Nigel Lamb takes time out of his busy Abu Dhabi schedule, to talk to AeroResource's Duncan Monk about his new look MXS aircraft and the ins and outs of Red Bull racing.
Nigel Lamb began his flying career, like many aerobatic pilots, in the Air Force. After 6 years of flying Helicopters, Jets and Piston aircraft, he ascended into the world of aerobatics, leading display teams across the globe, including the Breitling Fighter Warbird collection.
Nigel’s first full season in the Red Bull Air Race series was in 2006, where he introduced the MXS into the championship for the first time, and finishing 10th in the standings. Since then he has improved his results year on year, finishing 6th in 2009.
The aircraft he flies now is the MXS-R, built by MX Technologies in the USA. The aircraft has been developed with aerodynamic efficiency top of the agenda, and is considered a work of art among the pilots due to its graceful flowing lines. Nigel’s aircraft is painted in a striking yellow and black colour scheme, adorned by its title sponsor, Breitling.
Nicknamed the ‘Edge Beater’ (the Edge 540 being the other aircraft in the series), it is constructed from aerospace grade materials, utilising the latest computer solid modelling technology. The aircraft’s minimum weight is 540kg, producing 320hp and a top speed of 220 kts.
Duncan managed to grab a few minutes of Nigel’s time during the hectic practice days prior to Qualifying, which commences tomorrow, Friday 26th March:
Duncan Monk (DM): Its been well documented how you got into aerobatics, but how did the invite to take part in the Red Bull Air Racing series come about?
Nigel Lamb (NL): Interesting question, I knew Peter Besenyei very well through competing in aerobatics against him, and spoke with him in 2004 to learn more about the series and let him know I was very interested. The invite asking me to compete came in March 2005. Unfortunately I was committed to a major film production in the summer of that year, so I couldn’t compete, but I was invited to fly as a ‘guest’ pilot for the last 3 races of 2005, and then the full season in 2006.
DM: The new shark fin winglets certainly look impressive, but who came up with the idea, and was it difficult to implement them on the aircraft?
NL: The idea was through the team and the people that support me. What you see here today is just a skeleton part of the team. The other guys back at home bounce ideas around on how to improve the aircraft, and one of the guys who helps me a lot, said that if I wanted winglets he could give me the name of an American, whose name I won’t divulge, who could provide them. So from the initial idea coming in May 2008, we had them on the aeroplane by December last year. The chain is very long, with many links, from the guy who designs them and the guys who transfer all the data into the right software. I decided I wanted to involve the factory, so I called the company and spoke with the guy who designs the wings to make sure the layout was right and how it attaches to the wing spar was correct etc. The crucial part was the load testing, we couldn’t fly until that was completed.
DM: Are their any design limitations written in the rules that cover the use and size of winglets, or is this a grey area?
NL: No, there are no limitations bar having a symmetrical wing and that the total wingspan must not exceed nine meters.
DM: How have the other competitors taken to your aircrafts new look?
NL: I guess everyone’s very very interested in them, everyone’s made a lot of jumps this year, but after yesterdays results I don’t think they will be rushing out to buy them! What I had hoped to do was get out to the desert test track to try and compare last years tips on one day, and then with the winglets the next day, and analyse the data, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to achieve that. At the moment were 4 seconds off the pace, but I know I can improve on that before race day, but the other guys will also be improving.
DM: What other areas on the aircraft have you looked to improve on during the winter months?
NL: The ailerons are much shorter and the engine cowling has significantly changed, reducing drag and improving engine cooling. We’ve also got a Barrett Engine, and have a 2010 technical spec engine installed, in fact we’re the only team that has this particular engine.
DM: Why do you choose to fly the MXS over the Edge 540?
NL: In 2006 I was looking to change from my Extra, and I had a number of options, but they became limited. It basically came down to the MXS or the Edge. What I liked about the MXS is the fact that it seemed to me that it was the next generation, you know, with carbon composite and thought it was the aeroplane to go with. I didn’t really want to go with a design that’s been around for 15 years and I wanted to go with something that was more modern.
DM: Who do you see as your main rivals this season?
NL: Everyone! No, of course there are the usual suspects, your Bonhomme and your Arch. I would also say never write off the rookies, but there’s 13 pilots who aren’t rookies, and any of those guys who happen to end up in a competitive aeroplane would be a threat.
DM: So what do you think about the 2 new pilots from Brazil and Czech Republic, will they be a surprise package?
NL: I haven’t seen them fly so I can’t really comment, but never write off a rookie, you may get a surprise.
DM: Who chooses the aircraft race numbers, or is it a personal choice?
NL: Well it’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it, but it was very complicated in the beginning, they wanted us to have the number of the position we finished in the previous year. I prefer 10, but I’ve got 9.
DM: What is the hardest manoeuvre/gate to tackle at the air races?
NL: You have to associate that question with a particular track, as a vertical turning manoeuvre differs depending on the layout of each track.
DM: How high above the water are you flying when you go through an Air Gate?
NL: I’ve no idea! You would have to ask the guys who build the Air Gates. They are what - 18 metres high? So probably around half that, say 40’.
DM: Hitting an Air Gate always looks spectacular, especially on the super slow-motion replays, but how does it affect you in the cockpit, if at all?
NL: You barely feel it; sometimes you’re not sure you’ve even hit it at all. You may feel a little lurch, but its nothing really.
DM: How big is the danger of getting pieces of the Air Gate stuck on your aircraft?
NL: The pylon manufacturers have really improved their designing, whereby the pylons disintegrate into smaller pieces so they don’t hang on. The last time I had to get rid of a piece on the aircraft was probably in 2006.
DM: I believe there’s a limit as to how many G’s you’re allowed to pull when racing, what is the limit, and how do you monitor it?
NL: You don’t monitor it, it’s done on feel. This is actually a 16g aeroplane (MXS) detuned to 14g. The Edge 540 is limited to 12g, so they have an advantage as the limit for racing is 12g. Go over that and you’re disqualified.
DM: I notice from your Twitter, you went to the last ever night Space Shuttle launch, how was that?
NL: Awesome, if you haven’t been to a launch, you’ve got to go. It’s more impressive than you can ever imagine, even though you’re quite far away. The closest you can ever be in 3 miles, which I was, as I was in the VIP centre. It was mind blowing, the power, I mean you can’t believe the vibration, really incredible.
Unfortunately, it was at this point we had to end the interview, due to time constraints and Nigel needing to prepare for his 3rd practice slot.
Nigel Lamb went on to record the second fastest time of the day during the final practice session, just 0.31 seconds behind the 2009 champion, and fellow Britain, Paul Bonhomme. It was a huge improvement, considering the four second gap after the first days two practice sessions.
The author would like to thank Nigel for sparing us the time during this very hectic and important practice period, and wish him and the team all the best for the 2010 season.
Also, a big thank you to the Team Coordinator Rebecca Allen, for arranging the interview at short notice.