The role of the tactician

It takes more than just the pilot and a fast plane to win in the air race

Gamez and Velarde

When the Red Bull Air Race launched in 2003, race tacticians didn't exist. Today, it's a critical role on every team. But what does a tactician do?

"This job isn't only about data analysis to find the best line through a racetrack," says Anselmo Gamez, a flight instructor, commercial pilot and championship-winning aerobatic competitor who is tactician for Team Velarde. "I work on recommending new techniques for flying and training, and am involved in developing the plane and its modifications. It's learning or investigating everything you can do to get faster."

How it all started
Paulo Iscold, who contributed to the success of retired three-time World Champion Paul Bonhomme, is now Team Chambliss' tactician. A renowned professor, he teaches aeroplane design, flight testing, and applied aerodynamics at Brazil's Federal University of Minas Gerais, as well as designing record-breaking aircraft. Iscold became the first tactician in the Red Bull Air Race when South African pilot Glen Dell recruited him in 2008, and he's seen the role evolve.

"I was designing new parts with Glen and we needed a simulator to test our modifications. We then realised that we could use the simulator to optimise the flight path," Iscold relates. "But it was when I was working for Paul at the season opener in 2014 that we were really able to prove that track optimisation worked."

He continues, "Everybody was flying the VTM more or less vertical, and I was telling Paul that we should incline more, but he was worried about getting a disqualification. Before the Final 4, I told him, 'If you incline and get a DQ, you will be fourth, and if you don't incline you will also be fourth, so there's nothing to lose.' He flew it inclined and won the race!"

Iscold concludes, "That was the day that a tactician became essential to a competitive Red Bull Air Race team."

Not a one-person job
When it comes to modifications, a tactician's duties span from conceptual design to fabrication. However, Iscold points out, "This is not a one-person job. The last two years Jason [Team Chambliss technician Jason Resop] and I spent the winter working more than 12 hours per day to get the raceplane done. We are a team doing a team job, and further we need to bring people from the outside to make things work."

Gamez, too, notes that Team Velarde collaborates with outside experts on aspects like the new winglets that they installed last season. In 2017, the team additionally became partners with leading simulator developer Simloc, which creates flight simulation solutions for everything from supersonic fighter jets to commercial passenger aircraft.

"Simloc developed some tools to help me visualise and analyse all the lines flown by the plane during the Free Practice sessions," says the Spanish tactician. "In turn we give them feedback, because for them it's a great opportunity to have telemetry and flight data from such high-performance flying."

Track analysis and simulations
How are the track simulations created? It starts weeks before each stop, when teams are provided with a map of the track including the GPS coordinates of the Air Gates.

"I have a program that goes really deep into computer science to simulate the plane in the race environment – each team has different software they've developed to do the same thing," explains Iscold. "This program takes the coordinates of the track and tries to find the best line to go between the gates."

Steven Hall, tactician for Team Goulian, usually finishes his track analysis two to three weeks before Race Day. "I use some commercial off-the-shelf software coupled with proprietary software I've developed," describes Hall, who is a pilot as well as an eminent researcher and Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "The goal is to provide a briefing package that shows Michael the optimal line for various conditions, and also options he might consider to balance the risk of a pylon hit or other penalty with speed."

Raceplanes capture data with each flight, and tacticians input information into their analysis programs like the weight of the plane, wind speed and direction, temperature – even pilot reaction time – to plan or adjust for situations that might occur. Data is available so quickly that tacticians can suggest line adjustments on Race Day and even between rounds.

Hall shares, "A good example is the 2016 race at Las Vegas, where we re-analysed the track for the very high winds on Race Day. We formulated a plan to take advantage of the winds, and in extremely challenging conditions Michael ended up flying the fastest lap ever flown at Las Vegas."

The human factor
Another critical aspect of any tactician's role is communication with the team pilot. "You are the interface between the technical side and the pilot," states Benjamin Freelove, who was tactician for the World Championship-winning campaign of Team Falken's Yoshihide Muroya in 2017. Freelove has deep experience as an aviation researcher and flight instructor, and he also carefully studies how teams function in other elite motorsports. But it's his background in formation aerobatics and on the US Unlimited Aerobatic Team that helps him communicate his ideas to a top competitor like Muroya. "I've always felt that's one of the advantages I've had as a tactician," Freelove reveals. "Even though I've never been a race pilot, I've flown those type of aeroplanes, and I can imagine what it would be like to do certain things when I talk with Yoshi."

Gamez, who has flown and competed in aerobatics with Juan Velarde for nearly two decades, has a similar take on his role: "Sometimes that experience and relationship can be very useful. I know what's going on in someone's head during competition at a high-performance level. So we talk the same language, let's say. It's a very close way of understanding and trying to translate to Juan where or how I want him to fly."

No matter their background or techniques, all team tacticians – even title-winners like Iscold and Freelove – share a common goal: continued progression. "Just because we won a World Championship doesn't mean we have this all figured out," Freelove says. "This is a new sport. Everything's an evolution, and there's still so much to learn. We're always pushing."