My Trip In A Red Bull Airplane

If you google “how to throw up with dignity as the passenger of a small stunt airplane,” nothing terribly useful comes up. The Red Bull Air Race takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Saturday and Sunday, and it’s just what it sounds like: airplanes zooming around an aerial course often only 40 feet above the ground. And somehow, I found myself at Eagle Creek airport, sitting in the cockpit of an Extra 330LX, the same plane all the competitors in the Challenger class will use. My pilot, Antanas Marciukaitis, a seasoned Lithuanian competition aerobatics flyer, emphasized that “if you don’t feel well, you must tell me so we can come down.” How often do people throw up on these ride-alongs? Marciukaitis estimates only one a year, but another staff member says it’s more like one in 10 passengers.

There was no backing down now, though. I already had on my flight suit and parachute. (“There is no eject button. If we have to abandon the plane, you have to jump out yourself. Then you must pull the tab to release your parachute.” No biggie.) So we climbed into the aircraft, strapped in, and headed down the runway. Marciukaitis wasted no time getting up to speed, and soon we were climbing into the sky, swooping over the woods and lake, and diving down to pass through the air gates, 82-feet-tall inflatable pylons that stand 40 feet apart. The wingspan of the plane is just over 26 feet, and at roughly 230 miles per hour, that means there’s no room for error. During the tight turns and barrel rolls, I only experienced around three and a half Gs, but during the race, pilots will endure forces up to 10G. Who thinks that sounds like a good idea? As Marciukaitis put it in his heavy Lithuanian accent, “there are only two types of pilots who do this kind of thing—fearless pilots and experienced pilots.”

The Red Bull Air Race is actually a series of races, much like Formula One racing. The pilots compete for points at eight different tracks around the world, culminating in the season finale in Las Vegas this October. In its eighth season, this year marks the first time the race has come to Indy, and the teams are raring to get out and make more history at a track with such deep-rooted racing traditions. Qualifying rounds take place Saturday, on Sunday pilots will race to take home the top spot, and both days feature a slew of stunt performers and side acts. Tickets are still available for this weekend.