Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
Aviation has captivated aviators, enthusiasts, and the curious since the Wright Brothers’ 12-second flight. Since then, thousands of people worldwide gather to watch the Reno Air Race, the Paris Air Show, the EAA AirVenture, Sun ‘n Fun International, and the FAI World Aerobatic Championships just to name a few.
Combining the thrill of an air race, the excitement of aerobatics, and the delight of modern aircraft, the Red Bull Air Race has mesmerized the watching audience since 2005. 23 of the world’s best aerobatic pilots maneuver between pylons at top speed in an aerial racetrack over 8 different cities, each gunning for the podium.
Replacing former Champion and now Hall of Fame pilot Nigel Lamb, Mikael Brageot stands ready at the starting gate with his eyes focused on that podium. This will be no easy feat with so many well-experienced pilots having the same goal in mind, but not impossible. Winning the 2014 Challenger Class championship, being the youngest to win several international aerobatic championships, having been mentored by none other than Nigel Lamb and his team, and flying in the ultra-cool, very fast Breitling MXS-Skyracer, makes a win for the podium even more possible.
Just before one of his races, I was able to catch him over the phone for an exclusive interview:
Mika: Hello, good morning Aki.
Aki: Bonjour Mika! I know you must be very busy. Thank you for taking the time.
Mika: You are very welcome. It is a pleasure.
A: You’re from Villeneuve sur Lot, France. What is incredible is that you took your first flying lesson at age 11. What inspired you to become a pilot?
M: Yes, that’s right, Villeneuve sur Lot. It started in March 1999 when my grandfather took me to the flying club to discover aviation. He just wanted see if I can fly and become familiar with an aircraft -that was it. With no clue or idea about the future possibility, it was my grandfather that pushed me into this world of aviation.
A: Situated between Bordeaux and Toulouse, besides the airport, what was your “playground” while growing up? Tell me about your upbringing.
M: My parents were running shops, so in my young age I spent a lot of time in every single corner of the city. I was playing in the streets and was known by everyone -basically a street kid, one of the children of the city. But occasionally I spent time with my grandparents in the countryside. Villeneuve is in the southwestern part of France, a very beautiful part of France. All parts are beautiful, but here is very characteristic, so it’s my favorite.
A: What was your first aircraft, and how was that first flight experience? Frightening? Exciting?
M: I had two flights in the Cessna 150, then I switched to the French RF6B -a low wing 2-seater. And my experience, well, you know it’s such a big world. It was an immediate revelation for me. Being up there, I wanted to look everywhere at the same time. Those 30 minutes wasn’t enough and I wanted more. It was simply amazing! As soon as my flight lesson was over, I was already thinking of the next one, and the next one after that. I wanted to discover more and new things -first with the landscapes, more tricks, more techniques, just more and more. It’s still the same case today when I’m training or in a race -I can’t wait to fly again because of wanting to become better, learn more things, improve my skills, it’s always the same feeling.
A: You said your grandfather introduced you to aviation. Why do you think he did that?
M: My grandfather wasn’t a pilot or anything. He just wanted me to discover something different. It was just to introduce me to an aircraft and nothing else. It was only by chance that led me to this.
A: So basically, your fans and everyone else in the world that watches you up in the sky owe a special thanks to him.
M: Exactly! He pushed me in this first step which led me to aerobatics. Of course aviation is such a big world, especially in the U.S. and France. Thanks to my grandfather for pushing me into this world which gave me this path.
A: With so many areas in aviation, you could have gone to the military, or became a commercial pilot, or pretty much anything. What led you to aerobatics?
M: After 5-6 months of basic training, you start learning some aerobatics, learning recovery techniques is standard. We experimented with some aerobatic maneuvers such as flying upside down to see what we couldn’t see with basic flying. At the end of these basic aerobatic maneuvers, that was it -that’s what I wanted to do, to continue flying aerobatics at 12 years old. But I had 3 more years before my solo flight because of my age.
A: Many pilots steer away from aerobatics. Do you think it takes a “special breed”, or something in your blood or mentality to want to become an aerobatic pilot and racer?
M: For me it’s something exceptional to be an aerobatic pilot. In my personal point of view, it was my ultimate goal from the beginning to fly aerobatic at the highest level. When you have a dream, you think you can’t reach this dream, and this made the dream real. You have to imagine it to dream it. Every single pilot has to try aerobatics. For most of them it becomes exceptional -something they love. While others don’t like it. There is no in-between.
A: For you it seems to have been a thrill. Something you excelled at.
M: Exactly! And it’s a never ending activity. You increase your skills, learn new maneuvers, enter a contest and competition. In France there are 8 levels from scratch-beginners to the unlimited level. Even at the top, you’re still learning and discovering. It’s a never-ending activity. It’s what I love about it!
