x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

My world turned upside-down in an air race plane

Fear itself was not enough to keep Sophia Money-Coutts on the ground as one of the pilots in this weekend's Red Bull Air Race took her for a spin.

As someone who was ill after a children's fairground ride, Sophia Money-Coutts was an unlikely passenger on an aerobatic flight high above the capital. But fear itself was not enough to keep her on the ground as one of the pilots in this weekend's Red Bull Air Race took her for a spin. ABU DHABI // The capital looked like Toytown from 800 metres, but I had little time to admire the view. "Breathe, breathe, breathe!" my Spanish Red Bull pilot, Sergio Pla Merino, bellowed through the intercom in our helmets as we stormed down towards the sea in our little plane, my head thrown back and my sight blurred.

"You OK?" shouted Sergio once we'd levelled out again. "Fine," I replied, gripping the bars on either side of me with clammy palms, vaguely trying to remember which side he had said to tug on my emergency parachute should I need it. Within seconds, Sergio directed the plane straight back up into the morning sunshine. My stomach pitched like a ship in a storm. Once, when younger, I was sick after riding on the spinning teacups at a fairground. Chances were, going up in a Red Bull plane would induce the same reaction. Perhaps even more violently.

So I had taken no risks with pre-flight food that morning. While waiting for security clearance at Mina Zayed's Red Bull airport, the security guard had offered me a can of the energy drink itself. I declined. I had eaten no breakfast. I had even forgone my morning skinny latte. Pre-flight, I was swallowing nothing that might magically reveal itself mid-air. Before take-off, I was whisked through the formalities with my flight co-ordinator, Andrea Moeller. "Morning," she said brightly. "Let's just quickly do your medical test."

She handed me a form, which asked whether I suffered from various diseases. High or low blood pressure? Diseases of the stomach or bowel? Seizures? Mental or psychiatric disorders? They all sounded like plausible after-effects of a Red Bull joyride, but beforehand I could not claim to suffer any of them. Blood pressure checked, I signed a disclaimer. "If we are flying upside-down, completely relax," this ordered, perhaps a tad optimistically. "Please be prepared for your heartbeat and blood pressure to be higher than usual."

From there we moved to the nearby hangar, and there it was: the gleaming two-seater plane that was to carry Sergio and myself up, up and away into the sky. It was tiny. You see bigger cars cruise up and down Sheikh Zayed Road. Was I seriously going to climb into that and let Sergio take me through loop-the-loops and twisting spins? "Put these on," said Andrea briskly as she handed me blue overalls.

"And here is your emergency parachute," said Sergio, as he talked me through a few safety instructions. "If I say 'Bail out, bail out, bail out' I won't be joking. But we're not going in the sea today," he said. Was this reassuring? I eyed an ambulance parked next to the hangar. "Hop in then," he said, as I stepped gingerly into the front bucket seat. The cockpit seemed a trifle small and spartan. Where was the in-flight entertainment? Where was my cup holder? Where were the peanuts?

"There is your sick bag, just in case," Sergio said, pointing to my right as I was strapped into my seat. He climbed in behind me and we taxied out of the hangar. "You ready?" he asked, and I nodded my helmet. We thundered down the runway and soared out above the sea. "We'll go through those," shouted Sergio, as we wiggled from side to side and dipped through the practice pylons, doubling back and through them again.

In the next 10 minutes, we climbed higher and higher, looped over ourselves and spat out a puffy white trail behind us. "Look forward," ordered Sergio as he took us through Eskimo rolls. "Look back," he shouted as the Corniche appeared over my head. "Look left," as we rolled on our side again. "I'm Maverick," I squealed happily, in reference to the movie Top Gun, as we rolled over and over. It seemed mere seconds later that he navigated us back down, but we'd been twirling about for 10 minutes.

"We hit 200 knots, or about 400kph," said Sergio once back in the hanger, as I was handed my certificate. "And we went through seven Gs." That's seven on the G-force scale to you and I. My stomach was still lurching, but driving back to the office afterwards felt like plodding indeed. How I wish my boring, old car was a Red Bull plane.

Red Bull pilots subject themselves to forces of up to 12G, which makes their bodies 12 times heavier than usual. Blood consequently drains from the head into the lower reaches of their body, which can lead to tunnel vision. "Tense your leg and stomach muscles," instructed my pilot, Sergio Pla Merino, before we took off. This would force the blood back up my body, he explained. "And remember to breathe," he said, adding that it would help maintain my circulation. During the flight's most intense moments, my peripheral vision did indeed blacken slightly and blur. I also twisted a neck muscle as my head was thrown back during a particularly steep upwards bank. But still, it is the roller-coaster ride that beats all others. smoneycoutts@thenational.ae