Matt Hall Interview - Red Bull Stealth Pilot

MATT HALL - Red Bull Stealth Pilot

 

In an extract from APOLLO Issue 1, we  fly under the radar with Australia’s very first Red Bull Air Race pilot and former Top Gun instructor, Matt Hall, who defied the bookies to finish 3rd in the world in his rookie season just 12 months after qualifying. We caught up with Matt for a behind-the-scenes look into the world of extreme aerial racing, and picked up some first-hand experience in high-G aerobatics to boot. Welcome to the world’s biggest spectator sport- the Red Bull Air Race.

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The Red Bull Air Race debuted in 2003, and since then has morphed from a two-event European regional tournament into an elite international competition contested by 15 of the world’s best pilots, encompassing 8 races around the globe including New York, Rio, Budapest, Abu Dhabi, and Perth. In 2007, a million Brazilians turned out to watch the race in the skies over Rio- the biggest crowd in racing history. Pilots fly within a defined altitude range of around 10-15m, reaching speeds of up to 420km/h and pulling up to 12G through exquisitely tight turns. This is not for the faint-hearted.

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Apollo: So Matt, lets cut to the chase…. what’s the deal with end-over-end barrel rolls?

Matt Hall:
Haha... well, they’re a new form of freestyle climb that’s only been around for 10 years or so, the reason they weren’t done earlier is the planes couldn’t handle the G-forces involved, but what  I’m doing is using a combination of gyroscopic of the propeller and aerodynamic loads, and simultaneously stalling the plane which is a unique thing to be able to do with these aircraft. When you combine those things together in the correct order you can get the plane to pitch forwards end-over-end… so it’s basically doing somersaults in the sky with no forward velocity at all. 

AM:
Stalled end-over-end rolls? Madness. Are we talking single somersaults or double?

MH:
Multiple- I can do six or seven in a row.

AM:
2009 was an epic year for Matt Hall Racing, coming in as a rookie and finishing 3rd on the world’s biggest racing stage. What did season 2009 mean to you and your team?

MH:
Yeah it was my first year in the Championship and I was lucky enough to finish the year on the podium, far exceeding my expectations. When I was told I’d qualified it was only five months before the first race, so it was a fairly hectic few months getting the team up and running, getting an aircraft and all the necessary gear like uniforms, hangars, flying suits, and helmets, but we got it all together for the first race. I knew that it was going to be a hard ask to do well in my first season so I basically set my sights on being safe and learning, and as it turned out,  being safe and flying consistently and error free turned out to be the best way to do well in this type of race.

AM:
2010 saw the return of the Red Bull Race to Perth. You must have been excited about racing in Australian skies?

MH:
Yeah it was definitely something different for me, I was really excited about it, the support, the publicity, and just racing in front of a home crowd. That’s just something that I don’t think many athletes get to do, so for that I feel very privileged.  Racing in Perth is very exciting for me, but on the other hand it can be very daunting as you don’t want to screw up!

 

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AM:
Is Perth a home ground advantage for you?

MH:
No, I don’t think it offers much of a home crowd advantage to tell you the truth. There aren’t many guys who do well on their home turf in this sport, because of the added pressure, and it’s not as though you get to practice on your home turf because the course isn’t actually physically there for me to go and practice on (Matt practices the course through visualisation of imagined air gates, flying at higher altitudes than on race day).  You can’t hear the crowd cheering so it’s just you and the aircraft and a track.  For me it’s about not letting the pressure of the event get to me.

AM:
To what extent is Red Bull Racing a team sport?

MH:
It’s very much a team sport, there’s no way in the world I could do this without the team behind me.  The race plane needs to be safe, fast, and maintained to a high standard, so I have a technician whose sole responsibility is to make sure the plane is first and foremost safe and secondly is as fast as we can possibly make it. I have a team manager David Lyall, and of course there’s myself, the team owner and pilot.

AM:
What’s a racing aircraft worth?

MH:
I ‘ve spent around $800,000 on this new race place we’re building. In motor-sport terms it’s not that much, but as an individual it’s not cheap.

AM:
Despite your apparent meteoric rise to success, you’re no newcomer to aviation. What are some of the highlights of your career before aerial racing?

MH:
I’d probably say careerwise the most memorable experience was being in combat in the Gulf War in 2003. That’s what I was there for and that’s why I was doing it. Apart from that, I’d say being a  fighter combat instructor here in Australia, that’s definitely the top of every fighter pilots’ ambitions, to be the best of the best, so to be able to do that was an honour. I also lived in the States for 3 years flying F15 Strike Eagles, that was a fantastic experience. I went to combat with the US squadron and that’s why it was such a unique experience, I was an Australian fighter pilot flying in a US fighter squadron in Iraq.  So it was quite unusual, very bizarre. (as an Aussie pilot flying with the US Air Force, Matt’s situation was unique, and required special permission from PM John Howard to allow him to fly in the Gulf war).

