Courtesy of Red Bull Media Service Team
The bond of trust between a Red Bull Air Race pilot and his technician is unique. Responsible for – literally – the nuts and bolts of mechanical performance in every single flight, a technician does not just work to make the raceplane fast. He is there to keep the pilot safe.
“Technician” is a deceptively simple term for the wide range of skills needed to take a raceplane to top performance in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. A team technician is a multi-faceted engineer who must understand everything about the raceplane and its flying characteristics, engine mechanics, aerodynamics, electrical systems – even the effects of weather and climate – while combining all of those factors with a keen understanding of his pilot’s flying style.
Additionally, a technician knows that every time the raceplane takes off, the pilot’s safety is in his hands. In 2018, Jiri Fliger is taking on the role of lead technician for the Edge 540 V3 raceplane of Petr Kopfstein, after working part-time for the Czech pilot on Team Spielberg previously. “My primary responsibility is to make sure that the raceplane is first of all safe to fly. And only then do I focus on preparing it so it performs to its full racing potential,” he says.
Fliger’s deep aviation background is invaluable for the job. “Throughout my career, I’ve worked in industries ranging from the military to the private sector, and I have extensive experience with many different types of aircraft, working for companies based all around the world,” he explains. Fliger is a certified EASA [European Aviation Safety Agency] aircraft mechanic engineer and was awarded the A&P [Airframe and Powerplant] license from the US Federal Aviation Administration with the FAA Inspection Authorization extension, additionally passing numerous type-rating courses from various aircraft manufacturers.
Beyond keeping current, Red Bull Air Race technicians must look ahead of the curve to give their teams an advantage; installing equipment such as cutting-edge instrument panels and data capture systems while keeping the raceplane lightweight and optimally balanced. A technician also needs to thoroughly understand the rules of the World Championship, treading the fine line between performance refinements that are just within the permitted bounds and those that might result in a penalty.
The technicians are the team members you are almost sure to find in the Red Bull Air Race hangars at any time. Whether they are twisting under the plane to cool the engine between runs or wiping down the wings to eliminate the tiniest speck of drag-producing dirt, they are always looking for a way to save a fraction of a second.
Patrick Phillips, who has been the technician for Canada’s Pete McLeod since 2014, describes, “I am responsible for the assembly of the raceplane and its settings, I work on modifications, and of course I take care of any urgent, unexpected situations that may come up. I collaborate very closely with our pilot, and the main thing, always, is making sure that this plane is ready for race day.”
Because in most instances raceplanes are disassembled for shipment to race stops, the technician is often the first to arrive at a location and the last to leave. (Even in the rare instances when subsequent stops are within a reasonable flying distance, sometimes it is the technician who pilots that ferry flight.) “But quite frequently we all arrive at a location as a team, and our pilot Pete will help do the assembly,” Phillips notes. “Then once the race is over, I can’t be lingering. I work for Pete 24/7, and there’s more to do back home.”
Like many technicians, Phillips possesses a steady, coolheaded demeanor that is an asset in high-pressure situations. “You could make it a tough job – some people might tell you it’s a tough job – but I think that’s based on their stress level,” he comments.
To keep his own stress to a minimum, Phillips leaves nothing to chance. He has a checklist for every part, large or small, that gets assembled on Team McLeod’s Edge. “And the list gets double-checked,” he emphasizes. “Basically, if all that is done correctly, there will be no issues. It’s all up to my pilot at that point – he’s got to do his part.”
Fliger, too, is methodical. “Due to the racing schedule, the time we get to spend with the airplane in-between the races is very limited, so I have to be as efficient as possible,” he shares. “Then during a race, I do not experiment with any untested modifications and instead follow our standardized procedures to ensure Petr’s safety.”
That’s not to say that technicians never make changes to a raceplane on site. Sometimes a modification – say, a pair of winglets – that seemed promising in testing does not deliver the performance expected in the racetrack, and a pilot may prefer to go back to the original setup to avoid the distraction of unfamiliar handling. If it is possible to make the switch, the technician will take action, even when it means a long night in the hangar. Technicians realize that extended hours are sometimes part of the job, whether they are troubleshooting a problem that pops up in Free Practice or packing as much modification work as possible into each year’s short off-season.
When asked about the best part of being a Red Bull Air Race technician, Phillips mentions the opportunity to see so many global destinations. After thinking a moment, he continues, “Do you know what I especially like? The friendship among the teams – the camaraderie. Basically it’s just like one big family. Yes, we’re all working as hard as we can to beat each other. But at the end of the day, we’re friends, and if you need help, guys from other teams will stop what they’re doing and come over to get you going. While we’re rivals, I’ve seen that generosity time and time again.”
And do not be deceived by the levelheadedness of the typical Red Bull Air Race technician. Beneath that calm exterior, the passion for flight runs strong. “There’s something else I really enjoy,” states Phillips. “The whole event is… well, I sum it up with one word: Exciting.”
Red Bull Air Race 2018 Calendar
2-3 February:Abu Dhabi, UAE
21-22 April:Cannes, France
26-27 May:Europe, location TBA
23-24 June:Budapest, Hungary
4-5 August:Asia, location TBA
25-26 August:Kazan, Russia
6-7 October: Indianapolis, USA
November:Asia, location TBA
About Red Bull Air Race
Created in 2003, the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has held more than 80 races around the globe. The Red Bull Air Race World Championship features the world’s best race pilots in a pure motorsport competition that combines speed, precision and skill. Using the fastest, most agile, lightweight racing planes, pilots hit speeds of 370kmh while enduring forces of up to 10G as they navigate a low-level slalom track marked by 25-meter-high, air-filled pylons. In 2014, the Challenger Cup was conceived to help the next generation of pilots develop the skills needed for potential advancement to the Master Class that vies for the World Championship.