MY WORKING LIFE
British flying ace Paul Bonhomme, 51, on his love of Spitfires, losing control of an aeroplane, and why he decided to retire from Red Bull’s much-loved air race, taking place next weekend in Abu Dhabi
British flying ace Paul Bonhomme is hanging up his wings, but his love affair with the Red Bull Air Race World Championship continues.
You landed your third Red Bull Air Race World Championship title last October, Paul. Why are you saying goodbye to the tournament? I’ve done 10 years and 66 races, and I thought I’d do something else now. I’m not a big fan of the event’s new head-to-head format, so I thought that if the year ended successfully that’d probably be a good time to stop. It was great fun and I have lots of happy memories. What will you miss? Flying the track. The Red Bull Air Race goes around the world, stopping off at interesting locations, and basically the pilots have to fly around a track as quickly as they can. For me, closing the canopy on race day and starting the engine was a golden moment. Then if you hear that you’ve set the fastest time – that was a huge buzz. How did you get into flying? My father was a pilot, and between where I lived and the school I went to was an airfield full of aerobatic planes. As a 14-year-old I would dive in there after school, help people clean their planes, and that cemented the idea. I then had two parallel careers, one in commercial flying and one in aerobatics, both starting in the mid-1980s. One to pay the rent, the other to have fun. Have you ever sat in a cockpit and forgotten which hat you were wearing? Not at all – I’ve spent my life flying different aeroplanes, so that helps, and the control panels are pretty different. It’s pretty obvious when you’re sitting in a 747 that you’re not in a tiny stunt plane. You’ve been one of the biggest heroes of the Red Bull Air Race since it started – how did that gig come about? The event started in 2003 and I was asked if I was interested – I thought it sounded like a laugh. When you look now at the footage of the first race it’s quite amusing – the Air Gates we had to fly between were really pretty primitive. I think I wanted to give it a go because of the way it combined flying and racing. I love flying, and if you throw a good old competition into the mix it makes it great fun. How do pilots prepare for each race? The key thing is thoroughly knowing the track. That’s part of the success I had – I took pride in knowing almost every single muscle movement I was going to need before the race had even started. I’d have in my head a very detailed plan of how to fly these five or six kilometre tracks in all sorts of different angles and under all sorts of wind conditions. That can only be done with constant rehearsal in your head. Was there any rivalry between the pilots? Yes – huge rivalry. We’re all pretty good mates, but on race day it does get fairly serious. The hangars quieten down because we’re all trying to get the advantage over the other teams. There’s a few mind games going on, too. Is fear a part of racing and stunt flying? I think it’s a huge part. I think it was vitally important that I always got incredibly nervous on race day – one was a fear of messing things up and making a fool of myself, and then there’s the fact that you’re flying pretty fast close to the ground. If you make a mistake it’s not going to be pretty. I think being nervous is a bit of a life-saving thing. The Air Gates you have to fly through are designed to tear apart on impact – but does that make them any less scary when hurtling at them at 230mph? No – I had a nasty incident with an Air Gate in 2007 where it got wrapped around the wing and I lost control of the aeroplane for a nanosecond and was upside down at 30 feet. They’re not to be taken lightly. The season traditionally kicks off in Abu Dhabi – any fond memories of the UAE? When we restarted there in 2014 (after the race took three years off ) we warmed up in Ras Al Khaimah in the north and then we flew down to the dockside in Abu Dhabi, and it was like going home. It was the most extraordinary thing. Landing on the docks and then walking into the hangar was a great return to the race. It’s always been a great race there and the weather’s generally superb, too. Have you ever been on holiday and thought to yourself that the view in front of you would be the perfect setting for an Air Race? Loads of times. I think Hong Kong’s harbour would be great – though how you’d ever stop the water traffic I’ve no idea. And I’ve always thought a mountain in the Welsh hills would be superb, although infrastructure-wise it would be disastrous. How do you get 12,000 spectators to hike up a hill? What’s the single best plane you’ve ever flown? I’d have to say a Spitfire. They’re great to fly, full of history, and they’re just great machines. If I had to pick a plane I’ve never flown, I’d say the F-16. It’s 40 years old but it still has unbelievable performance.
Red Bull Air Race World Championship 2017 is in Abu Dhabi from February 10-11. The public viewing area is near Marina Mall; hospitality at Hiltonia Beach Club is from Dh399-599 per person.
‘It was vitally important that I always got incredibly nervous on race day,’ says the Red Bull pilot