As a boy growing up in Rhodesia, Nigel Lamb dreamed of being a pilot. Accepted by the Rhodesian Air Force at 18, Nigel (now 57) flew an assortment of aircraft throughout his military career before heading to England to pursue a livelihood as an airshow pilot. Today, Nigel is a Red Bull racing pilot, competing against the best of the best on a global circuit in some of the most exotic locations around the world. Derek Royal spoke to Nigel and discovered a man who considers himself extremely lucky to be living the dream.
When did you first show an interest in aviation and why did you decide to become a pilot?
My father was a fighter pilot in the Second World War, and although he didn’t speak about it much some of my interest in flying would have stemmed from there. I do remember though, from a very early age climbing the mountains on the farm and watching the eagles soaring along the cliffs. Looking down and imagining the freedom of flight, even at that age gave me a tremendous buzz.
Were you the kind of kid who built model aeroplanes and read books about flying?
Growing up we lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere; had no television but my parents were avid readers. I loved Airfix models whenever I got one but the house was full of books, thousands of them, so my main interest was through reading all of the aviation related ones.
I believe you joined the Rhodesian Air Force as a teenager. What are the highlights of your time as a military pilot?
I actually applied to the air force at the age of 11, but I was told to go back and finish my schooling! I was just a young kid who wanted nothing more than to fly and training in the military was really my only option as my parents would not have been able to fund a commercial licence. We lived in such a remote location, getting work in a flying club and working up from there was not possible. Being accepted into the Rhodesian Air Force at 18 for pilot training was my salvation.
My first flying lesson was in the Piston Provost on 11th August 1975. To us young cadets it was a 550HP beast, an amazing aircraft. My first solo 15 hours later was an epiphany. After so many years dreaming about flying, several months of gruelling physical toil and hard work in the classroom, always being worried about the failure rate in our pilot training system, I realised that the flying came quite naturally and I had a good chance to succeed. Being solo on left hand downwind, looking across the cockpit and having no instructor in the right seat was an amazing and unforgettable feeling. There were many other highlights but being awarded my Wings was certainly a high point.
What types of aircraft did you fly in the air force?
Piston Provost, Aermacchi MB326, Vampire T11 & FB9, Allouette ll & lll and AB 205 Huey helicopters, Siai Marchetti SF 260.
Why did you leave the air force to pursue an aerobatics career in England?
I always loved aerobatics, it was part of our military training and I loved the idea of barnstorming. The idea of flying around and landing in a paddock, judging the wind direction from smoke or the movement of the leaves in the trees, not having a windsock and not even landing at an airfield, was very appealing to me. I read Richard Bach’s book ‘A Gift of Wings’ which inspired me to try and become a professional airshow pilot. I saw an advert for a display pilot in England, and although it was over a year old, I flew to London and persuaded Philip Meeson to offer me a job flying a Pitts Special in a formation aerobatic team.
You’ve flown over 80 different types of aircraft throughout your career. What are your three favourites and why?
For handling the MXS (my race plane) because it is just the most fantastic airplane for maneuverability. For nostalgia, my favourite aircraft to fly is the Spitfire. I loved flying helicopters too, especially the Huey, it was an amazing machine.
Is there an aircraft you’ve never flown before that you’d love to fly?
Probably a Cosmic Wind, which is a tiny little race plane designed and built in the Second World War or an F16.
You recently won your first Red Bull title in Malaysia. What gave you the most satisfaction about that victory?
I think after getting six second-place finishes over seven years of air racing it’s a great feeling to finally clinch the top spot. After all the ups, downs and disappointment coming away from the race in Rovinj (Croatia, where he finished eighth), this is the payoff. I have learnt a lot, to know the balance between taking risks and not risking too much. It’s a great feeling. It’s a team effort, including my hard working long-time technician – the look on his face alone was sufficient reward. Breitling have been hugely supportive over many years and the Red Bull Air Race organisation put on a fantastic race and event in Putrajaya, Malaysia, and I look forward to future races out in Malaysia.
How do you prepare for a race?
Somehow you have to find a balance between being too relaxed and too ‘hyped up’. You need to be feeling ‘sharp’ but not under so much pressure that you do not fly in a natural precise and smooth manner. It’s very important that when you start the engine you are looking forward to the race and that you’re mentally and physically prepared. You’re focused, know exactly the line you want to take, and you’re not thinking about anything else. In order to do this I will have studied the track and used training and qualification day to find my best line, then it’s just down to me to stay focused. I try and give myself at least 45 minutes before strapping in to really get my mind in tune to bring the best out of myself and the machine and feeling absolutely on top of my game.
Tell me about your training regimen, including mental, physical and nutritional.
