Cannes in southern France may be glamorous, but it has unique challenges. We had been briefed to do two flights per day to the north of the bay where the race pylons were being erected to shake out the planes. As I flew past the race site, I wondered how they were going to fit the track into this bay, and how I was going to fly through it – it was tight, with apartments on each end.
This thought continued for every flight for the next two days, leaving me almost too intimidated to look down at the pylon barges when flying past. Thursday 19 April, the night before practice flights, we did a track walk, which is actually a boat ride through the track to view the lines. This just reminded me of how tight the track was, unlike Abu Dhabi, which had a nice run in with loads of space to set the altitude and speed. In addition, the VTM (Vertical Turning Manoeuvre) was now a ‘judged vertical’ VTM, meaning you may not turn the aircraft before it has touched or passed the vertical. This ensured a good line into the next gate and prevented crossing the safety line.
The following day, after the flight briefing, we were released one by one into the track. I was cleared into Hold 2, which is 100 ft AGL; I aligned myself with the entry gate and said to myself, “Nice and easy. Keep it smooth.”
I went through the gate at 180 knots … and that’s all I can remember. The flight was a blur, but I managed it with no penalties and I was super chuffed!
We only had another three runs in the track before FP (Free Practice) and Qualifying. The track was tough, but after the second flight I was starting to enjoy it and my times were good – second and third fastest on each run. I was ready!
I was eager to lay down a good time in the qualifying run – of course, so was everybody else. I managed fourth place, but keep in mind that the margins are miniscule – the first four pilots were within .03 seconds of each other. This meant I would be the first to fly the plane and reasonably early in the session, which is what I prefer, as the nerves start eating at you while you wait.
Race day arrived and as always everything was excellently organised. All that was left to do was to race, and I was surprisingly relaxed as I sat waiting for my strap-in time. I took a last look at my phone to check the wind. It hadn’t changed the whole week – 3 kts from the south. Awesome, I had this!
I jumped in the cockpit, fired up and, on instruction, taxied out and took off. I flew along the coast to Hold 1 at 1,000 ft; then down to Hold 2 at 100 ft for standby. It felt like forever before finally getting the 15-second call, followed by a voice in a clear English accent: “Umm, slight change today. The wind is now 13 knots from the east. You are cleared into the track!”
My brain raced to process where east was. Once orientated, I realised that the chicane would be downwind, meaning I had to change direction quicker than before. Gate 4 and 5 had to be even tighter to prevent getting pushed over the safety line – all this as I am running in. “OK, Challenger 77, smoke on!”
My work load maxed out!
I passed through Gate 1 and saw the pylons moving right to left – the aircraft was flying at an angle due to the wind. All good. Through the chicane. Through Gate 4. Tight into 5.
I approached the single gate, kept it nice and tight and gave a little pull as I had done the whole week. Roll wings level. “Hmmm, this is not the picture I saw before!” I thought in the mere milliseconds I had to process things. I jinked left and went wings level to avoid a penalty. I felt a slight vibration on the stick as I yanked it back to get into the VTM. My thoughts were racing: “Did I hit the pylon?” I threw my head back at the top of the manoeuvre to see the pylon still standing, but not for long. Just before I rolled out, the pylon deflated – three second penalty!
You can imagine the words being screamed inside the cockpit, and I still needed to complete another lap.
I was gutted. A whole week of awesome flying. Flight after flight with no penalty and I had to go and do this in the race – bugger!
Paul Bonhomme chatted to me afterwards and said I had been unlucky with the wind, as it seemed to be gusting during both my and Daniel Genevey’s run. He also said that I shouldn’t get too upset, as these races have a seriously steep learning curve. I can vouch for that.
My next race will be 25-26 August in Kazan, Russia. I can’t wait!
The Red Bull Air Race after Cannes was in Japan, but was only for the Master Class. The Challenger Cup race was cancelled due to time constraints and airspace restrictions.