement for the home team. Eyes darted between watching Bonhomme fly tightly around the gates and to the big TV screens in front of the crowd. As Paul reached the final gate he was well within the green and meant that as he shot through the finish gate and into the vertical, he had completed his lap in a time of 1:06.416 – just under three seconds faster than Hall!

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For the second time in two years, Paul Bonhomme claimed first place at Ascot and goes into Round 6 of the Championship with a lead of eight points over Matt Hall.

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Filling The Gaps

Tasked with entertaining the massive crowd between the Rounds were the AAC Apache Helicopter Display Team, RAF Chinook Display Team and Breitling Wingwalkers.

2015 has seen the Apache team conducting a pairs role demonstration but due to the confined display line at Ascot, this was not possible. Instead a solo aircraft took to the sky and put the helicopter through its paces much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom had not seen the aircraft before judging by various comments that could be heard. The display may have lacked the explosive punch that we’ve become accustomed to over the last few months but it certainly did a good job of showing off the agility of the aircraft.

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Having stunned the crowd with their gravity-defying routine in 2014, Red Bull invited the Chinook Display Team back to Ascot to once again demonstrate the incredible manoeuvrability of the tandem-rotor aircraft. Chucking the helicopter about the sky seemed to leave an incredible lasting impression with the crowd as almost everyone rose to their feet and applauded the team as they bowed and exited to land back on. There may have been no running landing in their display but the increased number of nose-down quick-stops seemed to go down well!

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The Breitling Wingwalkers have been busy all over the world this year and incredibly, Ascot was the first time that I had seen them display this season. Unfortunately for the team, there was little wind and this meant that their smoke lingered on the display line for longer than was desirable but the full two-ship display still seemed to entertain the crowd.

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The Venue

There’s no doubt about it, Ascot Racecourse has a fantastic atmosphere and is an incredible place for flying but there is a lot about the venue that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

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Like in 2014, it was as if no-one had told the people on the gates that this wasn’t going to be a normal race day and when help was needed, a number of staff didn’t appear to have the answers that were required. One particular member of staff on the entrance gates was heard telling a paying visitor that they were not allowed to bring their picnic in and that they must eat it all before they got in as ‘his boss wanted them to spend their money inside the gates’ – this wasn’t a joke either, he was deadly serious. Similar reports of this sort of behaviour were also voiced on social media over the weekend, leading me to think that perhaps the guidelines for picnics needs to be revised for the event next year; especially when the prices of food and drink on the premises were higher than even the most expensive Airshows on the calendar. While there was certainly lots of variety, charging £8 for a single burger is unbelievably expensive when you’ve already paid £40 entry.

Ascot provided yet another fantastically exciting race weekend and I’m already looking forward to it again next year but certain aspects of the venue need to be refined if it’s going to attract the same people back again.

Feature – A Summer of Blade Slap

Aviation, Features

As we head into the Autumn months, the dust is finally starting to settle on the 2014 display season and for the RAF Chinook Display Team it’s been one incredible Summer.

The UK Chinook force is one of the busiest frontline units in the world and due to ongoing operational commitments, the display team didn’t get together until late May. The original timetable went straight out of the window and before the season even got underway, the six-strong team were already under immense pressure to deliver results. It wasn’t just the available work up time that made it difficult either; operational deployments and a reducing number of HC2 airframes meant that aircraft availability and serviceability was also a real challenge.

Flt Lt Charlie Brown’s aim for this year was to create plenty of noise. That noise came in the form of ‘blade slap’, the unmistakable sound generated by the change in pitch when the aircraft rapidly alters it’s direction of flight. With assistance from the whole team, a routine was established that would best demonstrate this unique sound.

The Displays

The team kicked off their season in June with a display in front of the home crowd at RAF Odiham. Families Day was the perfect opportunity to show off the new-look routine and it would seem that from the very first nose-down bow, the display was well received. I remember speaking to Group Captain Richard Maddison, Station Commander RAF Odiham shortly after the display had finished – the smile on his face said it all really, it was definitely a show to be proud of.

