Courtesy of Red Bull Air Race Media Service
In Abu Dhabi on 3 February, Michael Goulian of the United States kicked off his tenth season in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship by claiming the top of the overall leaderboard for the first time in his career. The coup surprised some of Goulian’s opponents, but his supporters? Far from it.
It was not as if Goulian had never won a race: He had triumphed at Budapest, the most iconic Air Racing stop of all. But that was in his fourth full season, 2009. Since then, pilots like Germany’s Matthias Dolderer and Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya, who just started their careers in 2009, have claimed multiple race wins and the World Championship. While the American could unleash brilliant runs, some in the sport wondered if “Mikey G” lacked the killer instinct.
Goulian certainly has skills. In aerobatics he won national championships and competed on the world stage. He is a highly decorated airshow pilot, flying displays of “mythical proportions,” as one journalist raved. And he is additionally an honorary member of the US Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.
But during a competitive drought, Goulian admits, “After a while you start to doubt yourself. You’re looking for excuses – the airplane wasn’t good enough or something isn’t working – but you also have to look inward.”
In person, Goulian is whip-smart and genuinely nice. He speaks so well off the cuff that you could imagine him as a TV commentator, a favorite teacher or maybe, given his banter, a standup comedian. He has a natural rapport with fans, and congratulations poured in from around the globe when he clinched his Abu Dhabi victory. But there are other “nice guys” in the Red Bull Air Race. So what was getting in his way?
Goulian commented, “You need a really good plane and a really good team behind you. For the past four years, we’ve been working on our chemistry. Once we have the team and the machine to do it, then I have to go out there and fly.”
Goulian has forged partnerships with leading brands, and he has been building his team ever since 2014, when the Red Bull Air Race returned from a hiatus. They include experienced pilot Pablo Branco as team manager, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Steven Hall as tactician and new for 2018 team coordinator Emily Mankins, who is also director of events for Mike Goulian Airshows. On the raceplane side, Goulian introduced a new Edge 540 V2 in 2015, which really started fulfilling its potential when technician Warren Cilliers joined the following year. Like their pilot, the teammates are known for being – there is that word again – nice. The rows that occasionally flare up in some teams just don’t seem to happen with this group.
“When you have a team that’s working, it puts you at ease as a pilot,” Goulian comments. “You have to be a family.”
Fans could tell that Goulian was on the rise when he set a track record in turbulent winds at the 2016 finale. He then opened 2017 with the DHL Fastest Lap Award, and by summer he took third at the sport’s debut in Russia.
“We sat back and looked at the team, at me, at the plane, and figured out, ‘How do we get into the Final 4 on a more consistent basis so we can vie for the World Championship?’” Goulian recounts.
One remaining roadblock may actually have been the pilot’s strong work ethic. Not only is he a product of New England, where the value system is based on honest effort; he is also extending his family’s own success story, including that of his father, who came from humble beginnings to eventually found one of the country’s most recognized flight schools. Handed nothing, Goulian worked his way from sweeping hangars to roles including his position helming Goulian Aerosports. Dedication is part of his DNA, but he needed to compartmentalize.
At the post-race press conference in Abu Dhabi, Goulian revealed that 2014 World Champion Nigel Lamb had called to advise, “How can you win when you are so distracted by your other business interests? Try to unplug.”
Team Goulian made sure he did just that, taking away his computer and phone so he couldn’t be tempted to multi-task in Abu Dhabi. “I was isolated, and it put me in the right zone,” Goulian acknowledges.
In the past, members of other teams have been known to say, “It would be great to see Mike win a race.” Now that he leads the World Championship in what many pilots predict will be the tightest season yet, do not expect a similar sentiment when the calendar continues in Cannes, France on 21-22 April.
So does Goulian have a killer instinct? Does he need one? He has got the heart of a winner, and to his mind, the important thing is to maintain the focus on consistency: “The goal is to put our team in the Final 4 as much as we can,” he states. “And then when we get to the late part of the season, to be up there vying for a World Championship.”
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.