(An article originaly published in SmartLife International magazine)
Knowing neither fear nor vague common sense, Stuart Pritchard went further and faster than ever before, joining the airborne event of the year: the Aero GP races, Abu Dhabi…
Sometimes life can seem like a bit of a blur; like a distant drug-induced dream, or something that’s happening to someone else as you sit on the sidelines and watch bewildered. It was this sensation that I was fighting at two o’clock in the morning while being driven from Dubai to Al Ain in dense fog by a driver who, firstly had explained angrily to me that he’d been working since half past six that
morning and, secondly, after consuming some thick black coffee had perked up to a worryingly twitchy extent as he lead-footed the accelerator regardless of the lack of visibility.
The fog had meant an epic delay on my flight to the United Arab Emirates, which was why I’d arrived so late, forcing this caffeine crazed man to work so late. So, by half past three, when I finally checked into the hotel, there was only time to swiftly unpack and hurl myself at the bed before, a mere three hours later, I was up again for breakfast followed by a short, dazed drive into the dunes and to business.
Half asleep and completely unprepared, I donned my sunglasses, took my seat, and made my peace with God…
“Did you have breakfast this morning?” asked the man sat behind me. A strange question that seemed utterly misplaced and jarringly casual in the context of what was about to occur. But, regardless:
“Erm, yes, of course. Why?”
“What did you have?” he continued, demonstrating suspiciously unusual interest.
“A bit of bacon… some fruit…” “What kind of fruit?” he pried further. “Erm, melon. Why are you so…”
“You should have had banana.” he said, cutting me off.
“It tastes the same coming back up as it does going down!” he laughed, and seconds later I was in the sky over Al Ain, rolling around the firmament like a drunken bird, flying upside down, and pulling some breakfast-disturbing Gs in exactly the same way humans were never supposed to.
The aforementioned man sat behind me was Richard ‘Smokey’ Young, sarcastic American aerobatic pilot extraordinaire, and I was strapped into his Extra 300L as we barrelled above the sand dunes in the – already troubling – heat of the morning sun.
If you’ve never experienced an aerobatic flight, then you’ve never experienced anything even remotely like it. Switching between G-force and negative G-force is a bit like having your body trying to turn itself inside out. If, say, you weigh 10- stone and pull 10Gs, your weight increases to 100-stone and all the blood rushes to your feet, causing most mere mortals to blackout instantly. Meanwhile, with negative-G, all the blood shoots straight to your head and you experience the same weightless feeling that NASA astronauts go through on the aptly named Vomit Comet. And I don’t think I need go any further there.
Of course, if you are going to allow yourself to be put through such madness, there’s few better aircraft to do it in than Smokey’s Extra 300L – a 300hp six cylinder engine aerobatic beast with a climb rate of 3200fpm and a maximum speed of over 400km/h – and few better people to have at the stick controlling that madness than a pilot with the experience and skill of Smokey Young. It’s one hell of a way to wake up, take it from me.
I like to think that I impressed Smokey with my ability not to scream like a girl constantly and, after landing and checking none of my bodily fluids had leaked, I leapt from the cockpit and he grasped my hand firmly.
“You can be my wingman anytime!” he said. Then we took our shirts off and played table-tennis. Or not. The combination of the heat and my head and stomach still being in orbit of each other leaves this bit something of a blur…
On that bombshell
Now you may think it was a long way to go just to take a spin in a plane, and you’d be right, but this was only the beginning of my stint at the Al Ain Aerobatic Show, an annual aeroplane extravaganza that this year was also hosting the Aero GP – a seriously mental three stage competition that pits some of the world’s best pilots against each other, testing their skills of target bombing, dog fighting and, of course, racing.
The brain-child of Founder and MD of Flying Aces, Jeff Zaltman, the Aero GP first took to the skies over Slovenia back in 2005 and has grown ever since, travelling to some of the world’s most exotic locations, such as Constanta, Malta, Al Ain and Blackpool.
This first leg in a Series of three planned for this year saw Andy Bickmore (UK), Zoltan Veres (Hungary), Gerald Cooper (UK), Mark Jefferies (UK) and Smokey Young (US) battling it out between bouts of aerobatic prowess from a staggering variety of aircraft at the larger Air show.
After my own flight into terror on the qualifying Friday, Saturday saw the final. Arriving early before the crowds, I sat alone in the bizarre environment of the press area – an Astro Turfed space surrounded by a white picket fence in the middle of red sand dunes, an oasis of coffee and unrecognisable snacks, utterly out of place in the desert. Adding to the odd atmosphere the nearby PA system speakers blared out Doors tunes as planes from different eras soared past, making the whole scene feel like some kind of surreal war film.
But soon it was on with the show and the first event of the Aero GP – an event that was to very quickly and violently become my favourite: target bombing. Slightly less easy to do than riding a unicycle on top of a beach ball due to the dual fact that the target is only around the size of the average coffee table, and that these boys are coming screaming in at ridiculous speeds. There are two techniques, it seems: firstly, the low level approach, which has got to be pretty terrifying; and the dive bomb which, just as it sounds, involves veering vertically up above the target, turning and hurtling nose first towards the ground before releasing the bomb and pulling up. Brilliant. But the best part came as a bit of a surprise. As the first contestant let fly their payload (as it were), an almighty explosion tore upwards – yes, they use real bombs! And everyone knows just how much I enjoy explosions.
Victory in this event went to Brit Gerald Cooper who opted for the vertical dive, a manoeuvre that, when you think about it, must take testicles of adamantium to see through without screaming like a terrified banshee all the way down. Hats off to you, Coop.
