We Had a Go in a £300,000 Red Bull Air Race Plane... And Threw Up, A Lot
Here's what happened when Hamilton Watch stuck us in a plane with French aerobatic aviation champion Nicolas Ivanoff
It’s a surreal thing to be told by a marketing officer that you should only eat a banana for breakfast the next morning – because when you regurgitate a banana, it still smells exactly the same, and there was a good chance we would be doing exactly that the following day.
See, here at Mpora we were under the impression that all vomit smelled pretty damn awful. Some worse than others of course, but on the whole, fairly sub-standard across the board. Nothing quite as appetising as the smell of fresh fruit immediately came to mind.
Funnily enough though, one day later, having just been hit with a truck-tonne of G-force and driven to a complete state of dizziness by Hamilton watch pilot Nicolas Ivanoff, we would be able to confirm that when you throw up a banana, it does indeed still smell exactly the same. But there’s a bit of brick-laying to do before we get to that.
My first reaction after being offered the chance to ride in an aerobatic plane with a Red Bull Air Race pilot was pure excitement. There was no fear about it. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with flying; if pigeons can do it, then why can’t I. It’s the personal motto that drives so many of the decisions in my life.
There was no doubt in my mind that it would be safe enough, despite having to sign a death waver. The chauffeur in question was to be Nicolas Ivanoff, one of the most experienced acrobatic pilots in the world. The Frenchman has more than 22 years experience in the cockpit, and when he’s not competing in Red Bull Air Race he works an aviation instructor. He’s an expert.
On the face of it, all the trip would involve was strapping myself in, avoiding any big red buttons with the word ‘eject’ written on them, and then sitting back to enjoy the ride. That was my initial impression, anyway.
Red Bull Air Race
The first suggestion that the trip could be rather more precarious than anticipated came on Red Bull Air Race Sunday at Ascot, watching the remarkably lax Ivanoff in action the day before he was due to give me the ride of my life in a custom-made £300,000 aerobatic plane. No, not in that way, you dirty-minded minx.
See, the planes in the Red Bull Air Race, “the fastest motorsport in the world", happen to be rather, err, fast. They’ve got 300 horsepower under their bonnets, the pilots take up to 10 Gs while they’re racing around, and they can turn 90 degrees onto their sides in the blink of an eye.
Again though, surely I would just be sitting in the plane trying not to collapse? Well, it just so happened that the sponsors of the Red Bull Air Race had set up some virtual reality goggles for visitors to get an idea of what it’s like to be in the cockpit of one of the planes. Seeing as I’d be flying in one of the things for real the next day, it seemed like a reasonable idea to give it a shot.
Now, you’d think a pair of goggles couldn’t mess with your head too much, right? Well, as I pondered that question while trying and failing to walk in a straight line shortly after taking the things off, I couldn’t help but think “shit. I’ve actually got to go in one of these planes tomorrow. And I'm also about to walk straight into a brick wall."
It was then that the problem I was facing became clear. There was no fear of death, of fainting or of falling out of the plane; there was only fear of vomiting during the ride, and of seeing that vomit fly back into my face, creating the most undesirable viral GoPro video of all time in the process.
See while Mr. Ivanoff is more than experienced when it comes to stomaching the twists and turns of aerobatic flight, this writer is most certainly not. Sure, I’ve watched Top Gun every other day for the past few years, and I’ve been on my fair share of budget airliners, but I’d never done a barrel roll before. Not without Tom Cruise holding me in my deepest, darkest dreams, as ‘Take My Breath Away’ played harmoniously on surround sound.
Up In The Air
When the big day arrived, my rather empty stomach and I felt more than a little bit queasy. I was super stoked to get into the plane and give it a shot, but entirely unconvinced that I would be able to do so without retrieving my breakfast. Ivanoff’s cheeky grin on arrival did nothing to alleviate these concerns.
Pulling on the flight suit, however, did get the blood pumping. It’s impossible not to feel awesome, and not get Kenny Loggin’s ‘Danger Zone’ stuck in your head, as soon as you get the thing on. And the Hamilton colours are perfectly suited to such a badass outfit.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?" I was asked as I pulled on the uniform. “There’s nothing else that’s actually remotely like this, is there?" I replied. A laugh and a smirk from Ivanoff confirmed my suspicions, as I was kitted out with an emergency parachute and strapped into the plane. Danger zone.
It was at this point, after climbing into the cockpit, that all fear gave way to excitement, and all thoughts and memories gave way to re-imaginations of scenes from ‘Top Gun’, with my head photoshopped near-perfectly on top of that of Mr. Cruise.
It didn’t take me long to realise that only two states of being actually exist when you’re up in the air; unrivalled bliss and absolute illness. See, the way the two-seater Hamilton plane was laid out meant that the passenger, myself, was actually sat at the front of the plane, staring out into the air, with the piloting Ivanoff sitting behind me.
How the Frenchman saw where he was going is as much your guess as it is mine. Maybe he didn’t see at all. He did seem to spent most of the journey laughing away to himself as I struggled through, but it was clear how comfortable he was up in the air – comfortable to the point where not even asking an Mpora writer to drive his plane for a bit could spark the slightest concern.
