Two-time Red Bull Air Race champion Kirby Chambliss: There were no rules when we started

The fifth stage of the Red Bull Air Race – 2018 is finished in Kazan, Russia. Less than two-tenths of a second separated the top three finishers. Czech pilot Martin Sonka won his second race of the 2018 season. Michael Goulian took the second place, and his fellow American Kirby Chambliss took the third. Chambliss had qualified eighth, and shaved nearly 1.6 seconds off that time through the twisting course in the final run. We publish our interview with Kirby Chambliss before the flight just from the KazanRing runway. He told us about his way into air sports, the history of the Red Bull Air Race and how he built his own airfield right in the backyard of his house.

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It is known that you grew up racing motocross and then switched to aviation. Why did you decide to change the wheels for wings?

It was a long time between those things. I’ve always loved racing, I love speed and that adrenaline, so it does have that in common. And when I was racing motocross, when I was a kid, I really wanted to start something like this. As I got older, I realized that I like being high in the sky and that I like all the exciting things in general. And so I’m racing motorcycles, flying aerobatics, racing airplanes. I do all kind that goes up in the sky high.

So you began flying because it’s faster and more extreme?

Yeah, a little bit more, I guess. But motocross is the most physically demanding thing, it just really beats you up. And all this for a very short period of time, so this definitely got its differences, but it’s also about racing: you want to be first.

Kirby Chambliss, Kazan 2018

We heard that you have your own runway in the backyard of your house. You built it by yourself?

Yes. Well, I didn’t physically build it, but I’m the one who developed it. I bought some land and started building my house, but then I realized that it was becoming really expensive, so I sold some of the land off. And so other people built their houses nearby too. We did put our own runway, I built my own hangar. It’s nice. The biggest reason why I did it is that I can practice everyday at my house. And this is really nice, because I’m already home.

Are you training there?

Yeah, I did a lot, but now we’re away about two hundred days a year, so I don’t train as much there.

How is your training going?

It’s difficult for the racing, because we don’t have the gates and staff. So that’s make it difficult. But I can train for aerobatics right there at my house. You can mentally put the gates in the way of your training and go through everything. You can get out and pull G’s and other stuff. That helps to keep your G tolerance, so if you jump out of the track and your G tolerance is high, everything you have to worry about is just how you are going to go through those gates.

Kirby Chambliss, Kazan 2018

Speaking of the gate, after 2014 the pylons got 5m taller, so now the overall height become 25m. How do you feel about such changes in the race?

I kinda like some of those old school gates, I like to fly really low. Back then there were not so many rules, you could just fly as low as you wanted. And now we have to stay 10m above the water or they’ll give you a penalty. But before we were just above the water or land, really close to it, whatever the case may be.

So it used to be more extreme?

Yeah. Now it’s more technical, back then it was more by the seat of your pants flying. Also we had The Quadro Gate. We passed them vertically from the one side, then turned around and passed them also vertically from the next one. Also we had lower gates, so we were going crazy. Yes, it was much more danger than it is now, but I think here’s got to be a balance.

It seems like here, as in any other young sport, are more and more rules and restrictions?

When we started there were not any rules. It’s just whoever is able to get through this the fastest way without hitting the gates, won. And now, here’s a lot more rules, but it’s the same with Formula One, NASCAR, motorcycles or whatever, it’s all the same. They add more and more rules, so every sport definitely gets through all that over the years.

Kirby Chambliss, Kazan 2018

What do you expect from the upcoming competition?

I always expect to win. We won here last year, so I hope we can repeat that, it would be awesome. The track is totally different, but I think that we’ll have an advantage. Now I think that we’ll have an advantage if the weather will get bad and conditions will be not that good, like the last year. And we managed to put it together quite as well the last year, we’ve been fast. And also you’ll need a little bit of luck in this, when things turn against you. I think this year we’ll also win this race.

Are there still any worries with age and experience?

I don’t get nervous about anything anymore, it’s been a very long time ago. I still get excited, because I want to win just as bad as always. I’m a very competitive person, you know. I won the National Championship five times in a roll and then got two times Red Bull Air Race champion. That’s the reason why I’m here. So I push hard to win. I still have that same feeling, I still want to win just as bad as I always had.

Авиагонки Red Bull Air Race, Kazan 2017
Авиагонки Red Bull Air Race, Kazan 2017. Photo

If I’m not mistaken, you started from commercial aviation. You’ve completed your aerobatic training for an earlier job flying a business jet. Please, tell us how did you get into sport aviation?

I have been flying a Boeing 747 for many years, also I was a jet pilot. But I haven’t flown the 747 about nine years. So yeah, that’s how I got into. When I was 21, I was flying a business jet, there was one guy, who went to aerobatics, he was the chief pilot. He asked me if the business jet ever gets upside down with the boss on-board, would I be able to straighten that out? So they paid for my aerobatics training and I really got the taste of it. When I ran up on the aerobatic airplane, turned it upside down, I was like: “Wow! This is the coolest thing ever!” And all I could care about were flying upside down and doing aerobatics, I didn’t care about straight level flying anymore. I still have to do it to make a living, but that’s what led me to World championships. That’s what led me to the Red Bull Air Race.

Interviewed by Timur Galiev, photos by Igor Galiev