ABU DHABI // It is not hard to imagine the feeling of hanging upside down, blood rushing to your head. Now imagine the exact opposite, but with much more pressure. That is what it is like to experience forces of up to 10G as an aerobatic pilot.
To put that in perspective, a ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster – the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi – generates 4.8G.
“When you are doing high-G manoeuvres, you lose blood to the head and it goes to your feet,” said Edward Cyster, 31, a Scottish aerobatic pilot and a team coordinator for this weekend’s Red Bull Air Race.
Part of a pilot’s training is to learn to tolerate that kind of force with physical and mental training. Before the race, pilots must eat and hydrate well, get plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol, said Mr Cyster.
The mental preparation is just as important. Pilots have their own pre-flight routines to put themselves in a completely relaxed state.
“Distractions are a killer in aviation,” Mr Cyster said.
Pilots also wear G suits on their flights and take measures in the cockpit.
They “groan, grunt and make noises, and tense their stomach muscles to maintain that blood level”, said Mr Cyster, who is team coordinator for pilot Paul Bonhomme, who will be racing at this weekend’s event.
Mr Bonhomme, 49, got his pilot’s licence at age 18 after two years of working at an airfield in England. He joined British Airways as a commercial pilot when he was 23, and still works for the airline, flying Boeing 747s.
He has won a record 13 races since the sport was created in 2003, according to Red Bull. He was world champion in the company air race in 2009 and 2010, and took second place in 2007 and 2008.
“Personally, it wouldn’t matter if you promised me all the tea in China or all the money in the world. I want to win,” Mr Bonhomme said on Wednesday.
Apart from working with Mr Bonhomme, Mr Cyster competes as an aerobatic pilot for the Great Britain national team. His father was a fighter pilot in the UK Royal Air Force and with him, Mr Cyster said, he did his first loop at six months old.
The team spent about 25 hours modifying the aircraft’s Lycoming O-540 engine. They optimised the Edge 540 plane for use in racing rather than classical aerobatics.
Pilots can use any aircraft that meets the Red Bull Air Race’s regulations.
One issue the team took into account was the Abu Dhabi weather.
“It’s very important to keep the oil temperature of the race plane down, and with such warm air, it’s very hard,” Mr Cyster said. “We’ve tried to maximise the engine to give us cold-enough oil.”
With 12 highly experienced pilots competing at low levels and high speeds of up to 370kph, “the preciseness of flying is really what wins and loses”, he said. Most will finish within a second or two of each other.
“Because of the speeds you’re travelling at, if you’re not completely precise with the turn, you end up travelling a longer distance,” he said.
Mr Cyster compared air racing with the skills needed for a Formula 1 driver. But an air race requires exactness in a three-dimensional space.
“There’s another complexity to the racing line,” he said.