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Danger Zone: What It’s Like to Fly in Red Bull’s Aerobatic Plane

With the Red Bull Air Race coming to New York City this weekend, I was offered an opportunity to fly in one of the aerobatic planes that will be zipping along the Hudson and buzzing the Statue of Liberty. The idea is to get a feel for the high speeds and intense G forces pilots experience as they negotiate a track that one veteran flyer said was designed by a “bumble bee in a jam jar.”

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With the Red Bull Air Race coming to New York City this weekend, I was offered an opportunity to fly in one of the aerobatic planes that will be zipping along the Hudson and buzzing the Statue of Liberty. The idea is to get a feel for the high speeds and intense G forces pilots experience as they negotiate a track that one veteran flyer said was designed by a “bumble bee in a jam jar.”

As I ride out to Linden Airfield in New Jersey, I casually ask my contact about crashing.

“It’s not really a crash as much as it’s a water landing,” says Red Bull’s flak, “Sort of a controlled skimming.”

I’m curious about “water landings” because in preparation for my flight I had watched this video of Australian racer Matt Hall doing a little skim on the Detroit River two weeks ago.

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Which led me to this aqua touchdown by Brazilian pilot Adilson Kindleman in Perth on April 15 of this year.

At the hangar, my pilot Sergio Plá Merino confidently lays out the plan for what I’m to do if we end up having to ditch the plane over water. “Remember, if I say ‘Bail out, Bail out, Bail out!’ I am not joking and you must do these things”:

  1. Unplug the audio cable attached to my helmet that allows me to communicate with Plá Merino so it doesn’t somehow lacerate me.
  2. Release the two clips for the harness that securely strap me into the plane so that I can…
  3. Jump out of the plane. Ideally to the left, Plá Merino says, since that way my chances of being hit by the aircraft are greatly reduced.
  4. Finally, as I’m hurling through the firmament, pull the ring attached to the ripcord of my emergency parachute.

And I had thought puking was my primary concern.

Once airborne, I follow Plá Merino’s direction of where to look so I don’t lose my orientation. It is quite windy so we avoid the track, but we do execute some sheer vertical climbs before stalling to enter freefall dives. Then Plá Merino effortlessly snaps and flicks our plane as the Gs increase the weight of my blood and push the blackness around the perimeter of my vision. As we roll upside down, I try to maintain my view of an inverted Manhattan skyline while at the same time clinging to a fading consciousness.

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Back on the ground, I’m as happy to have avoided a water landing as I am for not having used the airsick bag in the cockpit. But as I walk back toward the hangar, I quickly realize I haven’t exited the danger zone and have to perform a stealth boot between buildings.

Though not as exhilarating as a controlled skim, the weightless removal of the contents of my stomach packed its own cheap thrill.

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About the author

Mark Borden is a Senior Editor at Fast Company magazine. He loosely defines his beat as creativity and how individuals and companies use it to distinguish themselves in the marketplace to attract fans, customers, employees and strategic partners.

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