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Fri, Sep 06, 2019

Red Bull Air Race Prepares For Its Final Curtain

Last Race Of The Series Is This Weekend

The Red Bull Air Race series is drawing to a close, with the final race set for this weekend in Chiba, Japan. And while the focus is usually on the pilots and speed, the voice that communicates from ground to sky is what every air racing pilot relies on.

Ask any pilot – the person on the ground who communicates with them via in-flight radio plays a special role. From basic information to reassurance and guidance, they trust that voice on the radio to get them where they need to go, safely. It is no different in the Red Bull Air Race.

For the Master Class pilots in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, Jim DiMatteo (pictured) is that single, consistent voice. A decorated former TOPGUN Commander, he has been the Race Director since 2007. “Jimmy is exactly the person I trust, capable to help in any situation,” comments reigning World Champion Martin Šonka. “He’s incredibly experienced and understands everything that’s happening every second. This is crucial. And as he is empathetic and a perfect speaker, he can always say exactly what is needed.”

It is not only what a Race Director says, but how he says it. The voice on the radio must be composed, in control and easily understood; especially in the Red Bull Air Race, where English is used as a common language but may not be a pilot’s mother tongue.

For the Challenger Class, the voice on the radio is former Red Bull Air Race winner Steve Jones. The second competition category’s Race Director, he works with the pilots from the moment they join a Training Camp.“Knowing them from the beginning helps me see through their eyes. I try to put myself in their place and give them whatever information will assist them to fly safely,” explains Jones, who also flies calibration flights at the events, enabling him to provide firsthand tips on weather and the racetrack. “I need to be acutely aware of each pilot’s qualities and strengths, and I need to be fair with the information that I supply, but also protect flight safety. If I think a pilot needs to be coached a little, I will do that.”

2018 Challenger Cup winner Luke Czepiela shares, “I’ve been following the Red Bull Air Race since 2003 and saw Steve racing, so when I met him at the first Qualification Camp, I knew we were in good hands. It’s great to hear his calm voice and get all his remarks about our flying.”

DiMatteo notes that a familiar voice helps pilots deliver their maximum: “In any high-performance, edge-of-the-envelope flying, the pilot is tasked at 100% of his capability. When you add the concept of racing, being in a new track, on international TV and so on, you can only imagine the stress. As a pilot, a familiar voice that you trust and respect acts as a calming and comforting element that helps you perform better. It’s like hearing your mom or dad or coach saying, ‘Come on, you can do this. I am here to help you succeed.’”

DiMatteo in turn listens closely to the pilot’s voice. “It usually tells me what kind of mindset he is in, [which] keys me on what areas to watch during his run. Talking with the pilots is not to help them do better than anyone else. This is purely for safety purposes and letting them get the most out of themselves.”

When DiMatteo was a fighter pilot landing on aircraft carriers, his duties also included serving as a Landing Signal Officer on deck, alerting the ship and clearing pilots to land (who were very competitive themselves, each aiming to be “TOP HOOK” in their squadron). He parallels that role with announcing, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on” in the Red Bull Air Race. “When I say ‘smoke on,’ it establishes two-way communications with the pilot, clears the pilot into the track, tells everyone to get ready as here comes a raceplane, and lastly gives the pilot those comforting and calming instructions,” he said.

The voice on the radio is most vital when things are not going according to plan. Šonka, a former Czech Air Force pilot, states, “It’s crucial to have somebody who is able to understand what’s happening in the cockpit not only during standard conditions, but especially when something happens and stress is about to rise. I found this very similar in the Red Bull Air Race and military flying.” DiMatteo recalls that when he was Landing Signal Officer, he would talk to the pilots most on pitch-dark nights with bad weather. “Although racing is not the same as flying off the aircraft carrier at night, the stress levels are closer than one might think,” he relates. “If the pilots have an issue in the hold prior to coming into the track, I talk with them to resolve it. Most of the time we get it fixed, but it still can cause residual stress and affect performance in the track if not handled properly.”

He gives as an example a moment earlier this season when Šonka’s airspeed indicators went out just as he was ready to enter the track, where initial airspeed can have a big impact on the final time. “A real-time issue like that was important to handle quickly, properly and fairly,” DiMatteo remarks. “I believe the manner in which I talked Martin into the track with the accurate airspeeds gave him the information he needed in a way that minimized additional stress to him, all while keeping it fair.”   

(Image provided with Red Bull Air Race news release)

FMI: www.airrace.redbull.com

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