Ivanoff and I communicated throughout the flight through microphones and earpieces built into our helmets. When the crackling commands of the pilot requested I steer the plane using the ominously lurching stick in front of me, though, I had to double take.
“You want me to steer?" I questioned. A glance in the mirror showed Ivanoff sticking some jazz hands in the air and grinning psychotically, telling me without words that if I wasn’t going to steer the thing, nobody was. The plane started dipping.
It was at this point I discovered that every time I had ever controlled a plane before that moment had been a lie. Those hours at Megabowl as a six-year-old spent directing the flight simulator. Those seconds spent pretending I was Ronaldo after scoring an offside goal in primary. Those countless dreams I had treasured, where I was Tom Cruise's wingman; they couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I took the stick and moved it slightly to the left. The plane jolted, almost flattening sideways. I tried to stabilise it and ended up shifting 45 degrees in the other direction, my eyes sinking steadily into my own face. All of this happened in about four seconds, and I quickly shouted the words ‘you can drive now’ to Ivanoff through a stream of delusional laughter. The bemused pilot somehow understood. That was quite enough of that.
A few turns later and we were putting the stability of the seatbelt to the test, taking on some aileron rolls – turning 360 degrees on each shoulder while the plane continued forward in a straight line, a move commonly confused with a barrel roll.
The seatbelt did indeed work, and at this point, illness levels were still containable. The aileron rolls were over before the stomach had the chance to lurch. It almost felt like I hadn’t moved at all inside the aircraft, and that it was the landscape directly in front of me that was turning 360 degrees instead.
When Mr. Ivanoff decided to fly upside down for a bit after briefly straightening out, this was certainly no longer the case. We can’t have been inverted for more than six or seven seconds, but the rush of blood to the head is severe at that speed. The adrenaline kicked in and I went full Top Gun, laughing away and squealing ecstatically as we cruised along in an upside-down universe.
It wasn’t until we levelled out that the consequences of this manoeuvre kicked in. But man, did they kick in hard. It was like having a high and a comedown in the space of ten seconds. Like experiencing all the career highs and lows of Lance Armstrong in the time it takes to say ‘EPO’. My eyes were upright again, but it felt like my organs had been left upside down.
I was on the edge at this point, but what better way to set my stomach to rest than to dive straight into a full loop – a manoeuvre that slaps more G’s on the pilot and passenger than any other we were going to try that day. Nicolas slowly brought us upwards, then grabbed the stick, yanked it backwards and didn’t let it go.
The loop felt steady, but the force of five, six G’s was messing with me on all sorts of levels. I tried to lift my arms off the seat while we rose, but simply couldn’t manage to do so. I could barely move a muscle. It was like being trapped under a giant, vibrating pile of bricks while someone repeatedly slapped me in the face.
Taking on that many G’s and then returning to normal flight was a bizarre experience. You know how after stepping off a treadmill, you still feel like you’re running? Well, when you level out after getting slapped in the brain by gravity for 40-odd seconds, it feels like you’re still being punched in the gut by the universe, but even harder than before.
I mentioned earlier that only two states of being actually exist when you’re in an aerobatic plane. It was at this moment that all remnants of adrenaline-lead joy transcended into absolute, unadulterated illness. My breakfast was on its way back to the surface, seeking redemption from its descent to the stomach-world. And it was only a matter of time until it got it.
I decided to make the international signal for “I’m about to spew a banana on your dashboard" to Nicolas behind me, showcased in the image above. It was time to head back to ground floor, but I wasn’t going to make it, and one of the sick bags had escaped me. The other, though, was in my sights. I reached for it with all the fervor of a man desperate not to vomit on a GoPro, and grasped it with ease.
Several close calls later and I was closing in on the runway near Ascot, spewing into a paper bag as I went, strangely proud of having made it this far without having choked on my own vomit. They said I couldn’t do it – actually, nobody said anything of the sort – but I proved them wrong, whoever they may be.
The joy and illness had merged at this point. I was elated with the experience, but also unable to stand up for more than 17 seconds without falling over. “It doesn’t look too bright for my future as a Red Bull Air Race pilot then," I joked to the wonderful Ivanoff as we climbed out of the plane.
“No, no, no," he retorted, quelling my concerns. “A lot of my students like you were sick on their first flight, but their second flight was a lot better.
“I didn’t want to get involved in aerobatics because I thought I would be sick to start with. I never feel sick though. I don’t know what it is. The only times I have been sick have been after the flight. Way after the flight; after the party."
He nonchalantly turned and headed for the hanger, but there it was; I had lost the battle, but I hadn’t lost the war. I was disorientated, dizzy as hell and couldn’t stand up without feeling strangely top-heavy, but the dream was back on.
If plenty had spewed before me and gone on to be pilots, then maybe ten years down the line it would be me indulging in schadenfreude at the expense of a queasy journalist.
I stood up, took a bite out of my miniature Mars bar, texted my family to let them know I wasn’t dead and made way for the taxi rank.
Dreams of leather jackets, motorbikes and erotic volleyball matches flashed before my eyes. As I climbed in the taxi, ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins returned to my head. I closed my eyes. Sat back. And imagined. Maybe one day. Maybe one day.