Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Preparing for takeoff – Roger that

Having always associated single-engine propeller planes with horrible crashes such as the one that killed the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone, I was a little nervous to fly in one. It didn’t help knowing full well I would be doing aerobatics, increasing the chance of a fiery death. Luckily for me, however, I was flying in a two-seat EXTRA 300 used formerly for the Red Bull Air Race World Series, which I attended last spring in San Diego, that has no known fatalities.

Sounds good. Not to mention I was kitted out in a fire-resistant flight suit, similar to something I have worn autoracing, along with a parachute. Yes, a parachute. During my safety lecture with the pilot I was instructed how to bail should something cause the plane to become unsafe. Unlatch my harness, pull the communication cord out of my helmet and when the canopy is open, stand on the seat and jump out of the plane to the left. Roger that. Luckily, there was no chance I could end up like Goose in Top Gun, even if I had to pull my own chute from an altitude of less than 2000 feet.

What had I gotten myself into? My wannabe journalist butt had volunteered to go up in an Air Race plane and do loops, barrel-rolls, knife-edge flying, high-g-force turns and fly inverted and whatever the pilot could do that wouldn’t cause me to black out or boot all over the cockpit. All while trying to look good while Red Bull’s PR folks try to capture sick video of ground-dwellers like myself and some actual media who showed up.

For those unfamiliar with the Red Bull Air Race World Series, let me explain. Pilots, from either stunt, military or commercial backgrounds, individually race around a course marked with big air filled cones. These involve a ton of know-how relating to aerobatic flying as well as engineering. The planes involved, the Edge 540 and the MXS, are capable of 265 mph, though can only fly up to 200 mph in the Air Race. Despite a minimum race weight of 594 kilograms and maximum g-force limit of 12, there is still a lot of tweaking that can be done to cut that extra tenth or hundredth of a second on the course.

“In any type of motorsports, it comes down to a good wallet-whipping,” Air Race pilot and two-time champion Mike Mangold said. “If you throw a lot of money out there, you will probably get a faster airplane. I fly the Edge because and it is very modular and you can make different parts without having to rebuild the whole airplane.”

The airplane I was to fly in, the EXTRA, has been retired as faster planes replaced it. Still, its engine had enough power to fly faster than 210 mph and enough carbon-fiber to cost a fortune.

Serge and I took off and flew northwest from the airport at an altitude of about 1800 feet and for several minutes I was able to enjoy the flatness of the greater Chicago area. Even though I have flown in and out of O’Hare countless times in my career at NU, low, this was Thomas Friedman flat. Just to test the plane, Serge did a quick spin to give me my first taste of inverted flight.

Then, as we approached our destination (over some golf course and wetland, where I hope the residents were not warned of our adventure) I spotted the helicopter with my photographer inside. As I flashed my helicopter-riding photographer, Mr. Jakes, some Midwest-themed gang signs, which he sadly did not capture on film, Serge asked if I was ready. Roger that.

The g-forces built as we flew up, down, hard right and left. I was told where to look to keep my brain sane and I duly obeyed. After giving me a taste of standard inverted flight and a loop-the-loop, we leveled and I was able to gather my bearings. We then proceeded to fly inverted for what seemed like forever, but was more like 15 seconds. My whole body felt the strain of the harness, while my brain was thinking if it snapped, would the canopy hold me in? We flipped around and then attempted a high-g turn. Basically we did a dive while turning and then inverted and pulled up. Apparently we pulled seven g’s, which was higher than the woman newslady before me. Schya!

And just like that, my crazy flight was over. We spun around again to get a picture and bolted back to the airport. Serge flew the plane parallel about 200 yards away from the runway and then banked the plane essentially around a McDonalds at a 60 degree angle barely 30 feet off the ground before leveling and landing with a soft thud.

As awesome as I felt getting out and walking back to the private terminal, I knew that while six or seven g’s were exciting, that was just more than half of the maximum the Air Race pilots can pull in a race. Mangold told me that rule was new to try to keep the flying safe and less risky. Despite the danger that is inherent in the sport of both aerobatics and the Red Bull Air Race, all the pilots, including Serge and Mangold, just like many professional motorsports racers, have trained to the point that the danger becomes routine. Plus, in addition to keeping themselves safe, they have the ability to impress the hell out of passengers and any spectators who then might want to do something like this themselves.

“We are so used to be on this two-dimensional ground,” Mangold said, “and when you have the chance to get up and fly in three dimensions it is a pleasure and a joy.”

Assistant Sports Editor Brian Regan is a McCormick senior. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Preparing for takeoff – Roger that