Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
Mankind has always been fascinated with flight. Whether it’s noticing birds soaring in the sky, kites and gliders floating in the air, or aircraft propelling through the clouds, taming the wild blue yonder has enthralled people throughout history.
Since 2005, traveling city after city throughout the world, the Red Bull Air Race has captivated aviation enthusiasts and pilots alike to look upward as one air racer after another roared by. Maneuvering between pylons, looping and turning through an aerial racetrack at top speed, the racer streaks toward the finish line. In 2014, after a three-year hiatus, 12 of the world’s top pilots competed once again in an eight-city racing tour.
Representing Breitling and Great Britain, pilot extraordinaire Nigel Lamb came out as top dog in the competition to become the 2014 World Champion. As quoted on Red Bull Air Race’s website, Nigel states, “I think, deep in most people’s hearts is a fascination with birds and the environment of the air. To create a sport which has such an easy connect for people who don’t know anything about flying makes the Red Bull Air Race so interesting and captivating – it hooks people between the ages of 5 and 80. Most of them might not know anything about flying, but they find it fascinating once they see a race.”
Born in Zimbabwe, he tried joining the Air Force at the young age of 11. Finally accepted when he turned 18, he began flying jets and helicopters. In 1980, he moved to England and joined an aerobatics team. His passion for flying won him the British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship 8 times in a row, and his skills were put to use in the movies Fly Boys, Hart’s War, and Dark Blue World.
Following the Red Bull Air Race myself, watching him move up the ranks quickly, I resolved to contact Mr. Lamb and he agreed to an exclusive interview once the racing season was over.
Aki: According to your Bio, you’re from Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe). How was it like growing up there? Do you keep in touch with your friends there?
Nigel: I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hills and mountains. I would ride a donkey to school and back, but I knew from an early age that I wanted to join the Rhodesian Air Force and become a pilot, like my father had been in the second world war. Most of my friends that I keep in touch with are guys I met when I was in the Air Force, and we try and meet up as often as we can. Actually, very few live in Zimbabwe now and I have no family there anymore. My wife and I took our three sons back a couple of years ago so they could see where we grew up.
Aki: I remember when I was 5 years old watching the movie The Flying Tigers on TV. That’s what drew me in to the world of aviation. Your father was a RAF fighter pilot in WWII. How did he inspire you to also become a pilot?
Nigel: I always fancied the idea of flying. My father didn’t talk about his wartime experiences much, but I guess the interest stems from there. We had no television but my parents were avid readers. The house was full of books, thousands of them, I read all of the aviation-related ones. When we climbed the mountains on the farm, we would always see eagles soaring along the cliffs. Looking down and imagining the freedom to fly gave me a tremendous buzz.
Aki: Are there any WWII stories from your father that you remember?
Nigel: My father really didn’t talk about it much, and neither I nor my brother and sister pushed him on this. He did tell the occasional anecdote but nothing much, and sadly, most of the amazing experiences he had, I’ve learned since his death on our farm in 1979. I have been very fortunate in my air display activities in England to have met many pilots who flew with my father. It has been fascinating and very humbling to hear some of them.
Aki: How was your first flight experience? Frightening? Exciting? How did it feel?
Nigel: I remember my first flight very vividly indeed. It was during my training in the Air Force. My first flying lesson was in the Piston Provost on 11th August 1975. To us young cadets it was a 550HP beast -an amazing aircraft. My first solo 15 hours later was an epiphany. After so many years dreaming about flying, several months of grueling physical toil and hard work in the classroom, always being worried about the failure rate in our pilot training system, I realized that flying came quite naturally and I had a good chance to succeed. Being solo on left-hand downwind, looking across the cockpit and having no instructor in the right seat was an amazing and unforgettable feeling. I remember the total freedom I felt when I looked across and there was no one with me; I was all alone in the cockpit. I’ll never forget that feeling of being really completely free for the first time.
Aki: What was your first race like?
Nigel: My first race was in Longleat, England. It was a difficult track, and my heavy two-seater Extra 300 was a big handicap. The experience was daunting at first, but I had managed a penalty-free race. I was very happy to be involved in the Red Bull Air Race project -it was a privilege to be invited to race!
