When Texas native Kirby Chambliss isn’t at home on his Flying Crown Ranch in Arizona, the world champion aerobatic and air race pilot is cowboying it up — and upside down — in the wild blue yonder.
Kirby Chambliss does most of his flying with his feet on the ground.
Back when the native Texan was a world-champion pilot in the Red Bull Air Race, before the series abruptly folded after the 2019 season, Chambliss believed that each race was won or lost long before takeoff. Now that he’s back to aerobatics full-time, back to swooping and diving and pushing planes to their limits above grandstands full of awestruck air-show goers, Chambliss, 61, still believes it’s all in his head.
“I try to visualize every aspect, every sequence, every fraction of a second,” he says. “I want to visualize from the ground what it’s going to look like for those people in the stands. That’s what really has helped me to win.”
For instance, before a 2018 race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, at the back of the Team Chambliss hangar, one of Chambliss’ tech-savvy crew members had set up a state-of-the-art flight simulator that could virtually take pilot Chambliss through every twist and turn of the race course and mimic the power (at least 300 horse), speed (up to 230 knots/265 mph), and agility (420-degree-per-second roll rate) of Chambliss’ Edge 540 V3 aerobatic aircraft. It could replicate the conditions and pressures he’d put the plane through on his runs. The program could even account for the wind. But Chambliss wasn’t having any of it.
“The simulator is a pinball machine,” he said, loud enough so his technicians could hear. “I’m open to anything; I know I can’t fly by the seat of my pants anymore. I’ll listen to the guys — but I don’t always follow what they say.”
“He listens to about 10 percent of what we say,” said Paulo Iscold, the team tactician, after overhearing. Paulo had spent hours poring over data, trying to translate instrument and computer readings into applicable advice for Chambliss to take up in the air. “Actually it’s more like 5 percent.”
“I can’t follow them blindly,” Chambliss said. “If they put the wrong numbers in, I’ll be flying the wrong way.”
Instead, Chambliss walked past the simulator, over to a crude model of the race course he had laid out himself in the corner of the hangar, using cans of Red Bull to represent the 82-foot inflatable pylons that create the gates he’d fly between and around on the slalom-like course. With his hand laid palm down as his imaginary plane, Chambliss instead walked through his flight path, drawing on decades of experience and the rough calculations of his mind.
Chambliss calibrated that mental simulator through years spent soaring through the wide-open skies of southeast Texas. Born in Corpus Christi, Chambliss has been drawn to the skies since he can remember. His dad, a private pilot, let a pajama-clad Chambliss tag along in the ride seat of a Cessna when he was just 5. Chambliss helped his father build his own plane out of sheet metal before he was a teenager, and he had a job cleaning restrooms and fueling aircraft at a small regional airport all through high school. When Chambliss got his first gig behind the controls of a corporate jet at age 21, his bosses told him he should take some remedial courses in aerobatics in case of an emergency.
“They told me ‘What happens if the jet ends up upside down?’” Chambliss says.
When the young pilot first experienced the thrill of the rolls, spins, and dives of aerobatics, he was hooked.
“From that moment on I could care less about flying straight up. Now I’m flying in 3D. The only limit is my imagination.”
After five years of imagination and work flying for Southwest Airlines, where at age 24 he became the company’s youngest-ever pilot, Chambliss bought his own aerobatic plane, a Pitts Special biplane, in 1983. By 1997, he was a member of the U.S. National Aerobatic Team. He was eventually named team captain and went on to win five national championships and 13 medals at the world championships, including the 2000 Men’s Freestyle World title.
In 2003, Peter Besenyei, a Hungarian-born fellow aerobatics world champion, contacted Chambliss about joining the new Red Bull Air Race, a series of races in which the globe’s top pilots would steer their monoplanes through daunting courses of gates, turns, and chicanes set up all over Europe, Asia, Australia, and North and South America, trying to best each other’s times. The high speeds and stunts at low altitudes appealed to the daredevil in Chambliss. “We used to drag our wings in the dirt,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Chambliss finished on the podium in each of the first four seasons, including two series championships. But as the sport grew in popularity, safety became more of an issue. More rules were added, including a floor of no less than 30 feet above the ground. Still, Chambliss remained competitive, finishing fourth as recently as 2017. In the process, between the air race and aerobatics, Chambliss had logged more than 27,000 hours in the air — more than twice the total of most of his competitors in the adjacent hangars at Texas Motor Speedway that day.
“We have a saying about the difference between 10,000 hours and 5,000,” he said. “It just means you’ve seen it twice.”
The veteran might have made light of his tenure in the cockpit, but he and his crew knew that vast experience would be an asset against competitors half his age who might have relied a bit too much on the technology and less on the feel of the stick in hand. Team Chambliss crew chief Jason Resop said that they often prayed for wind and rain.
“We do well in crazy weather,” Resop said. “He can adapt on the fly. No one drives the edge better than him.”
Team Chambliss took third place that day to the delight of the crowd in his home state, and he finished sixth for the season. The next year, which turned out to be the Red Bull Air Race’s last, he took second in the series finale in Chiba, Japan. The only Red Bull Air racer to compete in every season, he finished his Red Bull Air Race career with two championships (2004 and 2006) and third on the all-time wins list with 10.
When the globetrotting series folded, Chambliss returned to the American West, where he now gets to spend most of his time. He owns the Flying Crown Ranch in Arizona, where he lives with his pilot wife Kellie and daughter Karly. With no outlet for his competitive edge, he instead expresses himself through the aerobatics he performs at air shows all over the world. This is Chambliss as artist, the plane his brush, the sky his canvas. He wants to paint the audience a picture that they’ve never seen before — moves that even Chambliss has only seen in his own mind.
“If I can leave a fan saying, ‘I’ve never seen a plane do that before,’ that means everything to me,” Chambliss says. “The only limitation is my imagination.”
Visit teamchambliss.com for Kirby Chambliss’ upcoming air shows and more information.
Photography: Images courtesy Red Bull Media House
From our January 2021 issue.