September 25, 2015 / 2:36 PM / 3 years ago

Aerobatic plane racer keeps 'pushing the envelope'

ELOY, Arizona (Reuters) - Hanging on the wall of Kirby Chambliss’s sterile hangar is a laminated Sports Illustrated article with the attention grabbing headline “One Mistake and You’re Dead.”

Below is a picture of Chambliss in an aerobatic plane flying upside down about 60 feet above the tarmac. If you look closely you can see him smiling.

To say Chambliss, a commercial and stunt pilot who competes on the Red Bull Air Race circuit, lives life in the fast lane would suggest he shares the highway with the likes of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.

But Chambliss’s road is one far less traveled, much of it spent upside down at 230 miles per hour (370 km per hour) pulling chest-crushing G-forces that would impress astronauts.

The Red Bull Air Race, which makes its first of two U.S. stops this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, followed by the Oct. 17-18 season finale in Las Vegas, which Chambliss promoted this week by landing his plane on the Las Vegas Strip, is extreme sport that mixes cutting-edge technology with old-school fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants skill and fearlessness.

The price tag to compete on the globe-trotting series is also not for the faint of heart, with the experimental exhibition category of aircraft costing close to $1 million.

First staged in 2003, there has never been a fatality on the Air Race circuit but for the daring competitors, mostly middle-aged men, it is sport where danger lurks at every high speed twist and turn.

“I have been doing this so long that you kind of forget that it is dangerous then every six months or so one of your buddies comes along and reminds you by dying and you go, that’s right it’s dangerous,” Chambliss told Reuters. “In aerobatics I have lost a lot of friends. I have a saying ‘you live and you learn.’

“If you die you don’t get that chance or opportunity to learn. Sometimes you might have just got lucky but if you’re smart you learn from it.

“And if you are really smart you learn from someone else’s mistakes.”


As the sport has evolved so has the spectator experience with many races now staged around viewer-friendly stadiums such as Ascot in England and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The Red Bull Air Race attracts only the best-of-the-best, 14 pilots competing in eight races in seven countries from Abu Dhabi, to Britain to Japan.

Weaving their planes around a series of inflatable pylons known as Air Gates, pilots must contend with punishing G-forces and changing conditions as they race in head-to-head knockout format. In the end, the breathtaking spectacle is reduced to two planes and the fastest man wins.

“I’ve got close to 27,000 hours flying, someone told me that’s like if you took off and landed four years later,” said Chambliss, the series champion in 2004 and 2006.

“We are pushing the envelope, we are trying to get everything out of these airplanes, it’s a race. It’s the fastest guy who is going to win.

“The only way you can do that is turn tighter and run a faster machine. It has to be that way.

“No one wants to watch you sit in an armchair. Who wants to sit there and watch you walk the dog or something.”


The Texan comes by his love of flying naturally.

When he was 13-years-old he helped his father build a plane and later became a commercial and private pilot.

A mix of “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff”, Chambliss and his fellow pilots seem to possess a sixth sense of situational awareness not found in most people.

While working as a private pilot Chambliss was encouraged to take some aerobatic training and it literally turned his life upside down.

“Our chief pilot was a smart guy; he was like if that jet ever ends up upside down with the CEO on board we want you to be able to turn it right side up without killing everyone,” explained Chambliss.

“The first time we turned an airplane upside down I was like, ‘wow, this is the coolest thing ever’ and then after that I couldn’t give a hoot about flying straight and level.”

A 55-year-old self-admitted adrenaline junkie who will chill after a race by skydiving, flying is as much a part of

Chambliss’s day-to-day life as eating.

His wife Kellie is a pilot while 10-year-old daughter Karly can also take off and fly but is working on her landings.

They live in the Arizona desert with an airstrip for a driveway and a hangar as a garage.

Despite an almost genetic connection to flying, one thing Chambliss does not want is for his daughter to follow into aerobatics or competitive racing.

“I hope my daughter doesn’t give a hoot about aerobatics,” said Chambliss. “I am sure she will learn how to fly but I’m selfish, I’ve lost probably, in the time I have been in it, close to 100 friends so I only have one daughter and that makes me a little selfish and I don’t want to go through that.”

Editing by Frank Pingue

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