Aki: During the 2014 Red Bull Air Race, your overall standing was 8th place early on in the season. Then you came 2nd in the Poland race; won the Malaysian race; and rocketed to become World Champion by the end. What plan or strategy helped propel you?
Nigel: I think I’ve stuck to my original strategy I have had since the beginning of the season, which is to have fun and stay safe. Of course you aim to go out and win at every race, but I think once I had climbed to joint second in the championship, I really needed to stay consistent too, which ultimately won me the 2014 Championship.
Aki: One thing I’ll always remember from my flight instructor, which has always helped me with each landing or maneuver, is to “Imagine being a bird. Feel the plane. Be the plane.” Is there something from your past training that’s instilled in you today? And, is there any big take-away or life lesson you gained from all your flying experience?
Nigel: Absolutely yes! It’s the same with Air Race – you have to be the plane, not just fly it. You need to be 100% prepared and in the right frame of mind, otherwise you can forget about posting a fast time!
Once you have got yourself into that place of feeling completely prepared, and you’re looking forward to coming into the track, it all becomes instinctive. You aren’t thinking about G-forces, you also don’t think at all about the control inputs because the aircraft is just an extension of your body. You’ve chosen a line that you want and you’re doing whatever’s necessary to get your body along that line.
It involves intense concentration with huge amounts of activity going on with air gates flashing past the cockpit every few seconds. There is absolutely no room for complacency, and the satisfaction of a well-flown race is tremendous.
The most valuable thing I can think of that I learned while learning to fly is to be sure not to try to impress anyone; and, of course, the saying which probably came from Wilbur or Orville Wright, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” There is a lot of truth in that!!! We all have limitations so it’s best to know them well and have enough margin in everything we do so as to avoid exceeding one’s personal limitations or those of the machine.
Aki: I’ve always admired Breitling watches, their flight team, and of course their love for aviation and adventure. What’s your connection with the Breitling race team? How did you get started with them?
Nigel: I was first involved with Breitling in 1999 when I was flying with the Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) in the Breitling Fighters. Unlike other brands who use aviation as a platform to promote their products, aviation really is etched in the DNA of Breitling. They understand aviation like no other sponsor I have ever encountered. I feel very lucky to have their support ever since I started in Air Racing.
Aki: What are the requirements to compete at the Red Bull Air Races?
Nigel: You need to have plenty of experience flying tail wheel aircraft. And as far as I know, the entry requirements include reaching a high level in unlimited aerobatics at an international level. Ultimately, you need to be totally at home at extreme low altitude, flying instinctively, and not being at all uncomfortable with the close proximity to pylons, trees, and other obstacles. You need to be passionate about it!
Aki: My favorite aircraft are the P-40 Warhawk and the Beechcraft Starship. Out of all the airplanes you flew, which was your favorite? Is it the Pitts Special you flew during your aerobatic years; your current yellow beauty, the MXS-R; or another?
Nigel: It’s a hard one because different aircraft all have merits in their own right. I think for handling and maneuverability the MXS is just the most fantastic, and I am lucky enough to have one in my hangar!! For nostalgia, I would say the Spitfire. I have a huge love of Warbirds, and I am lucky enough to fly at a few air shows in a MH434 -the Mk IX Spitfire, operated by the Old Flying Machine Co at Duxford. I am also lucky enough to display the P-51 Mustang which is particularly special because this was the last type my father flew in WWll before being shot down by a flak barge in Holland in September 1944. For the rest of the war he was a Spitfire test pilot at Castle Bromwich.
Aki: If you had a choice out of all the airplanes in the world, which one would you personally love to have in your hangar?
Nigel: Ahhhh . . .this answer changes quite regularly! Today I’d say a Beech Staggerwing 🙂
Aki: How do you transport your airplane around the world for the next race? Is it flown, or wrapped up and shipped?
Nigel: It really depends on where the next race is being held. If the next race is on the same continent, we’ll probably ferry fly them. Otherwise it’s either by sea or air freight. DHL does a great job for us when it comes to freighting.
Aki: Is there a race that stands out for you? A favorite or memorable one?
