Breitling Racing Team pilot Nigel Lamb on Round Two of the Red Bull Air Races – VIDEO

On Qualification day in an interview I was asked, as the ‘nearly oldest veteran’ of the air race, “Do you ever stop learning”. My reply was the obvious “never: every flight is different and there’s always something to learn” etc. Ironically, my race ended the next day before takeoff for the Super 8 and the lesson was a very humbling one indeed, but more of that later.

The weeks leading up to the Rovinj, Croatia race were pretty hectic for the Breitling Racing Team. After looking at our engine data from Abu Dhabi, Lycoming decided we needed to change the engine. Since early January after Nigel (Hux) Huxtable and I had put several hours on the engine and it was time to start working it harder, one of my earliest tests was to drive the oil temperature up somewhere near the maximum to be sure the pressure would be okay. Achieving this in the cool ambient conditions of an English winter is not so easy when you don’t want to blank off the oil cooler. This requires removal of the cowlings and plenum and then you can’t do much else on the sortie. Much better is to have a high power setting and then establish a turn with high G and bleed the speed off so that the cylinder head temperatures (CHTs) rise and with them the oil temp. Once you’ve seen the numbers you need, you can roll out, watch all the temperstures come down pretty quickly and then get on with some practice. In fact, avoidance of shock cooling is then a bit of an issue, but easy to deal with. The problem with this technique is that you’re starting from 195 knots and you need to get the speed down around 110 to get the temperatures to rise and this takes a long time with high power. Seven or eight G held for quite a while gets the speed dropping and then you end up spinning like a top at about 110 knots with a sustained 4G or so while you keep a good look out of the cockpit and monitor the temps. Interestingly, the Oxfordshire landscape over which I’ve flown for 34 years was hardly recognizable with the January flooding so, to avoid being disorientated, I was very careful to choose some good landmarks before each ‘spinning top’ session. Sadly, our engine was on the lower limit of oil pressure long before it reached the 245F on the oil. Over the next few weeks Hux tried everything to establish whether or not the problem was to do with the Christen inverted oil system and everything else external was checked. After much consultation with Lycoming and its rep at the Abu Dhabi race, we raced without an engine change but were not surprised to have the logistical challenge of dealing with this between races.

Along with all the other RBAR aircraft and equipment, our MXS was freighted into Graz but then split off from the main shipment and was sent to Murska Sobota in Slovenia. What a great place to change an engine! An easy drive from Graz or even Zagreb, it’s a quiet spot with a long and wide grass runway, a great restaurant on site (another reminder of how unlucky we are to have so few at small UK airfields) and a perfect hangar courtesy of Peter Podlunsek, the well known local Unlimited aerobatic pilot. VFR flying in Slovenia is very straightforward so the testing phase was simple too. Following the Lycoming dyno procedure, the new engine had done another fifteen hours at full or high power in Germany and we were relieved to establish very quickly that the oil pressure at max temperature was okay.

On Monday 7 April I flew down to the beautiful Vrsar airfield on the NW Croatian coast with two Edge 540s following. Vrsar was the chosen operating airfield and what a beautiful location it is – a N/S tarmac strip perched on the northern edge of a tributary just north of Rovinj. Croatia is now even higher on my list of places to visit on holiday; amazing history, wonderful scenery, crystal clear water, very friendly people and easy for VFR.

So amenable in fact, that when the Breitling Jet Team flew in (invited as a side act) we decided the opportunity was too good to miss. I got airborne and met up with ‘Gaston’, ‘Fredo’ and ‘Sherif’ and in close formation we had a quick buzz a couple of hundred feet above the track and the town. It’s always a pleasure operating with those guys, they are so experienced, and we had some great pictures within five minutes thanks to the skills of Katsu Tokunaga.

The new Auto Judging System (AJS) seems pretty amazing. Before leaving Slovenia, I watched Steve Jones helping them to fine tune it and I also did a few sessions in a track to help. With the Race Director looking at the aircraft and track and a few other judges in strategic locations around the track, the TV Steward (TVS) is focused solely on a big touch screen. The clock starts as a beam is broken by the spinner through the start gate. If the speed (still GS at the moment with IAS to come when they perfect the technology) is 200kts or less, you’re okay. 201 or more is a disqualification. The reason for the limit is simply that regulations for the speed range above 200kts requires the air gates/aircraft to be quite a lot further from the crowd. The TVS then watches as the AJS logs the flight. Okay or not okay passing each gate. If, for example, there is a two second penalty for wings not level in the gate, the TVS can touch that gate and get a head or tail on photo taken in the gate, showing the bank angle recorded by the on board system. The TVS can then accept or reject the penalty. With any ‘man, machine, clock’ sport it’s a great idea to minimise the subjectivity of the human eye and this is especially relevant with our roll rates being around 400 deg/sec. Getting the wings level as you flash through a gate off a hard turn is a big part of the challenge, so I hope the software whizzos manage to get what is advertised out of the AJS.

The track here is set in a bay on the north edge of Rovinj and you could not ask for a more picturesque setting, with clear airspace making the holding positions and the air operation very simple. The track turned out to be hugely challenging with a tricky ‘S’ turn section causing more pylon hits during the practice sessions than any race I can remember. It was clear that a westerly breeze would really increase the challenge. There were several pylon hits in a very close Qualification on Saturday, which saw seven pilots within one second and I went to bed reasonably happy with fifth and the prospect of a head-to-head with Peter Besenyei in the T12 on Sunday.

It’s Race Day with the wind from the WNW! Not only do we have a tailwind complicating the tricky Gate 4, 5, 6 ‘S’ turn, but the setup for that will come in the lee of a peninsula where we need to be very close to the shore to get the right angle through G4, and there’s bound to be some turbulence there. And what drama in the T12! G5 in the middle of the ‘S’ took a beating and I’m sure the stewards would have been referring constantly to the race regulations to figure out the order of flight for the next round. Pete McLeod was let off the hook after being knocked out in his heat but since the top 8 go through and five pilots hit a gate, he was back in to the S8 on the basis of his fast Q time the day before. Peter B did me a favour by being one of the five, so all I had to do was achieve a clean run. You’d think the best tactic would be to go really slowly to make things easier but I tried this once before in Perth and the truth is, this can change your rhythm so much you can easily get out of shape. A clean run saw me through to the S8 and I was really looking forward to the next session with a faster start and tighter lines, but this was not to be. After starting, my comms were not working and there are several plugs, which cannot be reached once strapped in. Hux came to my assistance and between us, the closed throttle was nudged and we ended up with a prop tip strike. End of our race. The disappointment as a competitor is tough, but even tougher is the humbling experience as a professional aviator to be caught out by something so simple after forty years in the game. Like I said to the journalist only 24 hours earlier, “you never stop learning”.

Hannes Arch’s 8/100 sec win puts him and Paul Bonhomme leading the championship, but without doubt the most popular result of the day was Yoshi Muroya’s well-deserved first podium. It’s been coming for a while and I hope to join him there in the next race in Malaysia.

But first, Hux and I have some work to do on the MXS.

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