Kirby Chambliss: On the Wings of a Bull


By Warren Jones
November 2, 2011


Published in the fall 2011 issue of MyLIFE magazine


PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARTH MILAN/RED BULL CONTENT POOL

OK … LET’S GO!

The rows and rows of pylons fly by as he floats above the water, the sun reflecting brightly off the red and blue fuselage, wings extended out as if they were his own arms. A little boy in a grown man’s body, one who wants it all, makes a living in the shadow of lost seconds between aerobatic twists and turns.

Faster … faster … faster!

Kirby Chambliss, like so many others involved in motorsports, loves to go fast. He lives for those little moments in which the sound of his Zivko Edge 540‘s 265-horsepower engine is drowned out by the sound of his racing heartbeat. Chambliss has been a part of the international Red Bull Air Race World Championships since 2003, but his love for airplanes and motorsports goes back much further.

Bank left … bank right … nose down!

Chambliss’ father, a skydiving jumpmaster, introduced him to the wonders of airplanes when Kirby Chambliss was only a kid. Trips into the sky became routine in his father’s Aircoupe, and shortly after, accompanying his father to assist skydiving students became the young Chambliss’ thrill. At the age of 24, he became the youngest pilot for Southwest Airlines, and he attained the rank of captain by age 28, all the while continuing to pursue his passion for pushing the limit.

Level out … checkered flag!

In the time it took you to read this far, Chambliss has completed the race—a blistering, 260 mph, death-defying, 5-6 kilometer, 12 G-inducing, 20-feet-above-the-water blast of adrenaline. And he loved every second of it.

“I consider myself really lucky,” Chambliss confided. ”Unlike a lot of people I knew early on, what I wanted to do, I just had to figure out a way to do it.”

When he’s not racing in his plane, you can usually find Chambliss pushing the limit on his motocross bikes in southern Arizona. “I like aerobatics, I like speed, I like being low to the ground, I like competition. So, it was a perfect thing, a perfect matchup of all the things I love to do.”

But behind the winning smile, the love for anything with an engine and the two Red Bull Air Race championships is a humble man who recognizes his own mortality and the danger of what he does, and he translates that into being the best father he can be to his 6-year-old daughter. “I really enjoy spending time with my daughter. She loves flying,” Chambliss said proudly. “She’s been flying with us since she was six weeks old. She’s probably got 800 hours of flying time. She can make turns, climb, descend and fly the airplane okay, even at 6.”

So how does Chambliss mix his love for his family and his passion for the occupation? Serious injuries are an occupational hazard in his life. You don’t have a “brush” with death at those speeds—death can hit you full force, like a prizefighter’s first-round knockout punch. Watching motorsport events like Formula 1 and Moto GP gives him something to do with his family, along with giving him a deeper respect and admiration for those who risk life and limb, as he does. “I like extreme athletes, guys who put it on the line. Guys like Travis Pastrana—when Travis makes a mistake, he takes a chance at breaking his back or his legs. Someone like Tiger Woods makes a mistake, he puts one in the rough,” he said jokingly.

As he laughed at his remark, I began to gain an appreciation not only for what Chambliss does, but also for why he does it. Growing up at a time in which a young boy from Corpus Christi, Texas, could walk up to a pilot who was washing his airplane, and—if the boy was nice and maybe helped clean the plane—the pilot might take the boy up in the air for a little while, Chambliss recognizes that in today’s world of increasing air security, young aviation enthusiasts have few opportunities to fall in love with flying the way he did.

“The Red Bull Air Race gives kids access to the pits. They can come in, look at the planes, touch the planes, talk to the pilots … and then they have that energy level towards it [flying]. They end up with a passion for aviation, and they’ll become the new pilots, later on buying airplanes and making general aviation happen. So, we have to bring in young people like that.”

Chambliss will continue his pursuit for another championship while traveling across the world, pushing his body and his machine to the breaking point. He hopes the future brings him his own racing team, along with the opportunity to watch the next generation of aviators take the joystick and give us a show like none we’ve ever seen before.


Normally a friendly and jovial American, Chambliss turns into an intense warrior when he climbs into his cockpit. His flying style is smooth, yet often aggressive, as he goes all out for the wins. He loathes second place, regularly disparaging it the “first loser.”

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