The moment I send the email, I regret it, but what’s done is done: I’ve agreed to a fly-along with Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss in a two-seater aerobatic plane. The one-sheet explainer on the experience includes a parachute briefing and shows a picture of a tiny plane hurtling sideways, low inside a stadium. I read it five times, and start silently freaking out. What have I done?
The Jean Airport is little more than a squat building and a patch of asphalt alongside the I-15. Inside, people pack parachutes for a morning skydive. Outside on the tarmac, the Red Bull team chats casually next to two gleaming blue and red Zivko Edge 540 planes. The tiny, agile aircraft are built for high speeds, gasp-worthy stunts and to tolerate up to 10Gs, requirements for the Red Bull Air Race stopping at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway October 11-12. I’ll be riding in the two-seater version, but first there are waivers to sign: one for Red Bull, one for the pilot, one for who knows who. If I end up splatting in the middle of the desert, I wonder, will my fiancé get worker’s comp? “Have any of you guys been up with Kirby?” I ask the Red Bull PR and Speedway reps. They shake their heads no.
The Red Bull Air Race launched in 2005, an international series focused on small planes maneuvering through a fixed course at high speeds and low altitudes. This year 12 pilots are competing in eight races on three continents, flying one at a time through 5-kilometer courses with points awarded based on overall time and number of penalties. It’s an exhilarating mix of motorsport and air show, pilot skill and machine combining for maximum performance.
Kirby is one of two Americans competing this season, and he has the demeanor of an adrenaline junkie kid who gained experience but never grew up. As I pull on my air suit—a branded onesie sized for a grown man—and strap on a parachute (in case of emergency pull D ring, hard), Kirby chats about the weekend’s plans and squeezing in a skydive before some safety briefing tomorrow. He gives me a smile, “We love to skydive,” he says, “but we like to plan it.”
Inside the plane there isn’t much more than a few pieces of metal and a couple of dials. Two uncushioned seats are stacked one in front of the other, a thin plastic canopy the only thing between us and all that air. One of Kirby’s assistants shows me where to hold on as I climb into the front seat and get settled. “Don’t grab the black handles. That’s how you open the canopy,” he says.
When I’m buckled in (and taught how to unbuckle fast, in case of emergency skydiving) with headgear ready, we start up. Kirby drawls through the headphones confidently, assuring me that this is going to be fun, that he does this everyday, that if I start to feel queasy we’ll head back to solid ground. My stomach has been in knots for the past 12 hours, but I just eye the single zip-lock bag attached to the dash and try to breathe.
“This airplane will roll at one and a half times a second,” Kirby says as the engine starts up. “And to put that in perspective, a fighter, an F-16, rolls at 240, this rolls at 500. … It does roll really fast.”
The engine starts to whine, and we leave the ground so smoothly I almost don’t notice. Arching over the highway, the ride is beautiful and gentle, like being inside a panoramic photo. I would enjoy just flying in circles, but that’s not really what Kirby does.
The 54-year-old Texan makes this plane dance, and for the next 10 minutes I’ll get to witness their wild waltz.
But first, he says, we’re going to fly upside down to make sure my belts are secure, “so when we start doing something I don’t throw you through the canopy and outside the airplane.” It hadn’t occurred to me that was even a possibility. “Okay,” I stammer, as the horizon does a somersault.
I come up smiling, and now it’s go time. Kirby talks me through rolls to knife-edge, the plane jerking onto its side so fast my whole body thrusts back and forth. Before I can catch my breath, we start tumbling. “The airplane is now going end over end! Woo hoo! Is this fun or what?!” the pilot shouts. We kick into an upright flat spin, smoke filling the cabin as the tail whips around, pulling us in circles. “Tom Cruise didn’t like that one, but we don’t care!” Kirby calls out exuberantly over the engine’s rumble.
Breathless in the front seat, my body feels like a rag doll. I’m on an adrenaline high, trying to process what’s happening, fight the g-forces and maintain some level of cool for the cockpit cam recording my every move. Kirby pulls the plane vertical and we fly straight into the sky, rolling one, two, three, four times, then sliding backwards towards the Earth. He counts up our speed as we plummet, “Thirty, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80—ha ha!—90 miles an hour. Awesome!”
Now that I don’t feel like I might die, it is awesome. He stalls one wing and the world goes haywire, then he does an inside-outside roll so the plane rolls left and turns right—faster and faster and faster.
“I want to tighten my seatbelt just a little bit,” I say, racheting myself snuggly into the metal hull before the rodeo continues.
I imagine the cars below us marveling at the unexpected air show in the blue emptiness above Jean. I imagine them wondering who’s up there hurtling around, saying, “You’ll never guess what I saw on the road today,” as soon as they reach their destination.
When Kirby says it’s time to head back to the airport, I’m equally relieved and disappointed. I know I’ll probably never do this again, and that I haven’t felt this alive in a long, long time. When we rattle to a stop on solid ground, I’m sweaty and beaming. I give Kirby a hug—and then I call my mom.