"Two years ago, if you told me the airplanes would turn the corners we're turning, I'd have told you you were crazy," Chambliss says, shaking his head. "Now we do it all the time, and it's no big deal."
Which is not to say that Chambliss thinks those maneuvers are without risk. "Airshow experience is important for this, because you're already comfortable flying close to the ground," he says. "But airshows don't have the competitive pressure, or bridges and pylons flashing past you. And the floor in aerobatic competitions is 328 feet. At 328 feet, you can make a lot of mistakes. At five feet, you can't make mistakes."
Unfortunately, all pilots are human. Which means that somewhere along the way, mistakes are going to be made - a point Chambliss acknowledges. "Are we going to lose one of these [planes] sometime? Probably. But it's like the Indy 500. Is someone going to go into the wall at Indy? Probably. Is that dangerous? Yes. Could we make it safer? Yes. But would anyone watch it, then? No."
"Everyone is aware of what they're doing here," says Mike Mangold, a former Air Force fighter pilot and aerobatic champion who's the other U.S. pilot in the Red Bull series. "You're really alive, but you're also pretty doggone focused down there."
And yet, while I have no desire to take on that level of risk, I want at least a tiny taste of how this new kind of pylon racing feels and looks from the pilot's point of view. So Besenyei agrees to take me flying through and around a set of practice pylons they've set up at the former MiG base they're using as a staging area in Budapest.
Besenyei-who is something of a media superstar in Hungary for his aerobatic victories and exploits-straps me into the front seat of his Extra 300 with multiple seatbelts, until I literally cannot move. We taxi out, and he shoves the throttle forward, which shoves me back into my seat with a punch equal to what I imagine I'd sustain if a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker suddenly landed on top of me. It's a feeling and force that endures pretty much throughout the entire flight.
We've hardly broken ground, however, before Besenyei whips the plane into a sharp, knife-edge turn to the left. This isn't smooth flying. It's surgical technique-sharp, brisk, precise, and intense. We cut back around, descend, and line up on the pylons, which are spaced so closely together that they allow only three feet of clearance on each wingtip. Vertical gates are spaced even closer together, so the only way to clear them is in a knife-edge pass-and there are race judges who impose instant and loudly announced time penalties if a pilot's wings aren't completely level or vertical as he passes through each gate.
We're not going to make it. We can't possibly. They're too close together. And yet, as flashes of white pass by me on either side, I realize we're through safely. SLAM! Almost before I can even process being through the gate, we're in a knife-edge turn to the right. SLAM! Now we're in a 90-degree bank to the left. At first I think Besenyei is trying to intimidate or impress me, but then I realize he's just doing a minimum-time turn to get repositioned to go back through the gate the other way-just like he would in a race. We level out at a slight angle, correct, and then, SLAM! My head whips sideways as we slice through the gate in a knife-edge pass. We level out. Then SLAM! to the right. SLAM! to the left. This is surreal. Cool, but surreal. And that, Besenyei tells me as we circle around, was just practice speed.
Next, we try a few passes at race speed, which is about 220 mph-a number at which those pylons look, if possible, even closer together. And yet, we make it through again. SLAM! SLAM! We're banking hard right, then whipping around to the left. That football player has just gotten a whole lot heavier. SLAM! We cut through the gate again, turning left and pulling 6 1/2 Gs-which feels … ummm … interesting. Like that feeling you get in a really steep bank and multiplied by a factor of three or four. And that's just a couple of simple turns through a single gate, without any of the aerobatic maneuvers.
"What was it like?" one of the Red Bull employees asks me after we land.
"Like being shot through a pinball machine with a piano on your chest," I answer.