The fortitude to fly: how pilots prep for the Red Bull Air Race

A thrilling mix of high speed and low altitude, the race requires immense skill and great concentration, for which pilots must prepare both mentally and physically.

Unpredictable, technical and fast. That’s how organisers of the Abu Dhabi Red Bull Air Race describe this year’s event, which will be held for the ninth time over the ­Arabian Gulf on March 11 and 12, a stone’s throw from the Corniche.

A thrilling mix of high speed and low altitude, the race – along with seven others that make up this year’s World Championship – requires immense skill and great concentration, for which pilots must prepare both mentally and physically.

According to the former world champion Hannes Arch, staying in shape is key to overcoming G-forces and the strain of travel between events.

“Being in the cockpit is exhausting,” he says, “and travelling the whole year is sometimes even more demanding, so it’s important to stay fit and healthy.”

Arch trains four times a week, mostly in the form of ski touring (mountain hiking in skis), cycling and ice climbing, all near his home city of Salzburg, ­Austria.

Peter Besenyei, the sport’s first world champion, in 2003, follows a similar regime, believing that long-haul travel to far-flung destinations has a greater effect on the body than the races themselves.

“The G-forces don’t cause me problems, but if we travel to far destinations, it takes time to get used to the new time zone and fight jet leg,” he says.

The former aerobatics ­instructor from Hungary enjoys several sports, including tennis, snowboarding, bike riding and jogging, which he alternates every day to avoid repetition. He also undergoes physiotherapy to help relax his muscles.

“To be a serious race contender,” he says, “we must be in peak health, or we will lose our competitive edge.”

Pilots need to be more than just physically fit to reach their potential. Mental strength is also key. Arch and Besenyei perform set exercises to help focus and fine-tune their minds, although both are coy about what these regimes entail.

Besenyei says that he best negotiates the racecourse when calm and measured, and that his brain functions most effectively when “neutral”. His goal is to avoid being “offensive or defensive”, which he achieves with the help of a mental coach.

“I have some activation exercises, but they are my secret weapons,” he says.

Arch, meanwhile, sees a mental trainer twice a year, and has follow-up sessions over the phone. He listens to electronic music from Germany’s Paul Kalkbrenner to help set his mind to race mode, and Mozart or Vivaldi to calm it down.

He uses these compositions and a personally tailored mental programme to control his nerves, increase concentration levels and remain acutely focused on his rounds of ­competition.

Can he talk us through the programme? Absolutely not. It’s too effective to share, he says.

Diet is another important factor. Approximately 20 minutes before each race, Arch eats an energising muesli bar, manufactured especially for him.

“I like ingredients to be regional and seasonal if possible,” he says. “I take care to eat healthy and fresh products.”

In doing so, Arch is able to maintain an optimum race weight of 83 kilograms. His nutrition and balanced lifestyle also mean increased energy levels and a decreased need for sleep, which is essential for racing and combating the effects of long-haul travel.

Likewise, Besenyei swears by muesli, eating a bowl with fresh fruit each race-day morning. For lunch, the norm is fish with rice or salad followed by a fruit high in carbohydrates.

“I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables,” he says. “I love sushi and Asian food, too, but I am not picky. I just try to eat a balanced and varied diet.”

Besenyei, who weighs approximately 80kg, also drinks plenty of water to remain hydrated and improve his mental ­performance.

For him, the most difficult part of racing is the enormous complexity of the sport; the international travel, race tactics and the need to constantly improve the aircraft.

“We have to take many factors into account,” he says. “But I have the best job on the planet.”

Arch agrees, citing the combination of competitive sports and flying as one of the greatest aspects of competing.

“I also enjoy the organising and taking care of my team,” he says. “I love being a Red Bull Air Race pilot.”

Flying the female flag up in the sky

The five-time French aerobatic champion Mélanie Astles will become the first woman to compete in the Red Bull Air Race, in Austria in April. Ahead of her Challenger Cup race, she talks about breaking into one of the world’s most male-dominated sports.

How did you break into aerobatics?

aI always wanted to fly. It was in my blood. So I quit school at 18, started working in a gas station, saved money, and started lessons in Lyon in France. On my 25th birthday, I became a professional pilot, after years of fighting. I was homeless at times because my priority was to pay for my flight hours. Nothing was stronger than my passion to fly.

Why do you think more women haven’t competed in the Red Bull Air Races until now?

It’s difficult to generalise. In my experience, there is a physical barrier on the lower-level planes because the controls can be heavy. I used to spend hours in the gym trying to build up my strength. Then, as women, our sports career is shorter if we decide to start a family. But even still, it is not easy for women. You need a strong and determined personality to fit in.

What would you say to women who must break gender barriers to fulfil their dreams?

Don’t try to be loved by everybody. Decide what you want, and go for it. Don’t search for approval, but get some great and magic people around you who will support you on your journey. The more you accomplish, the more friends and enemies you acquire. It’s normal. Your time is short on the planet, so don’t waste it with people who don’t believe in you. Live your dream, and don’t let anyone stop you.

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