12 Mar 2016

Red Bull Air Race 2016: Erich Wolf

We speak to Erich Wolf, General Manager of the Red Bull Air Race. As General Manager he’s responsible for the whole event across eight countries. He’s been in charge since 2011, and brought the Red Bull Air Race back in 2014 after a three year hiatus.

“The job is to oversee the whole operation and the business,” he explains while standing on the banks of the marina in Abu Dhabi. The race is in full flow and planes roar past behind him on race day. It’s the first competition of the 2016 season and everything is going well. He has his eye on everything. “Red Bull Air Race has to become the number one air sport in the world, and this is our business.”

Before he joined the Red Bull Air Race Wolf was Commander of the Austrian Air Force. Born in Vienna in 1949 as a young man Wolf was originally selected for infantry and special forces training, but he got the flying bug big-time during training. “I was following the special forces course when we were taught parachuting. From that moment on I said, well I can parachute, why not fly?”

He became an operational pilot in the air force, logging over 3,000 flight hours with jet aircraft. He also flew aerobatics, winning the Military Aerobatic Flying World Championship in 1979. Later, he did a master’s degree at the National Defence Academy in Vienna and went on to serve in several positions at the Austrian Ministry of Defence, becoming the Head of Air Staff in 2001 and then Commander of the Austrian Air Force in 2002.

What’s it like making the leap from air force to Red Bull Air Race? It’s not so very different, he says. “It’s dealing with people, pilots, managing, having tasks and challenges.”

One of the striking things of the Red Bull Air Race is that everyone shares the same passion – the passion for flight. Wolf’s passion is no different, starting as a child when he was fascinated by aircraft, visiting airshows with his parents. “I’ve always been interested in flying, and in challenges like flying.”

One of those challenges is bringing together all the different bodies involved in the Red Bull Air Race and making them work well with each other. What is the role of the FAI at the Red Bull Air Race? Why is it involved?

“The FAI is our partner,” says Wolf, “and this partnership is important for us – because based on that we can name it Red Bull Air Race ‘World Championship’.”

As an independent objective sporting federation the FAI oversees the rules of the Red Bull Air Race. It adds an extra layer of independent rigour to an already rigorous discipline. “The FAI is a kind of supervising body,” says Wolf, “we exchange the rules and regulations with them, and based on that if something was completely wrong they would tell us.”
He adds: “The FAI Safety Delegate is in our tower, overseeing the whole operations.”

As well as the important issues of safety and rules, the FAI have also have the nice job of helping to create the medals for the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. “Gold, silver and bronze,” says Wolf. “The medals have been created together.” Pilots receive those medals at the end of the whole year – they are World Championship medals. They receive trophies for each race, as well as trophies for winning overall.

Those trophies don’t come easily. It takes a lifetime of training and flying to get to a standard where a pilot can fly in the Red Bull Air Race. For young people watching, how can they start out on that journey?

“Join the respective flying schools,” says Wolf, “And be really interested.” You can’t simply “fly for fun” at this level he says, you must be “really on it.” He adds, “You have to study, you have to keep your mental and physical form in order to fly in a safe manner.”

As the race draws to a close in Abu Dhabi thoughts turn to the next leg. “After Abu Dhabi we are going to have the next race in Spielberg, in the heart of Austria,” says Wolf. And he adds with a grin, “This will be a challenging one as it’s over land, not over water!”