The Eagle Creek Airport lounge in Indianapolis, Indiana, is not large. The bulk of aircraft at this private, one-runway airfield are smaller prop planes, so the intimate terminal only needs a few couches and a handful of chairs. When I turned up earlier this summer for a fly-along with Red Bull Air Race world champion pilot Kirby Chambliss, the bulk of the seats were already filled with his support staff.
“Kirby’s first flight just landed. You’re up next,” one worker chirped.
I’d made the mistake of watching videos of Chambliss in action before arriving. I’m not a nervous flier, but when you’re about to go up in a plane that will be somersaulting end-over-end while spinning around its axis, it’s hard to stay calm. My stomach was in knots—partially due to nerves, partially because I’d skipped breakfast. You can’t throw up what you don’t eat, right?
I was in the middle of telling myself that no matter how intense this flight wound up being, I’d be back on the ground in ten minutes; I’d be okay. Suddenly, the door flew open and a thin, sweat-flecked man in an ill-fitting flight suit scurried in. I’d never seen a human literally turning green before, but this man's face was distinctly viridescent. His fingers were wrapped around a bottle of water so tightly, the knuckles had turned white. He moved directly to the bathroom behind us, and the faint sounds of him getting sick became audible.
“Was that the first passenger?” I quietly inquired to one of the support staff.
“Yes, but I’m sure you’ll do much better,” came the reply.
“What percentage of people who go up with Kirby become ill?”
“Eh, I’d say half? It really varies.”
I had more questions, but the man emerged from the bathroom and limply offered me his flight suit with a shaky hand. It was damp with perspiration.
Tugging on the flight suit triggered alarm bells in my brain. By the time I was helped into a parachute and given a cursory explanation on how to use it if necessary, I’d broken into a cold sweat in spite of the blistering Midwestern heat.
Chambliss is a jovial guy, with that mischievous twinkle in his eye all adrenaline junkies seem to have. His banter helped calm my nerves; so did reminding myself this man has multiple world championships under his belt. We talked about his participation in the 2016 Red Bull Air Race Championship Tour, occurring this weekend inside—and above—the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and how he fell in love with aerial acrobatics in the first place.
“I used to fly commercially, then I moved into private charters. You have to do training where you invert the plane and learn how to get it right-side up safely,” Chambliss explained. “I couldn’t get enough of those routines. And I never wanted to fly ‘normally’ again.”
I laughed, and Chambliss didn’t miss a beat: “Hey, maybe after our flight, you won’t either.”
Which leads up to the video above, a highlight reel of our insane flight. Had I eaten, I definitely would’ve used the air-sickness bag conveniently placed in front of my face. Early in the flight, he kindly gave me a little pause between each trick to let my senses reset; as the flight went on, though, those recovery periods grew shorter and shorter as the flips and rolls were strung together into longer sequences. Sometimes I had almost no idea which way we were moving. I can say, without hyperbole, it was the single most intense motor vehicle experience of my life.
When we landed, the first thing Chambliss said was, “Man, I’m hungry. What should we get for lunch?” I had a hard time responding. I was too busy sweating profusely. It took at least an hour to get the shakiness out of my legs and feel normal again. The first passenger had long since departed, but I wished he'd stuck around, if only so we could have formed our own little survivor’s group.
That said, if I were ever offered another flight with Chambliss, I’d take it in a heartbeat.
Watch the Red Bull Indy Air Race will on Sunday, October 9th at 8:30 p.m. (EDT) on FS1.