A bogey on your tail
Outside of the occasional war, dog fighting is something generally only ever encountered on some of the rougher estates in Essex, however, for those more into aerial combat than dog-on-dog action, the Aero GP delivers all the tactical thrills of air combat, without the appalling horror of having to watch someone plummet from the sky in flames.
Using advanced “gun” systems, the two combatants come at each other head-on and then engage in a battle of airborne wits and skill as they attempt to out-manoeuvre each other in a bid to get a clear shot at the opponent’s tail. Once they have a lock they have to hold it for three seconds and – bang! – the kite is pranged and down they go. Well, alright, there’s no ‘bang’, but smoke is released to give the visual effect and, frankly, that’s good enough for me.
After finishing third in the target bombing, Hungary’s Zoltan Veres upped his game considerably, pushing his powerful MXS plane hard to become air combat supremo, and thereby leaving everything to play for in the final race.
But there were more distractions than just out and out adrenalin on offer at the rest of the Air Show. For example, the SkyCats – svelte ladies in leotards with tails and cat face make-up, wing- walking on a Grumman G-164A. It was like the musical Cats, but not as tediously annoying, and – come to think of it – probably more in tune with
T.S. Eliot’s original vision than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage-walking abomination.
Also there to entertain were the Saudi Hawks, doling out some seriously hardcore formation work in their green and white BAE Hawks, along with impressive performances by the Swift Aerobatic Display Team and Team Pioneer, to name but a few of the other air-bound events.
Having spent most of the day hiding in the shadows from the glaring sun like the fair-skinned coward I am, it was time to venture out onto the neatly mown Astro Turf of the press area where TV’s Tiff Needell was taking a break from filming the event for Fifth Gear.
“Here’s the pitch, Tiff,” I said, “It’s called ‘Needell on the Record’ and you and I round up the stupidest Guinness Book of Records records of all time and set out to break them, in a race against each other to be the one who breaks more records than anyone else, thus setting a whole new record.”
His look almost gave away nothing, but there was a glint in the old silver fox’s eye that meant he was interested.
“Channel 5 will buy it,” I said. “They’ll buy anything.”
After that it was time for the final leg of the Aero GP in Al Ain, the Air Race. Sadly, due to undercarriage damage (ahem), Andy Bickmore was out, leaving just the four others to race for the honours. And as far as racing is concerned, this is in a league of its own.
With Veres, Cooper and Jefferies holding joint lead, this was always going to be a tight race, and as they began the first lap around the four pylon course, wingtips seemingly mere feet from each other, it was obvious that no quarter would be given. And that’s the way it stayed… for a bit anyway. Utilising the full potential of his ridiculously powerful MXS, Zoltan Veres pulled clear of the pack and then, somehow, carried on pulling clear, eventually managing to lap the entire field before rocketing past the finishing pylon to claim his rightful spot as winner of the very first desert Aero GP.
After Veres, Mark Jefferies took second place, Gerald Cooper third and Smokey Young fourth, with nothing left to do but park up in front of the crowd and join Veres on the podium to receive their rewards, not unlike that bit at the end of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but from HH Sheikh Hazza bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Undersecretary of DEWAN and Rulers Representative for the Eastern Province, instead of Carrie Fisher.
Lawrence of Air-racier
Having drawn a colossal crowd of some 60,000 aviation fans into the middle of the desert, it would be fair to say that the Al Ain Aerobatic Show in general and the Aero GP in particular had been a monumental success. Abu Dhabi had made an excellent venue for this most extreme of motorsports, the pilots had excelled themselves, Zoltan Veres had scored an historic victory (“I love this race and I have to thank my aircraft forgiving me the power to win!”) and I, despite being in a country that’s not just desert-dry, but mostly alcohol dry too, had learned that – as my father had always tried to convince me – “Drink isn’t everything.” When you have the addiction of the Aero GP to replace it, it really isn’t, it seems.
The location of the next leg is yet to be announced but, tantilisingly for those within the UK, the organisers have said they’re hoping to bring the event back to Britain at the end of the year or during 2010. Watch the skies…
Those flyboys in full…
Nickname: Horsepower (according to the Aero GP website)
Country: GB Plane: Sukhoi 26
Background: Aviation engineering and test flying before becoming a display pilot with a variety of aviation licenses.
Nickname: Shooter (according to the Aero GP website) Country: GB
Plane: Extra 300 Background: Certified to fly 130 different aircraft types, has his own airfield in Cambridgeshire, is British National Champion in aerobatics and was ranked 8th in the world at the World Aerobatic Championships in 2007.
Nickname: Red Phantom (according to the Aero GP website)
Country: Hungary Plane: MXS
Background: A household name in Hungary, a Boeing 737 pilot for Hungarian airline Malev and an adrenalin- fuelled aerobatic addict who, when not tearing up the sky, relaxes by going full tilt on one of his classic motorbikes.
Nickname: Smokey Country: US
Plane: Extra 300L Background: Former US Air Force tactical strike fighter flyer, ex-commercial 727 and 757 pilot, air combat instructor and Rookie of the Year at the 2003 USA National Air Racing Championships.
Nickname: Doesn’t appear to have one (let’s call him ‘Coop’… or ‘Maverick’) Country: UK
Background: Learned to fly as a teenager as a bush pilot in North Africa before turning to aerobatics. Now a world renowned display pilot he also works as Chief Pilot for his family’s aerial survey company when not amazing crowds.
Nickname: Skippy / Captain Expendable / Flying Monkey Country: None that would lay claim to him
Background: Shady, uncertain. Enjoys going fast while upside down, has a 100m swimming certificate and countless hours flying under his belt… usually in business class.