Sweet and Low Down

Forget about flying high. Fast and furious competitors in the Red Bull Air Race World Series will do the airplane limbo over the Detroit River.
Air Race
No Bull: Kirby Chambliss of Arizona was the 2006 Red Bull air racing champ. Photo Courtesy Red BullAir Race World Series

For Kirby Chambliss, it doesn’t get much better than flying a souped-up airplane fast and low.

Very low, as in 30 feet up. And he’ll do just that this month over the Detroit River in the Red Bull Air Race World Series.

“It’s amazing,” Chambliss says of flying the low lane. “It’s unlike any other kind of racing because you’ve got the vertical element in it. You’re zipping through these gates at 260 miles an hour, low above the water, pulling 10gs; things are whipping by.”

The “things” are goal posts anchored in the river. Racers thread through 60-foot-tall inflated pylons set as close as 32 feet apart. Fly fast and accurate between the posts, you win. Fly slowly, you lose. Miss lining up the aircraft correctly through the gates and penalty time is added to your run.

Chambliss, 48, lives in Arizona and was the 2006 Red Bull racing champion. He’s been flying aerobatics for years and accepts the risk inherent in any kind of extreme sport.

“That’s been my life, Chambliss says. “Ever since I met my wife, I’ve been flying air shows and this is what I do. It’s like asking a race car driver how your family feels about it. I’m sure they think about it but, hey, that’s your job.”

His wife, Kellie, also has a pilot’s license. They have six aircraft at their home and a runway in the back yard. Daughter Karly, age 3, sometimes wakes up Dad for a flight over the desert.

“My daughter will say, ‘Daddy, let’s go fly the Storch’ [one of the family airplanes]. Out here in the desert, we can land anywhere. So we land and kick rocks around. Go somewhere else and throw some rocks or hike around. She loves it.

“I can take off and roll upside down right here at the house and it’s 100 percent legal.”

For racing, Chambliss flies an Edge 540, a muscle plane that reaches 260 miles an hour behind a 327-horsepower engine.
The downside of racing for a living: Chambliss travels 230 days a year.

The 2008 Red Bull air race series kicked off earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The last of 10 races will be flown over Perth, Australia, in November. The Detroit River segment is tentatively scheduled for the weekend of May 31-June 1.

There’s no precedent for such an air race in Detroit. But the Red Bull run is expected to draw more than 100,000 spectators to the river and pump millions of dollars into the city’s economy.

“It’s a terrific last-minute addition to our busy summer here in Detroit,” says Christopher Baum, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “It adds a whole new aspect and sporting event that we’ve never dealt with before. It’ll be a great draw.”

Jon Rimanelli, CEO of Detroit Air Racing Inc., a group of aviation buffs, lobbied hard to woo a Red Bull race in Detroit. He did a lot of the heavy lifting to make a case for the city, and he credits The Tuskegee Airmen and others for signing on with early support.

Rimanelli got pumped about an air race because he pilots a Lake Buccaneer amphibious airplane and knows what it’s like to fly over the Detroit River for fun.

Flying like that is “one step away from flying with a red cape and blue suit,” he says.