A: Is this what Breitling means that you represent the future of aerobatics. If you go to their website, that’s how they describe you. Can you expand on that?
M: Well, I’m young and I used to be the youngest pilot in the French National Team. And I’ve been flying as a professional aerobatic pilot for a few years now. Being a person dedicated to this, flying air shows, in brand new different aircraft, this is what we can call the future. In a constant progression, always going forward. I’m always trying to push the limit to something new.
A: Basically pushing the barrier beyond the norm.
M: Exactly. Always looking into the future but not in the crazy experimentation kind of way.
A: Nigel Lamb was doing the same thing. He had an analytical team constantly watching his flight path, streamlining his technique, and propelling him to win the 2014 Championship. Are you using the same team?
M: Yes! The team is the same. And talking about the future, we decided to experiment with a mentoring program. Since it didn’t exist before, we put together a plan to present it to Red Bull and Breitling. This is the meaning to representing the future. Always thinking about the activity, aviation, aerobatics, and air race. To develop it not by burning the wings, but progressing in a efficient way.
A: In other words, you’re not a daredevil/risk-taker, but still always looking for ways to progress forward with better maneuvers, faster lines, or something new with the air race.
M: Although there’s always a risk, we’re not really risk-takers. We’re risk-managers. Just to see what we can do and how to do it.
A: You were the youngest to represent France on its National Aerobatics team, winner of multiple medals in the European and World Championships, and the Red Bull Air Race Challenger Class. Of all these accomplishments, which was your proudest moment?
M: That’s a good question -they were all special. If I had to choose though, I would say there were two moments -the World Championship when I was in front of a big crowd, standing there with my national anthem playing. And the exact same feeling was in Dallas when I took my first ever win in the Red Bull Challenger Class. When you win for the first time, it’s the most satisfying and emotional thing you can feel. When you start in aerobatics, when you do something new, it’s a kind of practice. You’re proud of what you’re doing, at something you’re excelling at. But when you win for the first time at something that you’ve been working for, it’s something very strong.
A: How was that day in Dallas for you?
M: The whole moment was emotional. Very strong right after the win. When landing back at the racetrack, you wait 1 or 2 hours for the podium, then you realize when you’re on the top step and see the trophy with the crowd cheering, it becomes very emotional.
A: You must have felt like being on a cloud after that win!
M: Yes, very true! And there you realize you did it, and that means you can do it and know how to do it again! You then look forward to the next race because at this point you know how to win and want to try it again.
A: Besides the flying part, out of all your travels, which city was your favorite?
M: Ha! That’s another difficult question because every city I’ve been to was special. Each has its own character. But I can say traveling in the U.S. is great because it’s so big.
A: Now Mika, you don’t have to be biased just because I’m interviewing you.
M: (laughs) No, no, no! For real! Something I love with its landscape and so much to see. We’re in Japan now preparing for the race in Chiba, and the EU is home and familiar to me. I love to travel the world and discover new things, but I also like to go back in “my corner” of the world.
A: I’ve always admired Breitling -their watches, their flight team, and of course their love and dedication for aviation and adventure. What is your connection with the Breitling race team? How did you get involve with them?
M: For me, Breitling is the reference to the watch industry and aviation. Aviation is in their DNA! They’re not using aviation just as a marketing tool. They are living aviation; They are in it; They were there from the beginning; They are part of aviation. When I was young, I wanted a cap, a Breitling cap because it was a reference. Then very quickly my dream was to have a Breitling watch.
A: Who doesn’t want a Breitling watch?!?
M: Haha, yes and I never expected to become a Breitling pilot! That is until I decided to become a professional aerobatic pilot. I can’t say they came to me, we just met together. They were looking for an aerobatic pilot and I was looking for a strong sponsor. Having the same values, it was only natural. It became a dream to fly for them; A big achievement. I’m still living the dream!
A: It seems like it was meant to be, and somehow you and Breitling came together.
M: Yeah, yeah! We have something to share together with our mutual spirit and value for aviation. Being with Breitling is something I’m very proud of.
A: The Red Bull Air Race kicked off something new in 2016 -as you mentioned earlier, the Master Mentoring Program. Having been a Challenger Class champion yourself, how was it being mentored by Nigel Lamb, a Master Class champion?
M: After 2 years in the Challenger Class and a Championship win in 2015, there was nothing better than to join Nigel and discover the progression and activities with his team. It was a step up from the Challenger to the Master Class. To learn and discover the backstage of the team. You can’t really imagine what’s going on in a team if you’re not part of it. I didn’t want to be the guy just watching and observing in the background and later disturb how they do things. The program for me was to be onboard, involved, and be part of the team. To learn what’s going on and see what each person’s job is. That was the big part. Then I had the chance to practice in the MXS in the racetrack -a very big advantage for me to fly a high-performance aircraft. Being part of the team and learn in this way before entering the Master Class competition makes things easier! Of course I’m the newcomer, but I’m not the typical newcomer because I’ve already been involved with them. It’s a special feeling to arrive like that.
