As a Royal Air Force historian once said: “The engine is the heart of an aeroplane but the pilot is its soul.” For those who love speed, exhilaration and competition, Air Race 1 combines great machines and inspirational pilots.
There are several categories in the sport of air racing, but Air Race 1, commonly known as Formula 1, is organized and managed by three main associations: the International Formula 1 Air Racing Association (IF1) of the US, the Formula Air Racing Association (FARA) of the UK and the Association des Pilotes d’Avions de Formules (APAF) of France. Formula 1 aeroplanes are constructed for racing and most pilots build their own.
The aeroplanes are developed with advanced aircraft technology. Each plane has its own remarkable tale and origin, and every pilot must have exceptional skills, techniques and tactics to fly the aircraft safely to the finish line. It’s a motorsport tournament with speeds up to 450 kilometres per hour at only 10 metres above the ground.
The tournament in late November was the first competition in Thailand and the first in Asia, with many exceptionally skilled pilots competing, including Thom Richard, Stanislas Damiron, Philip Goforth and Steve Temple.
US pilot Justin Phillipson was champion of this year’s tournament. Winner of the “Rising Star” award in 2012, Phillipson built an aeroplane called “No Strings Attached” to win this year’s race. Contributing to his success was the support work of his younger brother Josh.
Another racer placing well in the race was Justin Meaders, who continues to be an inspiration to many, racing and creating aircraft of his own despite lower-body paralysis, while also working with many organizations to help children with disabilities. We spoke to the two Justins on what drives them forward in an unusual and extreme sport.
Mr Phillipson, when did you first realize you wanted to be a race pilot?
I have been attending the Reno air races since I was teenager. I always had an attraction to aviation. At first it was just a cool air show. After I started flying I got more interested in how to start racing. It took 10 more years before I met the right people and everything fell into place, and 2012 was my first year racing. I’ve always enjoyed motorsports and raced motocross for years, so competition is a part of my personality. Air racing is fascinating because it ties four passions of mine into one: competitive racing, aviation, finding perfection and building/ designing
What makes a champion?
There is never one thing that makes a champion. As in every competitive sport it takes a team. Josh has put in uncountable hours on building our plane. We both worked to get it completed but Josh is the one responsible for the details. There are countless other people behind us that have kept us on track. In the end I may be the one holding the trophy, but it’s everyone’s. Focus, dedication, ambition and confidence are what it takes. As a pilot, I need ambition to chase a goal, focus to stay on it, dedication to never back down and confidence in my crew to keep everything working.
What is Josh’s role?
Josh and I collaborated on the design. Basically Josh does the body and I build the engines. He is my only sibling and a bit under two years younger. Even as kids we always were building projects – model airplanes, tree houses, go carts. Josh was in a car accident at the end of 2011 which left him paralyzed from the waist down from a broken back and nerve damage. My rookie year in 2012 Josh was there watching in a wheelchair.
The next year he built a few components for the plane we were leasing and had limited use of his legs. He spent the whole week at Reno in 2013 with arm crutches to help keep balance. We realized we did not have enough money to buy the plane so decided it would be easier if we built our own. We found a project of parts and started to design and build our racer. We had a wing, fuselage frame and canopy window to start with. Josh and I sat down and he designed the shape of the plane. He built the carbon fibre shell and fitted it to the frame.
Every component in that plane he designed and hand-built. He worked on it almost seven days a week for two years. We completed the plane barely in time for the 2015 races and placed a respectable fifth. In 2016 Josh built a lighter fuel tank and tail and we placed third at Reno and first in Thailand. Neither of us have any college training; we study what we need to, research, build, test and learn. Josh and I make a great team. We get along great, think on the same level and have the same goals. Without Josh I wouldn’t have a plane that looks and performs as well as it does. He never gives up, never stops trying and never lets a challenge get in his way. His creativity is impressive. He is more than a crew chief or brother to me – there is no way I’d be as successful without him. As his legs slowly get stronger we might see him in his own plane in Thailand in 2017.
Is racing an art or a science?
There is a bit of art and science to racing. Finesse and grace, smooth flight lines and light touch help make the plane go faster. The turn and angle of bank around the turns make a difference. There is a large amount of mechanicals involved in being at the top. Any old plane can race around at the back of the pack. But to be up front there is a lot of detail and fine-tuning involved. The weight of the plane, where the weight is balanced. Angle of the wing mounted to the frame. Propeller selection, spark plug ignition timing, engine temperature, oil selection– all little details. Some are not worth much but added up they make a huge difference. The trick is having the patience to learn the changes one at a time.
What was your turning point in life?
I feel I’m constantly evolving. I never thought I would be so involved in Formula 1. I thought 2012 would be my only year. Now five years later my brother and I are building and maintaining a few planes for other race pilots. We have a small business of service and components for F1 planes. I also never thought I’d have the patience to build a plane from nothing to something. Josh and I did it in two years. So I don’t see it as a turning point, just life took a slight change of direction.
Three words that best describe yourself?
Ambitious, motivated, determined.
Where will you be in 10 years?
I can’t imagine where I’ll be in 10 years. Family and kids, maybe. Flying somewhere internationally, maybe. A career other than aviation, probably not. My life has gone places in the last 10 years that I could have never imagined, so for the next 10 I’m going to sit back, enjoy the ride and see what’s around the next turn.