Beyond vertigo

Martin Alva Published: August 25, 2011, 11:40 PM IST

The five-dayAero India Air Show in Bengaluru concluded with a spectacular performance by the Red Bull Flying Bulls Aerobatics Team. OVERDRIVE was in Bengaluru for Asia's biggest air show and we had the opportunity to spend a day with the Flying Bulls in the Red Bull pit. To our surprise, they happened to be much older than we expected. Lead pilot, 62-year-old Radoslava Machova is a mother, a veteran who has logged over 29 years of flying. The four-member team comprising of Machova, Miroslav Krejci, Jiri Veprek and Jiri Saller together has logged more than 35,000 flying hours.

Back in 1960, the foundation was laid for the establishment of a brilliant aerobatic formation team. Four friends, Czech-mates Tlusty, Struz, Bezak and Klimenda formed the aerobatics group called 'Box Trener' and began their training with the best aerobatics aeroplanes of the 1960s. Within a very short time, the team's fame spread far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic, and Box Trener were frequent performers at large European air shows.

In 1989, the year of political and social change in the former Czechoslovakia, the team was revived. The team began a new era with Zlin 50 aircraft under the new name of 'Unimax Devils'. In 1990, Tlusty and Struz were joined by well-known solo pilot Jiri Saller, and flight-pro Daniel Polonec. The team landed a new sponsor and new Zlin 50LX aircraft. With these new additions and new manager Martin Nepovim, the team took off internationally under the name 'Sky Box', a name derived from a special aerobatics formation known as 'box formation' or 'diamond formation'. In 2001, the team became the newest member of the big Red Bull family and was christened 'Flying Bulls Aerobatics Team'. Red Bull literally gave the team wings and since then it has won various championships besides performing around the world.

Flying isn't just about strapping into an aircraft and taking off; you could say it's the fastest form of motorsport in the world. The Flying Bulls perform aerobatics which is a stunt form of flying like freestyle motocross or stunting. So how does one become an acrobatic pilot? None of the Flying Bulls pilots are from the Air Force. Mostly Czech, they started with basic aerobatics, improved their skills, joined aerobatic teams and began to compete in championships in the Czech Republic. Some went on to the world championships as well. The pilots would secretly train for the world championships by taking off from the airport in different directions and joining back behind the mountains to practice.

The first aerobatic maneuver in formation flying is a loop. It looks easy but flying upside down takes a lot of training to perfect. It can be a strange feeling when the earth is above you and people get sick very easily. The roll is a difficult maneuver because when one starts going upside down, the sense of controls change. This means that when the aircraft needs to climb, the pilot has to push the joystick and not pull. It's easier to do it on faster jet aircraft but performing the same move slowly is very challenging. On an average, an aerobatic pilot practices the single roll 400 to 500 times before perfecting it. Another stunt is the hammerhead, where the aircraft is flown vertically until it slows down; the aircraft is then turned and flown downwards. There are more than 15 maneuvers that form the basic aerobatics.

The next level is inverted aerobatics, where one starts upside down. It's very strenuous physically because the blood rushes to the head and it's possible to get a clot in the eyes. The pilot also practices a full inverted loop by flying downwards and then pulling back upwards. These advanced maneuvers along with basic aerobatics help the pilot to fly in formation with other aircraft. The pilots follow a syllabus involving about 40 hours of training. Ten minutes in an aerobatic plane is enough to tire a pilot, so it takes at least two years of flying to complete 40 hours. This is not just to improve the pilot's aerobatic flying skills but to train the body to handle g-forces. Military teams continuously train new pilots and it still takes them many years to join the team.

The Flying Bulls team manager Martin Nepovim, who has also been a pilot, has had the chance to drive and be driven in a Porsche Cup car as well as a rally car. He says, "I was surprised when I drove these cars because I wasn't impressed. The gs are very low and though the car is touching 280kmph that is absolutely normal in flying." The g-forces are much higher in aerobatic flying and the effect on the body is much higher. Aerobatics is easily two levels higher and far more demanding than car racing. The highest g-force felt in a Formula One car while braking heavily is about 5g. In comparison an aerobatic pilot witnesses g-forces of anything from -6g to 9g. While flying high with positive gs one starts to see in black and white, is unable to hear and can lose vision for a while. Pilots are instructed to break out of the formation as a safety precaution when vision is lost. The gs are not only higher in an aerobatics plane but it also adds another dimension when the aircraft is climbing up, diving down and being inverted. This is never felt while racing on road. Martin says, "You don't need strong arms and strong legs to fly but you need to be strong inside, and train your body very often to survive these maneuvers and still have full concentration. Racing a car and bike also requires full concentration, there's no denying that but this (flying) is quite similar to motocross because it's quite demanding for energy." Most aerobatic pilots are not young since pilots gain their experience in flying and then move to aerobatics later in their career.

Formation flying is not for youngsters because one needs a lot of flying hours as experience. Martin says, "Our pilots are like passenger aircraft captains and just like wine gets better with age, the pilots are the best when they retire." Formation flying is all about training and trust. One has to trust the leader and the leader needs to trust the team. In formation, the wingtips of the Flying Bull planes are at times just 20cm from each other. Remarkably they have not had a single crash.

The aircraft used by the Flying Bulls is the Zlin 50 LX which has been around since 1976 and has achieved top rankings in many international contests. The aircraft weighs just 500kg and is powered by an air-cooled flat-six engine that produces 300PS. The use of aluminium keeps the weight of the aircraft low and gives it a high power-to-weight ratio. Safety is important and hence the life of the aircraft is 1200 hours while the engine's life is 600 hours. The engine however doesn't need to be overhauled often as it operates in a very small range between 1800 and 2600rpm.

In formation, the aircraft needs to be controllable at low speeds and if an aircraft stalls it can crash into another. The Zlin stalls at around 80kmph but can still be maneuvered, making it the ideal choice for aerobatics. The aircraft has a unique constant speed probe which allows the pilot to set the engine speed. This helps the aircraft maintain the same speed while diving or climbing. The Flying Bulls have a total of five aircraft, out of which one is used only for training or as a spare aircraft. On an average, the team performs in fifteen events across the world.The Czech Republic has produced the best aerobatic pilots for a long time now.

In the past the government funded flying clubs as it was easy for the pilots to step up into fighter jets. The Air Force would then select the best pilots. The Zlin aerobatic aircraft is manufactured in the Czech Republic so no surprise the best aerobatic teams hail from there.

The Flying Bulls are definitely among the best (and we have to mention that they hold in very high regard and respect our home-grown Surya Kiran flying team). Catch them in their act when they return for the next Aero India Air Show.


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