MCB HAWAII --
Close all tray tables and put your seat in an upright and locked position. Prepare for takeoff when flying ace Kirby Chambliss takes to the skies at the Kaneohe Bay Air Show Sept. 25 here.
Like many professional athletes, the Red Bull air racer found his love of flying at a young age, shortly after mastering walking. At three years old, he played with tethered model planes wherever he went. Before he was a teenager asking for the keys to the family car to take a date out, his father taught him skydiving. In high school, instead of football, he worked at an airport refueling airplanes to make extra money.
On Dec. 19, 1979, Chambliss finished formal flight school at age 20.
“I still remember what the weather was like the first time I left the ground by myself,” the Corpus Christi, Texas native said. “It’s one of those monumental moments in life I’ll never forget.”
Since then, he’s been a flight instructor, a night freight pilot and, according to him, the youngest ever commercial pilot at Southwest Airlines making Captain by age 28.
But Chambliss’ real passion was aerobatic flying.
“When I was 21-years old, only a couple years ago,” joked Chambliss, “my chief pilot, who was a smart guy, told me, ‘If this plane goes upside down with the CEO on board, I want you to be able to turn it right side up.’ I thought it was a pretty good idea so I took a lesson in a decathlon with an aerobatic instructor. Ever since I turned the plane upside down it’s changed my perspective on flying.”
He then bought his own aerobatic plane and began an impressive career which includes captain of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, five U.S. National Aerobatic Championships, the 2000 Men’s Freestyle Championship, and the 2004 and 2006 Red Bull Air Race World Series champion.
His last Red Bull Air Race World Series race in New York was especially memorable.
“As an American, flying in New York in front of fellow Americans next to the Statue of Liberty was emotional,” Chambliss explained. “I had to keep a clear mind ... you can’t focus on the crowd, how many people are watching on TV or anything except winning.”
Chambliss found a place on the winners’ podium with a third-place finish that day.
That’s by no means Chambliss’ first time performing under pressure. To date, Chambliss has performed in front of crowds as large as 1.7 million and in countless countries, he said.
No matter how big the events or crowds get, he still enjoys entertaining and performing at air shows like the upcoming air show at Kaneohe Bay, Chambliss said.
“I still get excited,” he said. “I practice a lot to get prepared for these shows. I’m an artist, the airplane is my paintbrush and the sky is my canvas. I love hearing people say, ‘Holy cow, I’ve never seen a plane do things like that!’”
He doesn’t forget it can be dangerous, though.
“Any time you’ve been exposed to something this long you’re going to have close calls,” he said. “What I do in my airplane is what they tell you never to do in aerobatic school. I’ve almost hit the ground a few times but I call that experience. You either live and you learn or you die and you don’t. I’ve been very fortunate to learn from my mistakes.”
The danger is obvious while observing some of Chambliss’ stunts.
One maneuver sends his plane somersaulting seemingly out of control for countless rotations. Chambliss let’s the crowd think there is no return for the stunt before he miraculously whips the plane back into control.
After near-death experiences, amazing wins, countless shows and more than 25,000 hours in flight, one may think, “What else is there to accomplish?”
“Like a NASCAR driver, no matter how long I’ve been doing it I still want to win,” Chambliss said. “It’s what I love, I still get a rush and push to win every time. I want to win the Red Bull Air Race World Series again.”
Chambliss is slated to race in Germany, Hungary and Portugal before taking a short break to prepare for the air show here.
Although he has achieved much, Chambliss attributes his success to a passion for flying rather than natural ability.
“If there is anything such as a natural knack, I guess I had it,” Chambliss said. “But it was more of a love for the sport. Anytime you want to be the best in the world at something, you put forward that type of effort.”
For more information on the Kaneohe Bay Air Show on Sept. 25-26, visit the website at http://www.mcbh.usmc.mil/airshow.