A: Is Nigel still involved by your side, or relaxing at home watching the races?
M: He has been at home watching the races, but still very much involved. You know a mentor stays a mentor. As you have your first flight instructor, he’s still your flight instructor where you have the confidence that he’ll always be there for you while you progress with your flying. A mentor is the same. With Nigel, if I need something I can call him. Or if he has something to say, he just sends a text, email, or calls me with any advise he has. He’s still a Breitling Pilot -an icon. And he’s still involved and around.
A: I know you have big shoes to fill with Nigel Lamb as your predecessor and mentor, and you have some tough competition out there. Being new to the Master Class, are you able to use your Challenger Class experience, or are you using this year to gain the experience against your competitors and come back stronger?
M: Of course I’m using every single element I have from my previous experience -with the Challenger Class experience and the Master Mentoring program. The plan is to be competitive from the beginning, keeping in mind that we should keep improving as the season unfolds. It’s a big step up to fly a high-performance aircraft, with the pressure of the media and crowds, on top of the high level competition that comes with the Master Class. Our goal is to improve on our position at each race, never forgetting what it feels like to step on the podium, so that one day soon we might be back there!
A: To help the readers and your followers understand the mentality of an Air Racer and Champion such as yourself, do you compete against the other pilots, or against yourself to do better the next time, or do you take it race-by-race?
M: Ha! You’ll need several pages to go through what’s in my mind. But it’s a matter of staying focused in the race itself with a lot of mental preparation. Race after race, I’m basically challenging myself knowing that I have a strong and fast aircraft. Knowing that I have the capability to fly fast on the track and get on the podium. I’m always trying to improve my results and timing to get faster and faster, while competing against the others. Competing against the others takes mental preparation and brainstorming by not putting too much in this, but to focus on my own performance because I know what I can do and I just need to keep this in mind.
A: I suppose competing and comparing yourself to others become a distraction, and takes the focus away from oneself.
M: Exactly! We have so much to do. I’ll tell you a secret -I prepare myself with a routine for each competition. For an hour and 30 minutes, I go through the preparation step-by-step, working on my mentality, working on my fitness, and get into the aircraft with everything already prepared before I head to the start-gate. Once I get to the start-gate, I have to be dedicated to my flying, to have fun, and give my best following the trainings and preparations. This is the kind of mindset and attitude that I work on all week to be consistent and the most competitive I can be between the starting gate and finish, passing the other pilots and be the best one. The less you think, with all the elements around you, your performance has to be on the track and 100% dedicated and focused on what you have to do with the pylons.
A: I guess it’s appropriate being in Japan, talking about one’s mentality when flying, you have to be in the Zen moment.
M: Yes! You are absolutely right. I just wrote that 2 days ago. I started working with a meditation app in France a few weeks ago that can be used anywhere. They just created one for sports, and high level performance. I’ve been using this to help increase my ability, and help regulate stress and tension. Japan is the best place to think about that. They have the mentality and zen-ability in their DNA. This is a good place to improve this skill.
A: That must be so important, especially with flying aerobatics and the speed of the race. Everything is going by so fast. If something happens at a moment’s notice, it’s best to stay focused and relaxed that way you know what you need to do.
M: Exactly. Basically the first part of meditation is to realize and recognize that your mind goes somewhere else sometimes. And the process is to concentrate to put yourself back into the moment. For me, it’s being in the competition; being in the track; lining up with the start gate knowing that in a few seconds everything will pop up every half-second. This is the kind of thing you have to work on to quickly realize you’re thinking of something else, and boom you come back into the moment. This is the basis of meditation -very very important.
A: This reminds of my flight instruction days, when it was instilled in me to be the plane. Not to control or fight it, but to make the aircraft part of you. This was my zen-mentality of being in the moment.
M: Yes, sure! If you want to perform well with the aircraft, you don’t have to feel it. The plane has to be an extension of yourself. It’s man and machine. It’s not to feel it, it’s to be it. Just last night, parts of the aircraft arrived at the hangar here in Japan, but we didn’t see the fuselage! So we just said, “it’s okay, we can still race. We’ll just attach the wings on me, and we’ll be okay.”
A: (laughing) That’s all you need -just the wings!
M: (laughing along) But of course it helps to have all the parts -a nice fuselage, the wings, and all the rest of the parts!
A: In your own words, can you explain the different race classes in the Red Bull Air Race?
M: It’s similar to car racing where you have different levels. There are two different categories here -the Challenger and the Master Class. The newcomers start in the Challenger Class. You have a nice airplane. Very fast, very maneuverable, but it’s slower than the Master Class. It’s a learning process to fly fast, fly low, and to understand the world of air-racing. You are still competing because it’s a sport and a championship. You, at the end, have to win. When you step up to the Master Class, you’re flying a high-performance aircraft in a very fast track! And all the teams are pushing the limits -you have every person in the team working together for the race. You put all this together in a 1-minute track – this is the Master Class.