AM:
You’re a Newcastle boy- how has the town responded to your success?

MH:
Newcastle is a pretty relaxed town so it’s good the level of interest in me- some people know who I am and a lot don’t, which is perfect because it means I can go to the pub for a beer, and if there’s a Newcastle Knights player there, he’s going to get more attention than me, which is just fine by me, haha.

AM:
You’ve gone from flying  F15 Strike Eagles to the cockpit of a Red Bull aircraft, a very different beast. What inspired the change of scenery?

MH:
Um, midlife crisis I guess!!! Haha, joking, but I’ve said to a number of people that the Red Bull Air Race solved my midlife crisis just before I had it.  I’ve been in the Air Force since a teenager and I’ve been flying my whole career, it had become just a job, you know, flying jets, the glamour etc. It wasn’t as challenging as it once was, so it was time for a new challenge.

AM:
How does aerial racing differ to flying fighter jets?

MH:
It’s more challenging to do this well because it is measured so finely, you either get it right or you don’t. Flying fighter jets is a very private thing as well but once you’ve achieved your aim of becoming as good as you can be it’s then all about what you can teach someone else to do. Aerial racing is unlimited because there’s no limit to how much I invest or how good I can make it, it’s up to my imagination, and then if you do improve- what a satisfying thing to go out there and demonstrate it on the world stage at 30 feet flat out winning a race. 

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AM:
What are the physical demands on your body?

MH:
It’s very physically demanding actually, for example rolling the plane at up to 500 degrees per second puts some serious strain on your neck muscles which are working overtime trying to keep your head attached to your body when you start and stop, as you’ll find out, haha. We’re probably getting up to 7 or 8G in the side manoeuvres, and in the rolls and the positive G manoeuvres we’re pulling up to 12G. 

AM:
Do you wear a G suit?

MH:
When I’m racing I wear a G suit but when I’m training I don’t, so I train harder than I race. So in theory when I’m racing everything should be easier than when I’m training. That’s the military training coming through- always train harder than you fight.  It’s quite demanding- I do a lot of physical training to keep myself in shape for that.

The average person blacks out at around 5G, and we’re racing up to 12G, so you have to condition your body for it. My training involves sit ups, push ups, core strength exercises and squats to build strength in the lower body to combat the blood going down there, and also the G strain manoeuvre which is basically squeezing your lower body as tight as you can and holding your breath to force the blood up into your head. Your body does actually adapt to G-forces so if I’m training regularly I can deal with it better, but if I’m out of training for 4 weeks I’m going to struggle.

AM:
You took a spin with V8 Supercar driver Jason Bright last year, how was that, and did you return the favour and show him the true meeting of fearless racing?

MH:
It was fantastic! I was a bit shocked on the first corner due to how quickly it came up, and when I thought he should start braking he was still accelerating which gave me a nervous moment, but my body and my brain adjusted pretty quickly and by the next corner I’d adapted and I was thinking “let’s see how hard we can push this baby!” The acceleration is pretty extreme, but it was similar to what I'm used to with jet fighters and race planes.  To answer the second part of the question, he said ‘no way’! (laughs)

 

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AM:
There are obviously a lot of dangers in racing, especially bird strikes. How do you minimise the risks? (Brazilian pilot Adilson Kindlemann was fortunate enough to escape serious injury when he recently crashed into the Swan River, attributing his survival to his strict underwater training regime)

MH:
Things like engine failures are a threat to us. We have to ditch the aircraft in that situation, so we do a lot of safety development work on the engine and we carry a scuba tank in the cock pit with us, so if we go in the drink the first thing we do is put on the oxygen and let the plane sink. We don’t have ejection seats but we carry parachutes. We wear high G suits to combat blackouts, helmets, and we’re looking at the neck impact support systems they use in formula 1 and V8 Supercars.

Things like bird strikes are also a threat for us and we’ve got strategies in place to avoid it. In Hannes Arch’s pelican strike in San Diego in 2009 (Search: YouTube- Red Bull Race pelican strike), he was very lucky to get away with it, to tell you the truth. They use falcons in some courses to scare seagulls away. A bird can fly away from a helicopter but unfortunately a plane is travelling considerably faster. In the slow motion footage, the pelican was even looking the wrong way- he was looking over his right shoulder going “what’s that noise”, right before the plane hits him from the left side.

There are a whole heap of safety measures we use. Even though we’re all competitors, we have a common goal which is to live a long and prosperous life.

AM:
Are the perks of being a Top Gun instructor over-rated?

MH:
Haha... yes, because no one believes you.  I must admit I didn’t pick up too many chicks as a Top Gun instructor because they didn’t believe it.

AM:
Thanks for speaking to APOLLO, Matt.

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