26 Jan 2018

New Red Bull Air Race pilots train for underwater escapes

The competitors of the Red Bull Air Race are among the best aviators in the world – well trained and extremely experienced in multiple disciplines.

Yet even with that deep background, the pilots will tell you that they could always learn more. One critical part of the pilots' training and development, as with any motorsport, is making sure they are well prepared should the unexpected happen.

So because some racetracks in the eight-stop Red Bull Air Race calendar – like Abu Dhabi – are over water, the pilots are required to undergo SWET training, whether they are in the Master Class that competes for the World Championship or in the feeder Challenger Class.

Recently, the two new pilots in the Challenger Class for 2018, Costa and Davidson, went through SWET and shared their experiences. “Looking at all the training that I have been exposed to during my orientation at Red Bull Air Race, I find it totally understandable why it has such a high reputation for safety," comments Davidson.

SWET enables pilots to practice underwater escape techniques in a realistic environment. With the close guidance of a specialist team, and using a stripped-back fuselage submerged in a pool, the pilots carry out a series of drills designed to familiarize them with a breathing apparatus, as well as the correct techniques for exiting a fuselage underwater and dealing with potential disorientation.

The training process begins with classroom sessions, so the pilots can get acquainted with the equipment. Then it is into the pool for the real thing. As Davidson explains, this is far from a little dip. In his career so far, the South African aerobatic champion and display pilot has flown more than 30 different types of aircraft all over the world – but, as it often does, SWET took him out of his comfort zone.

“I have no prior diving experience, so being submerged underwater, inverted, and having to rely on this little yellow bottle to survive was nerve-wracking to say the least,” he acknowledges. “The rescue divers helped me adapt and coached me through the process until I was comfortable breathing through the emergency oxygen regulator.”

Costa, who has more than 4,500 hours in the air and like Davidson is a national aerobatic champion and display pilot with global experience, had already been through several previous SWET sessions, and he remembers his initiation to the training.

“I have to admit that the first time is not fun – it’s very demanding, both mentally and physically, when you’ve never used spare air bottles underwater. But the diving team teaches you all the details in a step-by-step way that allows you to get comfortable with being underwater upside down inside a closed cockpit very quickly,” he relates. 
Adding to the challenge, once the pilots have mastered the basic SWET procedures, they wear goggles that obscure their vision, to simulate egress in murky water. 

“It felt completely unnatural, but once I managed to control my breathing, that became my only focus and made things easier,” Davidson recalls.A specialist team of life-saving experts are present at every race and can quickly access all areas of the racetrack in the unlikely event of a rescue situation. 

The Red Bull Air Race operates under the strictest safety regulations and is the official World Championship of Air Racing recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which supports the supervision of sporting and safety aspects at all races.

Costa remarks, “The aviation world in general has exceptional safety standards and culture, and in terms of sports, while the Red Bull Air Race is still in its early years, the organization does everything possible to be ahead of the game. The attention to detail is very high, and the amount of technology and human resources put in place to mitigate hazards and prevent incidents is incredible.”

The Red Bull Air Race 2018 season kicks off over the Arabian Gulf at Abu Dhabi on 2-3 February, and tickets are available now. For all the latest news and information, visit www.redbullairrace.com.

Photo: Samo Vidic/Red Bull Content Pool