Paul Bonhomme was crowned the 2015 Red Bull Air Race World Champion on Sunday, claiming the crown as ominous clouds gathered in the distance at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and after a torrential downpour damaged the wing of his plane.
“It’s amazing, just amazing,” Bonhomme said after taking his third world title. “What happened today was a million miles away from what I had imagined. All kind of things happened that I didn’t expect. But as a team, we sorted it out and here we are. It was the toughest World Championship I’ve ever had.”
Bonhomme held off a rousing challenge from fellow flier Matt Hall to once again reign supreme over the Air Race, which features the top-ranked aerobatic pilots on the planet navigating an obstacle course at breakneck speeds. And he did it in a Zivko Edge 540 V2, an agile 1,200-pound sprinter that flies upwards of 230 mph and is capable of enduring forces of up to 10Gs.
In short, this isn’t a sport for the faint of heart. Moments after climbing out of his plane, Rolling Stone spoke with Bonhomme about what inspires him to fly fast and hard, and why he keeps risking it all in pursuit of a World Championship.
Tell us about the victory. As the points leader going into the championship, did you feel any added pressure?
I’m very, very pleased. But it’s teamwork. I fly the airplane, but I wouldn’t be able to do that without the team I’ve got. They’ve been superb and with me through thick and thin. They’re great innovators – creators of ideas and ways to make airplanes go faster. I just sit there and drive.
As far as winning, I don’t think about it. Everyone talks about the championship, but I’m not interested. I’ve got to do my job, which is go and fly – that’s it. There’s no point in worrying about the points, is there? It’s better that I concentrate on the flying and let that do the trick. So there’s my game. If you do something well, the action will inherently speak for itself.
So how did you get involved in air racing? Was it a way to get your adrenaline fix?
I’m actually not an adrenaline junkie at all. The way I see it, if I have a boost of adrenaline, then I’ve done something quite wrong. I go out to fly and have a nice time and try not to raise my heartbeat. If I can do that, then everything has gone as planned. If I have a spike, then something has gone terribly wrong. I do everything I can, using all of my experience and training, not to see any boost in excitement during my flights. Every fraction of a second is critical, and every maneuver could come with great penalty. When I come back down and see a nice time on the clock, that’s when I get excited. I like to keep it very cool up in the air.
I come from a family of aviators, and I’ve been doing this all my life. I grew up in a town called Berkshire, just west of London. I was lucky because when I was a kid, to get from school to home, I had to go past a little airfield that had a load of small aerobatic airplanes. It was a kid’s paradise, and I used to just hang around and blag rides and it was great fun. I got taken up doing aerobatics when I was around 14 or 15. And that kind of sparked it all off. I just thought, “Well, this is great!” This was all before Health and Safety regulations, so there were no rules at all. It was just fantastic. Then, about ten years ago, this race series started so I thought I’d have a bit of that – and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Speaking of regulations, these planes are really small and specialized – I know the Red Bull Air Race goes to great lengths to ensure safety, but isn’t there an inherent risk in flying one of them?
This airplane itself is designed purely for aerobatics and racing. It’s not designed for anything else. I can just barely squeeze in there myself. It’s kind of like a go-kart, pretty uncomfortable, cramped and small, but that’s all you need. It’s mostly made of carbon fiber. The wing and tail are carbon fiber, the fuselage is too, and it’s got a pretty big engine. There’s about 300 horsepower in something that weighs just over 1,000 pounds, so it goes quite well.
We had some changes with the engine regulations. We went to a standard engine, which I think was probably a good thing because the rules weren’t really tight enough around how we modified engines. The disadvantage is, if the engine blows up, you can’t just pull over at the side of the track. So now we have a strict set of regulations that we have to fit into, but it works well. If you look at the finish times, they’re pretty compact, where the top two-thirds of the field usually finish within a second of each other. And that makes for a very exciting race.
So ultimately, these races come down to the skill of the pilot, rather than the technology of the plane?
Yeah, exactly, and I think that’s good. You need a combination, but it’s better to have more of the weight towards the pilot’s ability, otherwise it becomes a money race – whomever can afford the biggest engine or best airplane just wins. This way, it becomes more of an even competition. And you have to be very clever here. You have to work with astute people to get the best out of the small modifications that you’re allowed.