When EDGAR met Czech flyer Martin Sonka

Imagine a sport that is part slalom skiing, part Formula One, and part Top Gun – welcome to the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Robert Chilton February 10, 2017

The world’s fastest pilots take off in Abu Dhabi for the first battle of the new season of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship this weekend. The high-speed competition sees pilots zip through pylons just 15 metres from the ground (or water) in nimble, lightweight one-seater planes at speeds of 350kmh.

Nicknamed ‘the F1 of the skies’ the championship and its 13 teams of technicians and mechanics stop at eight locations around the world during the season. Now in its tenth season, the 2017 races will visit places such as Indianapolis, Budapest, Las Vegas, and Ascot in England. In February the pilots take to the skies of Abu Dhabi for the 2017 opener with German Matthias Dolderer aiming to defend his title.

Perhaps surprisingly for a sport that requires such lightning quick reflexes, not to mention the bone-crunching force of 10G, most of the pilots are over 40. A rare exception is the Czech flyer Martin Sonka. Aged 38, Sonka climbs into the cockpit this year for his fifth season of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. A former Czech Air Force pilot, Sonka also enjoys a successful aerobatics career. He finished ninth last season on 25 points with a disappointing disqualification in the Abu Dhabi event but, he tells EDGAR, he feels confident about the 2017 season. We started by asking Sonka about the rib crushing experience of flying at extreme G-forces.

What does it feel like to fly at 10G?
It’s beautiful. 

Really? You like G-force?
Yeah, definitely! In normal planes, you cannot reach intense G-force, but when I’m flying in aerobatic planes and in the air race, the G-force is part of the game. 

Is it not painful?
Yes, a little bit. It depends on your point of view. Someone can be stressed by the G-force, mentally and physically, but we’re well-trained pilots who are used to it. If you experience this kind of feeling a few times a day every day it feels normal. It’s part of our sport, it’s my job.

What is that you like about G-force?
I can feel the strength and performance of the airplane. Of course, I like flying straight from point A to B on the weekend and stopping for a coffee at an airfield, that’s nice. But the best thing for me is manoeuvering the plane and being stressed by the Gs. When it’s high you must really fight against it and stay conscious. 

Have you ever blacked out?
No, never. But it’s normal for me to have black and white vision sometimes. If there’s a lack of blood in your brain your eyes cannot see colours and you have no peripheral vision. So, for example, you might be able to see only one instrument on your panel. These are indicators that you are close to the edge and you should reduce the G a little bit. 

Have you ever experienced that during an air race?
No, because we only fly at positive G in the races. Negative G is when the blood goes from your legs to your head. Positive G, the blood goes the other way. In the air race, we only fly positive G and our resistance to it is far greater. 

How physically demanding are the races?
My heart rate usually reaches about 160, 170. The feeling during the race is like you inhale at the beginning and you exhale at the end. We have a special breathing technique to counter the G-force. We can breathe during high G manoeuvres but the trick is not to exhale totally, only 10/20 per cent of the air you have in your lungs. Then immediately you inhale again. The pressure on your lungs and ribs and muscles helps to keep the blood in your head and slow down the bloodstream to your legs.

Can you compare an air race to Formula One?
An air race lasts one minute but in Formula One they race for one and a half hours. In Formula One you spoil one turn but it’s okay, you have 50 more laps and you won’t lose much time. But if you spoil a turn in the air race you lose half a second and you’ll be at the bottom of the results – it’s like downhill skiing. You cannot make one tiny mistake in the air race. There is absolutely no room for error.

How do you feel mentally during a race?
I would like to say I’m super calm but I get nervous. Our sport is maybe 40 per cent mental: what’s in your head and how mentally prepared you are. If I’m nervous my coordination and my control of the plane is different. Being precise is so important because millimetre movements of the pedals and stick slow you down. 

What does it feel like to hit a pylon at 350kmh?
It depends on how you hit it! [laughs]. My first pylon hit was in 2010 in Abu Dhabi, in my first race of my first season. It was a beautiful pylon hit! I was flying with my wings vertical and I hit the pylon with the whole plane – the pylon just disappeared. 

Did the plane judder?
No, you just hear a ‘bhoosh’ sound. If I hit it softly with just 2cms of the tip of the wing I don’t even feel it or hear it, I won’t know I’ve hit it. But then I turn around and I see the pylon is not there anymore [laughs].

How close to the pylons are the wings of your plane when you pass through gates?
Normally about 2.5 metres if you fly straight between the gate. But 99 per cent of the time during the race we pass through the gate at an angle so the distances between the wing and the pylon are smaller, like 20cms, sometimes maybe just 1cm. That’s more risky.

Most of the pilots in the championship are 40 years old or older – why is that?
Children can start driving go-karts at age three or four; then they might become Formula One drivers at 20 or 25. But with aviation, you can only get your basic pilot’s licence at 17 and you need experience after that. You won’t be a world champion in two years. You’ll never see a 20-year-old pilot in the air race because they need to get experience first. If you are one of the top pilots in the world it’s natural you will be about 40.

Will the death of pilot Hannes Arch at the end of last season have an impact on the 2017 season? [Arch was an Austrian pilot who won the championship in 2008 and was twice runner up in 2009 and 2010 and died in September in a helicopter accident].
There was a definitely a different atmosphere at the end of last season. I think we were all thinking about him and how we lost him. For me there is a different atmosphere every day.

You knew him well?
Yeah, we were friends. Every day I miss him, I miss my friend. When we race we are really busy and focused on the plane and that helps [control] the emotion. For me the feeling is more intense when we are not racing.

You were disqualified in Abu Dhabi in 2016 and finished with zero points. You must have bad memories of the race?
I like Abu Dhabi the city, and the area where the race is held is beautiful, but you’re right, I don’t have good memories from the race in 2016 [laughs]. We were one of the fastest planes in training but I spoiled the race with a stupid disqualification. That’s something we have to change this year. 

Do you get involved in the mechanics of the plane?
Yeah, I’ve always liked the technical side. I studied it at high school and university. I like engines. When I was younger I loved to work on motorbikes with oily hands all day long. 

But planes are your big love?
Oh yeah, airplanes are above everything. My love for them is on a totally different, crazy level. 

What is it that you love about flying?
The freedom. You’re up there in the space and you leave all your problems on the ground. Everything down on the ground becomes small, it’s just you and the airplane. The freedom of motion, especially when I’m in an aerobatic plane, feels amazing. I’m just totally in love with airplanes. 

When did the love affair start?
My dad wasn’t a pilot, but he was a big fan of aviation and had many books. When I was a kid I would look at his books about these beautiful planes and it just felt natural to me.

Ultimately, what do you find so exciting about racing?
Flying these planes between the air gates is beautiful. As a pilot you have to love it. Aerobatics is also beautiful, but it’s about judges looking at you and subjectively judging your performance – a bit like figure skating. However, in air racing it’s highly objective. It’s not about how beautiful it is; it’s about the time and speed. The fastest one is the winner – and that’s great.