Photo courtesy of Red Bull on-site Go-Pro
High-performance race cars, rushing down the track with unthinkable power.
Motorcycle races, with drivers testing fate by taking turns with such ferocity that they are mere inches from lying parallel to the ground.
Fighter jets screaming through the air, with nothing that can hold them down and nothing that could ever hope to catch them.
We’ve probably all, at some point in our lives, watched a NASCAR race, a motorcycle race or an air show and wished deep inside that we could experience something like that. The speed. The power. The unfettered freedom.
Generally, these wishes remain just that. Usually, we watch from the edges as a lucky few perform amazing feats of science. Usually, we just dream of another life where we could have joined them.
But sometimes, dreams do come true.
As part of the build up to the Red Bull Paper Wings competition, I was given the experience of a lifetime Wednesday in the form of all of these dreams combined: to be a passenger in the “Extra 300L” Red Bull racing plane with Kevin Coleman, the first American to fly in the Challenger Class of the Red Bull Air Race and one of the youngest to ever contend in the sport. There are few sports that can even begin to compare with the speed, intensity and finesse needed to compete in air racing, and I was put in the hands of the best.
AfAnd with the Instagram posts sufficiently made, the Go-Pro videos compiled into a dramatic action clip – you’d think the story was done being told. But experiences like these take a few days to parcel out, and no social media can actually tell you how it felt.
So here goes.
Upon entering the hangar, it took my untrained eye a minute to understand the enormity of the situation. These planes aren’t just made for looks (although their sleek, sparkling finish, sharp lines and fluid build beg to be gawked at.) These carefully crafted vehicles are tested to withstand up to 20 Gs and hit maximum speeds of 400 kilometers per hour. The wings are even designed in such a way to allow the plane to fly with the same speed and dexterity whether upright or upside-down. The impressive quality of design so greatly eclipsed that of average single-engine planes that it was explained to me by Coleman as “the difference between a Honda and a Nascar.”
And if the maniacal laughter of my aerospace friend behind me was any indication, I was about to be in for quite the race.
After being instructed on the proper usage of a parachute and how to escape my seat if needed (I was assured I would not), we were off. We flew in a lazy swoop about 12 miles east of Murfreesboro, giving me an excellent view of the rolling hills of Tennessee as the mid-morning sun cast stark shadows throughout them.
What had started as a perfectly blank blue sky quickly became dotted with gentle white clouds that gave the flight a whole other dimension- an axis for the eyes to realize just how high up we were and just how fast we were soaring.
And then we were rolling.
It was actually startling how smooth it was: If I hadn’t been looking outward, I really wouldn’t have noticed that the entire earth had shifted. Up became down and ground became sky in a whirling blur of colors that slashed over my head as the sun rotated around us. And just like that, we were up again. (And this time, the maniacal laughter was my own.)
We continued on like this for a few moments, performing roll after roll and going faster each time. My sense of balance became irrelevant. You don’t realize how much you orient yourself with the horizon line until it’s no longer needed. A sharp feeling of freedom hit me as I let go of my sense of balance and accepted the complete reversal of perspective; the world is so open up there. I can see the appeal of being a pilot forever.
Our next stunt was extremely impressive for someone who knows almost nothing about the aerodynamics of flight. Coleman instructed me to tense my legs and abs very tightly (to decrease blood flow to the head to prevent passing out, apparently) and once again, the ground disappeared. But this time, it was behind me: we were flipping nose over tail over the earth.
The world became a fascinating abstract painting for a moment as the tops of clouds came into view, the then bottoms of the clouds, and then the curvature earth. It felt like gravity released us for a moment as our speed and angle pushed us upwards at unfathomable speeds. The sky was the earth and the earth was the sky, and as we came to a pause completely perpendicular to earth, I could feel gravity capture us again. The nose of the plane pointed directly into the ground for a few long seconds, and as the plane pushed against the strong hold of gravity, I got the incredible sensation that I was standing above the world.
Our final stunt, since I gracefully declined freefalling through the sky at top speed, was repeating our rolls from earlier, but this time, we stayed upside down. The view was incredible: Instead of the blues and greens of the impressionistic horizon, I got a crystal clear view of the entire eastern spread of Tennessee. Rolling thousand of feet above me was only miles and miles of verdant Tennessee hills, below me only endless sky, and before me, only infinity.
After swooping and buzzing over Murfreesboro a few times to get a peek at the city from above, we banked sharply into a landing and touched down so smoothly you’d think we never left. Coming down from such riveting heights made your body feel almost weightless when setting foot on ground again. Your knees take a second to readjust, and you can feel all of the liquids in your body settling back to where they belong, along with the reminders of your everyday responsibilities. It’s a strange feeling, like putting on an old coat, but for a few minutes up there, you didn’t have to be anyone. You just got to enjoy the ride.
“Being a Red Bull pilot has been my dream since I was three years old,” Coleman said afterward, smiling wistfully. “… I get to travel all over the world, flying in air shows and Red Bull air races. It’s an awesome job, and Red Bull has given me a very good opportunity, so I’m very thankful for that.”
“The great thing about Red Bull is it’s a aviation company,” he continued. “They’re always giving back to the aviation community, and the aviation program here at MTSU.”
And MTSU certainly appreciates it.
To contact News Editor Angele Latham, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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