If it sounds exciting, it is. If it also sounds a little crazy, well, it's probably a bit of that, too. However, race director Hannes Arch stresses that, while there is clearly risk inherent in the events, a tremendous amount of energy and thought has been invested in risk management.
"For us, the safety lies in the selection of the pilots," he says. "This is an invitational race. If we did it by speed, a guy might qualify who's fast but risky. We don't want that." Of course, even with professional pilots, staging an air race in a convenient, urban environment isn't exactly the easiest thing to get permission to do. Red Bull staged its first few races at airports, just to show officials they could operate a safe event. But the company's focus now, as it wraps up its third year of racing and its first complete, seven-race world series, is on getting the races in as interesting locations, and as close to population centers, as possible.
"The trick is to find someone in the government or governing body who trusts us and says, 'they're professional and this will be safe,'" Arch explains. "If you find someone like that, you're successful. If you don't, you're not."
Safety also plays a big role in the construction and layout of the race courses. The pylons are made of spinnaker material that is designed to shred easily upon contact. "Sometimes, you don't even know you've clipped a pylon," says Kirby Chambliss, a Southwest Airlines Captain and five-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion who's one of two U.S. pilots in the Red Bull series. Red Bull has also carefully planned the turns and maneuvers in each course so that spectators will not be at risk, even in the event of a mishap. The risk to the pilots, however, is another matter. They're pulling a lot of Gs, in tight quarters, around obstacles, and low to the ground.