Paul Bonhomme is a British Airways long-haul pilot, aerial champion, and about to turn 50. Jeremy Taylor talked to him as he prepared to defend his Red Bull air race title at Ascot Racecourse
The aerobatic extravaganza, often described as the F1 of the skies, arrives in Britain this month and will draw huge crowds to Ascot Racecourse. They will see Bonhomme and other pilots scream through a course of giant inflatable pylons at speeds of up to 230mph.
The Englishman is also on a hat-trick of titles, after claiming the last two series in 2009 and 2010 (the event was then cancelled for three years for financial and safety reasons). [UPDATE 18 AUGUST: Bonhomme wins first place at Red Bull Air race 2014.]
Bonhomme, from Cambridgeshire, will be 50 in September. Can he be top gun again this weekend and retain the title for Britain? Jeremy Taylor talks to the man they all have to beat.
Is age an issue when you are piloting an aerobatic aircraft?
PB Well, you are pulling 12G in some of the manoeuvres, so there would be a strain on any body, regardless of age. But I don’t think age really plays a part. I know a guy called Klaus Schrott, who was an aerobatic freestyle champion in his late fifties.
You do need to maintain a certain level of fitness for the stresses and strains of aerobatics but, like any sport, if you are fit enough to take part and do it a lot, age isn’t an issue. Each leg of the air race lasts about 90 seconds, so it’s not like a five-hour endurance marathon, or a football match, where being young is of benefit.
Why aren’t there any young aerobatic pilots?
Most pilots are 40 or above and there’s a good reason for that. You can learn to drive a go-kart when you are a toddler but you can’t learn to fly a plane until you are much older. Given the complexities of flying, the chances are that you won’t have enough experience until you are at least 30.
How is your body holding up?
Like most aerobatic pilots, I do have some issues with my back. I have a couple of herniated discs from flying for more than 30 years. But if you get the core muscles around those joints strong then it shouldn’t really matter. I’ve been to chiropractors who’ve seen Premiership footballers with worse backs than mine. I have tried wearing a back support but I don’t think it helped much. You need good lumber support in the aircraft seat, so many of the pilots have extra foam or towels stuffed down the back too.
When do airline pilots retire?
That’s a bit of a grey area. It used to be 55 but it’s not so cut and dried these days. All I can say is that I won’t be flying 747s long-haul when I’m 65. I think it’s far more tiring than an air race. The human body isn’t designed for it. Sitting in a jumbo at 3am isn’t good for you.
When did you start fly?
My father was a pilot with the British Army Air Corps and then flew for airlines. Mum was a flight attendant and Steve, my brother, also flies. Dad used to place me in the cockpit when I was a toddler but it was when I was growing up at Cox Green, near Maidenhead, that I really got the bug.
I had to pass by White Waltham airfield on the way to school and I so started off as a dogsbody there, cleaning aircraft and helping out. I messed up my O’ levels because I spent too much time playing with aircraft.
Initially, my father, like most airline pilots said I had to be something else, like a lawyer or doctor. But if somebody has a passion you can’t overcome it.
What was your first job?
I left school at 17 and had a number of jobs. I was a painter and decorator, I laboured on a farm and I worked in demolition. Then I got a proper job at White Waltham and that was how it started. My father only died a couple of years ago and he was my biggest fan. He lived to see me win the world championship.
Have you ever crashed?
Only once and that was enough. It was at an air show when I was about 29. I was flying at 70ft upside down and the engine stalled because the fuel wasn’t in the right place. I rolled the right way up but the only option then was to crash in a field. I walked away but smashed my teeth on the controls.
A friend of mine saw what happened and ran to try to help. Unfortunately, he was a little overweight, ran out of breath and collapsed. The ambulance team ended up giving him oxygen instead of me.
What are your favourite aircraft?
I’ve been lucky enough to fly some of the greatest aircraft in the world. The Spitfire is top of my list because it’s beautiful and very simple to fly. Throw the history of the machine into the mix and it’s unbeatable. The other is the aircraft I fly now, a Zivko Edge. It has a Lycoming 300bhp engine and is very, very fast.
Do your British Airways passengers find out that you are an aerobatic world champion?
Sometimes the crew tell them but I don’t. Occasionally you get the odd witty remark from the back, like ‘not today thank you’. I love flying the jumbo because a bit of variety is good. The fact that one day I can be racing around pylons and the next, flying a huge aircraft, makes it interesting.
If you had to drink champagne for three weeks non-stop, you would soon get bored with it! I feel very lucky to be able to do both. I don’t drive a sports car either; I have a diesel Golf and definitely no points for speeding!
• The Red Bull Air Race is at Ascot Racecourse on 16-17 August