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

Friday - - Contents -

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

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