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The three big shows followed – RAF Waddington International Airshow, the Royal International Air Tattoo and RNAS Yeovilton Air Day. The first two display weekends went off without a hitch and the team performed in front some huge crowds. RIAT is a massive show for the team with both their major sponsors (Boeing and Breitling) having a large presence at the event. Most would assume that display weekends are just a chance to relax and socialise, and while there is time for that, the team also has to heavily promote the role that the Royal Air Force plays in the modern world.

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With Waddington and Fairford behind them, the team were scheduled to display at RNAS Yeovilton. Unfortunately though, Yeovilton was the first appearance of the year that had to be cancelled. As the aircraft started up, engine no. 2 was indicating no oil temperature and this remained the same even after the sensors were changed, the internal wiring had to be checked and this meant that the aircraft had to be signed off as unserviceable.

After the mid-season break it was all go – six shows over three consecutive weekends. Having entertained the crowds at Eastbourne, the team made their debut at Ascot racecourse – the Red Bull Air Race World Championship made a welcome return this year and the Chinook Display Team were invited to display at the UK venue. Race day was a total sell-out and Flt Lt Charlie Brown, Flt Lt Andy Waldron and Sgt Anna Irwin ran through their routine in time to a soundtrack of intense house music. Ascot was a venue like no other and certainly one to remember.

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“Displaying in front of a Grandstand of 25,000 people ‘who just weren’t expecting it’ was a real highlight this year. Apparently we stole the show!” – Flt Charlie Brown, Display Pilot on displaying at Ascot

It was then on to Car Fest South and Dunsfold Wings & Wheels. Car Fest is held in support of Children in Need and the team were more than happy to be invited to the show for a second consecutive year. Displaying at Wings & Wheels means a lot to Odiham and in many ways is a chance to say a big thanks – Dunsfold is one of a handful of aerodromes that opens up to the RAF and as a result, the Chinooks frequently carry out training exercises in and around the airfield.

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The season ended with a weekend full of over-water displays. Unfortunately the team’s Friday appearance had to be cancelled due to another technical snag with the aircraft but nevertheless, on the final day at Bournemouth Air Festival, it’s estimated that some 600,000 people lined the beach between the two piers, giving the RAF Chinook Display Team their biggest crowd ever. From Bournemouth it was a short hop to a late addition on the display calendar – Dartmouth Regatta. Having not seen the display venue prior to the display slot, the team arrived crowd centre coming in low over a tree-lined hill top. What followed was a perfect demonstration of just how manoeuvrable the Chinook can be within a tight space and from speaking to the team the following day, it sounded like it was an awful lot of fun!

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“Arriving with the element of surprise using the terrain and displaying in such beautiful yet extremely challenging settings was brilliant. Completing the ‘over the shoulder’ effectively at the end meant almost instantly disappearing from sight of the crowd.” – Sgt Andy Caldwell, Display Crewman on displaying at Dartmouth Regatta

The Best Display This Year?

Over the course of the Summer, the display team have gathered quite a following on social media but what was their favourite moment of 2014?

Looking Ahead to 2015

On the Sunday at Bournemouth, the team displayed the Chinook HC2 for the very last time. Due to ongoing airframe upgrades under the Project Julius programme, the final HC2s will shortly undergo conversion to HC4 standard.

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A Chinook HC2 over Basingstoke earlier this year

Where does this leave RAF Odiham’s display capabilities for next year then? Well, in all honesty it’s still a little of the unknown. The upgraded HC4 is an incredibly capable aircraft but has so far not undertaken any displays; with an all-glass cockpit, it’s not known how the upgraded Chinook will react when it’s put under the strains of rigorous display manoeuvres. Depending on the outcome of display testing next month, it may be decided that the HC4 will not be used in a fully aerobatic role. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be a Chinook display in 2015, it just means that it might not be the display that we all know and love.

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

The HC4 looks almost identical to the HC2 from the outside

The Chinook is the workhorse of the RAF; it’s been involved in every major conflict since the Falklands campaign and for that reason alone, I’m confident that we’ll see it on the circuit next year.

“Its been an honour and a privilege to display in front of over 2.8million of you this season, a once in a lifetime opportunity.” – Flt Lt Charlie Brown, Display Pilot

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the 2014 Chinook Display Team, Flt Lt Meg Henderson and Group Captain Richard Maddison, Station Commander RAF Odiham for all their help and assistance over the course of this year. Without you, none of this would have been possible.