“Challenger three, runway two-six clear for takeoff,” a voice crackled in my headset. I was sitting in the front seat of an Extra 330LX aerobatic plane, the very model that Challenger-class pilots were flying in the Red Bull Air Race that same mid-April weekend in San Diego. I was there to photograph the air race and test out some camera gear.
My pilot, Antanas Marciukaitis, was behind me. “OK, let’s go!” he said in a thick accent.
We’d already spent several cramped minutes in the two-seater just parked on the taxiway of San Diego’s Brown Field Municipal Airport waiting for traffic to clear. With Marciukaitis ready to get in the air, my heart started pounding a little faster.
Before climbing into the cockpit, the pilot had strapped a parachute to my back and given me a short safety briefing. I’d never gone skydiving before or otherwise had a reason to know how to use a parachute, but he made it sound simple enough.
“Just pull this red handle here,” he said, pointing to the handle by my left shoulder. “This won’t do any good while we’re low, but if we have a problem at 4,000 feet, I will yell, ‘Bail out! Bail out! Bail out!’ and you must get yourself out of the plane.”
Well, that was reassuring.
The sitting position is more like being in a bathtub than driving a car.
Just getting into the plane was no easy task. There are strict height and weight requirements for passengers, and I was just an inch shy of being too tall. I had assumed the height restriction was to keep from having a passenger crack his or her head against the canopy, but after boarding the plane, I realized it had more to do with leg room. The sitting position is more like being in a bathtub than driving a car, with your legs extended out in front of you and resting slightly higher than the seat. I had to thread my size 13 shoes through narrow openings beneath the, uh, dashboard — or whatever it’s called in a plane — which put me in a position where I literally couldn’t move. You don’t so much sit in this plane — you wear it.
I recalled Marciukaitis’s warning about getting myself out of the plane in the event of an emergency. Well, I guess I would just die if it came to that, because there was no way I was getting out of this thing.
The Challenger is a tandem-control aircraft, so I also had a set of fully functional controls before me, including rudder pedals at my feet. I carry my height in my legs and there was simply nowhere for my feet to go but on the pedals.
“Try to keep off the pedals while we’re on the ground,” Marciukaitis said. “Once we’re in the air, it’s fine, just make sure you move with my inputs.”
As we turned onto runway two-six, Marciukaitis throttled up the engine and the force of acceleration pushed me even harder into my seat. In about 10 seconds, we were in the air.
It was 6:30 p.m., the start of what photographers know as the “golden hour.” The ground beneath us was bathed in a warm, low-angle light. At that moment, all the butterflies flew away as I took in the awe-inspiring view. We banked into a sweeping left turn to circle around the airport, and I looked over to see the pair of inflatable red-and-white pylons that made up the “media gate” casting long shadows behind them.
The pylons stand about 80 feet tall with just enough distance between them for race planes to fly through with their wings level. The actual course over the San Diego Bay was dotted with seven identical pairs of these pylons, called race gates, but Red Bull had set up this one at Brown Field to give members of the media a small taste of what a pilot experiences on race day.
This is flying the way you want to fly, like you do in a video game or a dream.
We made two passes through the media gate, and despite my rational brain telling me that flying that fast and that low has got to be dangerous, the experience felt surprisingly safe. There’s something about being stuck in a flying bathtub with no control over your life that forces you to accept the situation and just be completely present in the moment. There may be no room for error, but there’s also no room for worry.
After the second pass, we pulled up and began our climb to 4,000 feet to find open air for some bigger stunts, starting with a loop. We pulled up to 5.5 G entering the loop — only about half of what Red Bull Air Race pilots experience during competition — and I struggled just to hold my head straight. But at the top of the loop, when we were inverted, there was a moment of complete weightlessness as we crossed into zero G. For an instant, I was looking up at the Earth while just floating there. It was mesmerizing.
In a flash, it was back to positive 5G as we completed the second half of the loop, racing back toward the ground and then leveling out.
The next brief minutes were filled will rolls, a split S, and a stall turn before we angled back toward the airport to land.
When people talk about the feeling of freedom that flight brings, it is this kind of flying they are talking about. This is flying the way you want to fly, like you do in a video game or a dream. There’s no lollygagging; you want to go to 4,000 feet, you just go. You want to do a roll, you do it. And when it’s time to land, you don’t take 30 minutes to inch your way down — you just point the nose back toward the airport and dive like you’re on a strafing run.
It wasn’t until we were safely back on the ground that I started to feel queasy. My brain finally had a chance to reopen communication with my stomach. Fortunately, I held it together.
“How did you like it?” Marciukaitis asked as we taxied back to the hangar.
“Incredible!” I said. The word did not do the experience justice; no word could.
“That’s aerobatics. Best activity in the world,” Marciukaitis said. Who knows how many flights he had done like this one, but he was still genuinely enjoying it. It was easy to see why.
In this case, the slogan proved true: Red Bull really did give me wings.
We rolled to a stop and Marciukaitis cut the engine. My legs were practically asleep at this point, but somehow I managed to climb out of the cockpit, putting one foot down on the wing and then shakily lowering my other foot to the ground. I was exhausted, dizzy, and sweaty, but I couldn’t wipe the ridiculous smile off my face.
We had been in the air about 10 minutes, but it felt like 30 seconds. There was so much to take in, from concentrating on breathing and keeping my head straight during positive G maneuvers, to simply trying to appreciate the view. It made me feel like a kid again; this was the type of novel experience that is sorely lacking from adulthood. That night, I called a longtime friend in Austin, Texas, and blabbered on incoherently about the flight: “Then we went whoosh! And I was like, ‘whoa!’ It was crazy!”
Anyone who knows me knows I’m the furthest thing from a daredevil. I can’t be thankful enough that I was given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was the highlight of the weekend, and an experience I won’t soon forget. Say what you will about marketing and advertising, but in this case, the slogan proved true: Red Bull really did give me wings.