A secret of many pilots in Southern California that you will never see listed on any chart is the unofficial San Diego Bay Tour. If you are ever flying around the San Diego area, you must check it out. The flight takes you around the end of Point Loma peninsula and into the San Diego Bay at less than 500 feet off the water. The spectacular views of Coronado Island, the downtown skyline and all of the Navy vessels seem to slowly pass just out the window as you leisurely approach and pass over the Coronado Bridge. While this flight is remarkable for passengers, it can be very stressful for the pilot. You are in San Diego’s Class B, one of the most restrictive types of airspaces, flying at almost stall speed, at an altitude that gives you little options if something goes wrong. You are given very strict instructions to remain in the center of the channel, not overfly any Navy vessel or pier and report back to ATC over the Coronado Bridge for further instruction. If that isn’t enough to rattle you, the fact that two very active airports, San Diego International and North Island Navy Base, are within shouting distance and the downtown buildings are higher than you are at this point just add to the pressure. Despite the challenges, I have made this flight too many times to count and always enjoy it. That being said, I recently watched the Red Bull Air Races fill that same airspace, flying at speeds of up to 425 MPH at less than 75 feet off the water pulling up to 10Gs!
San Diego hadn’t been a venue for the race since 2009 and I, for one, was stoked that they were returning to Southern California. Last year I attended the race in Las Vegas and got addicted but the high winds of the desert proved too much for most of the racing activities. This year promised to be different and San Diego didn’t disappoint. There was non-stop action from the fourteen pilots competing for the Master Class podium. You can see some of the photos from the event below.
The airplanes that these guys fly all are powered by the Lycoming Thunderbolt AEIO-540-EXP engine and Hartzell 3-bladed 7690 structural composite propeller but the airframes are as diverse and customized as the pilots themselves. It all comes down to aerodynamics and pilot skill and maybe a little luck. What if you removed the pilot from the scenario and let computers fly the airplane? Northrop Grumman has created an aircraft that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier and conduct aerial refueling operations, we have a group of scientists that are working on computer learning algorithms, why can’t we create a plane that can compete in the Red Bull Air Races?
I know, I know, probably not going to happen in the near-term with full-size aircraft but what if we created the same thing using sUAS, drones? Taking pieces from Quad Cup and from the Drone Racing League, we could put teams against each other building, programming and competing with small autonomous aircraft. Would you be interested in competing?