A: What aircraft did you fly in the Challenger Class?
M: I was in the Challenger Class with the Extra 330LX.
A: And the MXS-R you’re in now for the Master Class -is it the very same that Nigel flew, or a new one?
M: It’s the same aircraft, but now we call it the MXS-Skyracer. We worked a bit on the plane -we reduced the weight, repainted it, and dedicated the name to the Breitling watch called Skyracer. With this, we’re now working on two things -the racecourse and the performance. But also bringing in new fans with the Red Bull Air Race with a new, cool design -giving it a vintage, warbird look. It’s like we took this aircraft out of a barn after 30 years, turned the key, and went racing. A fantastic image. We related this to the new Skyracer watch -an authentic instrument for professionals. It’s black and white, and
very much like the onboard instruments of an aircraft. Made with a new material called Breitlight -a very light material. 3.3 times lighter than titanium! This links the watch to the Red Bull Air Race: light high-performance aircraft, in a professional activity. Breitling is dedicating the racing experience into this watch.
A: Because I’m in the U.S., I can’t watch the Red Bull air races live, but I have been following the standings. In your own words, what happened in Abu Dhabi and San Diego?
M: The first day was very good for us. We stepped in the Master Class as the newcomers with a brand new design. So we had to show everyone we are there as a professional team -fully ready to compete and put the pressure on the other teams by telling them, “Hey guys, we are here. So watch out!” We were prepared and took the first Championship points we needed. We were in the game. It was amazing and fantastic for us. Then came San Diego. Very nice location; very nice weather; amazing crowds; everything was in our favor for the race. But unfortunately we had a technical problem with the aircraft and it took time to resolve them. At race day, with no training and qualifying, it was not a good setup. On the plus side, we experienced and solved the technical problem; we know what we did, and what we need to do. We are looking forward to be racing again. The plane is working well -in perfect condition. We are ready to prove and show what we can do.
A: As you said, you’ll be using every element at your disposal from the Challenger Class, the Mentorship program, the team you have -basically all the ingredients you have available to help propel yourself against the competition.
M: Yes, definitely! And race after race, day after day, every single second after every single second, we are just building our experience and saving all the elements we have. When we face any situation, we can just react with the right things accordingly. So we’ll use all that to be the best.
A: You’ve been flying for 19 years now!
M: (chuckles) It’s unbelievable, no?
A: Outside of racing and competition, after all these years, what is your signature maneuver or at least your favorite thing to do when up in the air?
M: If I had to choose, I would take an aerobatic aircraft and just do tumbles, gyroscopic maneuvers, use the full deflections of the control of the aircraft, and have fun doing incredible things the aircraft is capable of doing.
A: So basically going up there and go crazy.
M: Not really crazy, but giving everything you have to the machine and the sky to have fun and to realize what you can do with all the controls to tumble the plane, and play with it.
A: Of course, you would probably take any chance you can to go up into the air, but when not flying or planning for the next race, what do you like to do in your spare time?
M: Even when not flying, I like to spend my time in aviation. But outside of aviation, I like to ride my bike back home in the mountainside and hills of south France, and to enjoy time with my wife, son, and family. Just enjoying life and do as many things we can in our free time.
A: How old is your son?
M: He’s turning 3 in September.
A: Would you want your son to follow in your footsteps?
M: My wife is an Air France pilot and flew 10 years in the French National Aerobatic Team competing in the European and World Championships, and she’s still a national performer. We’re fully invested in the aviation world and dedicated to these activities. Our son is really linked to aviation -as you can imagine he loves it. But we’ll wont push him. He’ll do what he wants to do. Aviation or something else. Maybe he’ll become the future of aviation with a new aircraft, or do something else. We don’t know.
A: I know you’re very busy for the next race, and focusing on preparing yourself and the plane. Taking a moment to look up to your fans and all the people watching the race, do you have any words you would like to share and say?
M: Yes, I have a lot to say! But basically, my team and I are very proud of all the support we have from our fans in the world and the public. We see the messages on Facebook and social media. People are waiting for us at the racetrack. This is a very good atmosphere for us, and we’re very proud of this. We will keep doing our best to satisfy our fans and the public watching us by giving the best results we can. We hope to make aviation something that people will love even more.
A: Mika, I really enjoyed our talk. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. On behalf of all your fans and the public watching the skies, no matter what the results are, we’ll always be there for you and the Breitling team.
M: Thank you so much, really appreciate it, Aki! I’m very proud of this. Hope to talk to you again. Au revoir, merci beaucoup!
All images courtesy of Breitling and Red Bull Air Race