I started this year thinking I was only attending Abu Dhabi to ghost the other pilots and get a feel for the air race circuit. Two days before departure, that all changed. I was informed that two of the pilots wouldn’t be racing and I was now officially going to take part in my first air race.
My nerves were shot, and I was overwhelmed with excitement.
Arriving in Abu Dhabi, I felt star struck seeing some of my biggest idols, and then getting to meet them and the teams that help them succeed. It was surreal!
I spent the next few days learning procedures, patterns and operations – a lot of operations! They run a very tight ship and the schedule runs to the second. Everything is thoroughly thought through. The emails come through in abundance and they’re all of high importance. Just as I was beginning to feel I was getting the hang of things, a new set of emails would come through and I would realise how much I still had to learn.
It was challenging being only one of two new pilots. Dario who is the other newbie acted as the operations manager for RBAR prior to competing, so he was the one instilling all these procedures and operations prior to joining the circuit. I, on the other hand, had to learn from scratch.
When the briefings came in, I started to question myself: “Have I read all the emails, briefs, radio procedures, master plans etc, etc ….”
Once that was out the way, I got to spend time at the race airport with all the Master Pilots, mechanics and the tacticians. I received some valuable tips from these gentlemen and was very thankful.
Now it was time to fly.
Firstly, you get warned about not flying too close to the palaces. Being in Abu Dhabi, there are a few of those, most of which are equipped with SAM missiles on the roof. Scary stuff!
Once dodging the palaces, other active airspaces, hotels, and harbour, I got to enter the track for my first free practice. Our entry speed as Challengers was 180 kts. Approaching Gate 1, with a 20 kt crosswind from my right, leaning pylons and my heart in my throat, I was called over the radio: “Challenger 77, you are cleared into the track. Smoke on!” I fumbled around the cockpit looking for the smoke switch – I had forgotten where it was!
The practice round went well – only one pylon hit. This was followed by the qualifying round. I flew conservatively to avoid over G, which wasn’t the best decision in this specific track, due to the VTM (Vertical Turn Manoeuvre) being downwind and headed straight for the highest building in the Corniche. And so I ended up last for qualifying.
Saturday was race day! There was great excitement all around. My nerves were in peak performance, especially because I had to fly first, due my poor decisions the day before in qualifying. The race went well. However, a little penalty through Gate 4 – and by “little” I mean 3/4 of a degree over the allowable 10 degrees when your head passes through the gate – cost me two seconds and technically a podium position.
Although happy with my net time, I am glad I have left room for improvement at the next race in Cannes in April.