You have to have very strong body-core and neck muscles to withstand the high ‘G’ forces and stress from the 400?/second roll rate. You need to have good techniques and exercises for looking after your back and your neck. We specifically train these muscle groups to deal with the pressure.
Good aerobic fitness is essential so I aim for 40 minutes running or racquetball three times a week. My preference is racquetball, which also helps improve mental agility as well as strategy, reflexes and satisfying the desire to win. In addition, I have some exercises I try to do three-to-four times a week for about 20 minutes each time. It’s a mix of Yoga and Pilates, stretching and core exercises, also using a TRX suspension trainer. All this is easy to do in your hotel room, which is helpful when we arrive on location sometimes a week before race day.
Tell me about your support team and their importance to your success and wellbeing.
To be in the perfect frame of mind when you turn the key to go racing, you need a very well-oiled and supportive team. I am very lucky to have a huge support network from a number of different parties, which is crucial to keep me focused and able to fly in the best way I can, not having to think about anything else other than what I need to do in the track. I have known my technician Nigel Huxtable for over 30 years and trust him completely to have the aircraft race ready and in top spec. Hux is very good at setting things up so I know everything’s done, if he says “all good” I don’t even have to question it. Our Team coordinator Vicky ensures that as much of the pressure which comes from a variety of directions before and during race week is dealt with and deflected from me. Breitling continue to be a massive support and have been now for a number of years since I joined with the Breitling fighters in 1999. They understand aviation like no other sponsor I have been involved with, and have been connected within aviation since the very early days. I am also blessed with an amazing family who are incredibly supportive, my wife Hilary was an aerobatic pilot so totally gets it!
What qualities are needed to be a Red Bull racing pilot?
The ability to operate a very high performance flying machine extremely close to the ground without thinking about what you’re doing with the controls. You also need to be very analytical about your own flying and the characteristics of the aircraft so you can get the most from it. Above all you need to be self critical in all respects and have a balanced perspective about risk taking.
How has the Red Bull air race series evolved over the years?
You only need to look at the TV product from 2005 and compare it to 2014 to see how the sport has evolved! At the beginning, there was too much that was subjective and the aircraft were not so equal in performance. Whereas you could fly in a ragged manner and rely on having the fastest machine to win, now the aircraft are much more equal.
Tell me about the popularity and celebrity of being an air racer?
I like to see how popular the air race has become because it’s great for aviation but I really don’t think it has generated much of a celebrity status for the pilots.
Apart from winning in Malaysia, what has been the highlight of your Red Bull career?
Simply being part of something that is popular not only with aviators but connects easily for those who love the spectacle and the simplicity of a competition which involves man, machine and time.
Do pilots on the racing circuit develop friendships with each other or is it too competitive for friendships?
There are many friendships within the pilot group. These are genuine friendships, which have a slightly different edge on Qualification and Race days.
What are the biggest challenges of being on the race circuit?
Being in the perfect physical and mental state when you start the engine to go racing. It’s tough to achieve this.
What gives you the most satisfaction as a race pilot?
I would not like to win without the respect of my fellow competitors. It would not do to win with an unfair advantage of any kind.
What makes the MXS the ideal aircraft for you?
I first started off flying the MX2 in the air race, I liked the way the aircraft handled and so when it came to moving onto a single seater aircraft it was a natural progression to purchase the MXS. It handles like no other aircraft I’ve flown, and we’ve spent years making modifications to help with the aerodynamics, with the addition of the winglets etc; but there are still further changes I would like to make to help with aerodynamic drag reduction. It has been great to see that so far this season both of us who fly the MXS aircraft have been very competitive which gives me further confidence in the machine.
What is your single-most satisfying aviation experience?
Winning in Putrajaya ranks high but the day I went solo in a Rhodesian Air Force Piston Provost on 10th September 1975 is at the top simply because with it came the realisation I really was capable of getting my Wings. Everything I’ve done in flying since then is based on that single milestone.
What are your hobbies and interests outside aviation?
I enjoy playing sports; racquetball keeps me fit and I also play golf with some friends in the village – we have quite a competitive rivalry going on and it’s a good afternoon out! Often I will be playing some kind of sport with my three sons and we usually have a project or two going on in the work shop – working on an old car, bikes, motorbikes or other fun projects. We like to ski as a family and some of us have scuba licenses though we don’t dive as much as we’d like.
What does the future hold for Nigel Lamb and your racing team?
I’ll see how this season goes, and what opportunities arise for the future. I will keep racing for as long as I can whilst I feel I’m competitive and at the top of my game. Looking beyond that, I will probably concentrate on vintage aircraft and continuing flying at air shows with interesting airplanes as a hobby.
Finally, if I was to interview a group of your friends, how would they describe you?
Since I have always earned my living from what is my passion and I have a fantastic wife and family I guess they would describe me as . . . LUCKY!