Nigel: My first win in Malaysia was without doubt the most emotional. My first race was at Longleat, UK and I’ll always remember that one because it was tough in my old Extra 300 two-seater with the undulating track. I really enjoyed the incredible atmosphere at Ascot this year -the home crowd were sensational and very loud!! So I can’t wait to go back next August. Spielberg was also a spectacular track… I hope the organization will find more locations like this in the future.
Aki: Which city was your favorite to race in? And from my fellow New Yorkers -will you return to NYC?
Nigel: There are so many cities to choose from! New York was amazing, as so were London, Istanbul, Perth . . . Each is wonderful in its own right. That said, Perth was particularly special because we operated from a park in the city centre and the track was just across the water and the hotel a 2-minute walk. Combine this with a huge, enthusiastic crowd and it’s tough to beat.
Aki: In the world of racing, such as NASCAR, F1, Powerboat, and the Red Bull Air Race, it can be intensely competitive. In the midst of competing against fellow pilots, have there been any tense moments leading to harsh words and fists flying?
Nigel: As you say, where there’s competition, there’s going to be tension. Generally, we all get on well enough during race week -come race day though, it’s every man for himself. You’ll find that in Air Racing, the ones that get worked up won’t do quite so well though. The key is to stay relaxed and to navigate your way through any politics or bad feeling so that your mind is 100% focused on the race -there’s no room for mistakes. In summary, I’ve witnessed harsh words on many occasions but never any fists flying. Everyone shares the same passion, so once it’s all over, there is never any lasting bad feeling. Not that I’ve seen anyway!
Aki: You’re married to aerobatic pilot Hilary and have 3 sons. Is it one big aviation family, or are your sons following a different path?
Nigel: Although none of them have learned to fly (yet), I am lucky that they are so supportive of what I do, and they all enjoy coming to watch me race. My oldest son Max, has finished a degree in Architectural Engineering, and since the fourth race of the season has also been my Track Analyst. He uses a specially designed program to work out the fastest line to fly, and I have to say, it’s been a great help to have him put the hours in and brief me where I’m losing time, where I’ve got it right, and what to focus on the most. He will join the team again in 2015, so although he doesn’t fly himself, he’s becoming more and more interested. My middle son, Dan told me he wants to get into base jumping! I think he’s mad, but I’ve encouraged him to start learning to sky dive, which he really enjoys. Ben, my youngest, I guess we will have to wait and see -maybe he’ll be sitting in my position in 30 years time!
Aki: When not flying or planning for the next race, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Nigel: I enjoy spending time with my family. Often I will be playing some kind of sport with my 3 sons and we usually have a project or two going on in the workshop – working on an old car, bikes, motorbikes or other fun projects. I also play Golf in the summer months, and racquetball to keep up my fitness and strength. This winter we will go skiing in the Alps for a week . . I’ll go slowly (or slower than usual!) because it’ll be six weeks before the first race of 2015.
Aki: You were a pilot in the movies Flyboys, Hart’s War, and Dark Blue World. Do you personally have a favorite movie?
Nigel: I really enjoyed filming for those movies, there is so much that goes into the making -even just one scene can take all day to get perfect. If you’ve not seen Dark Blue World, do yourself a favour! My favourite film to watch? That’s a difficult one but I’d say Gladiator and the Bourne films.
Aki: What’s next for you in life?
Nigel: I am really looking forward to the 2015 racing season! We’re doing modifications to the aircraft and making it as slick as possible before it gets shipped to Abu Dhabi in January. It’s going to be fantastic to get back in the track to defend the title. I think that 2015 will be unbelievably tight. All the new guys who joined in 2009 and 2010 have had a taste of the podium and now know what’s required to win. Next year I would say there’s a good chance that every single pilot will be on the podium for at least one race. I have no doubt it’s going to be a very exciting year for all the competitors, the media, the fans and spectators.
Nigel: What does the future hold for me personally? I will keep racing for as long as I can whilst I feel I’m competitive and at the top of my game. Looking beyond that, I will probably concentrate on vintage aircraft and continue flying at air shows with interesting airplanes as a hobby.
Thank you Nigel. May the winds be forever under your wings as we watch you roar through the skies, racing from pylon to pylon.
To find out more about Nigel Lamb, you can visit his website at http://www.nigellamb.com