Guest writer Paul Fiddian speaks to Hungarian aerobatics ace and Red Bull Air Race co-founder Péter Besenyei about his aviation career, the fantastic Corvus Racer 540 design and the reactivated RBAR series, with contributions from several of the aerobatics world’s elite.
Péter Besenyei’s spellbinding performances at Hungary’s Kecskemét International Airshow 2013 were, for me, among that event’s absolute highlights. I’m an aerobatics devotee, true, but I can’t imagine too many other spectators weren’t also impressed, especially the local attendees to whom Péter is a national hero. Four-plus decades long, Péter’s career in aviation is richly varied and includes competition aerobatics, air racing, flight-testing and dynamic airshow flying, with approximately 8,000 flying hours accumulated along the way. One of the aerobatics scene’s most charismatic and vibrant characters, Péter is also an inspiration to many of its leading pilots. For multiple Women’s World Aerobatic Champion Elena Klimovich, Péter was “…already an established master in aerobatics when I participated at the international competitions for the first time – one to take for a model.”
The current World Aerobatic Champion, François Le Vot, was similarly inspired. “Péter has been an emblematic figure in sport aviation for years”, he tells me. “I discovered him ten years ago when I started my aerobatics career, and began to watch for ideas and examples on the internet. On the ground, I think everybody enjoys his relaxed attitude – he’s always at ease”, while in the air, “…he’s always been an example to follow. He’s that kind of guy who appears naturally gifted – flying is second nature for him.” According to Le Vot, Péter is also highly focused and composed – a combination that’s very likely contributed to his longevity and success. “I particularly remember a sequence that struck me forever”, he recalls. “In this sequence, we could see Péter, flying only a few metres above the ground at full speed, perfectly relaxed and taking time to look at his watch. This sequence and this image summarises perfectly Péter’s casual attitude and his spirit.”
Péter Besenyei was born on 8 June 1956 in Körmend, western Hungary. Six years later, his parents moved him some 200 kilometres east, to a property in Budaörs on the edge of the local airfield’s boundary. Operational since the late 1930s, Budaörs airfield had already seen much aviation activity in years past, both military and civilian. In post-Revolution Hungary, it had passed into the Hungarian Aeronautical Association’s hands and, so, become a sports flying centre, whose activities Péter was well-placed to observe. “I saw aeroplanes for the very first time – aerobatic aeroplanes doing loops, spins and rolls and it amazed me”, he explains. “Since this time, I wanted to be a pilot. I was too shy to get into the airfield so, for very many years, I just watched the planes from outside. Then, when I was 15, I went to Dunakeszi airfield and started to fly [The Ministry of Light Industry Aviation Club’s] gliders.”
Glider-flying continued throughout Péter’s teenage years, leading to him flying a Super Futár-series design in a “classic glider distance competition” when aged 20. Initially, he was in the lead but, after his barograph malfunctioned and the results weren’t recorded, a zero score was awarded. However, this only marred one event’s results and, ultimately, Péter was placed second overall: a very impressive outcome. From gliders, Péter moved on to powered aircraft at the age of 24 when, back at Budaörs, he was trained to fly the Czech-built Zlin Z-526 Trener-Master. It was in a single-seat Zlin model (“maybe a Zlin Z-226 or -326”) that he first soloed and soon, he moved onto aerobatics , getting to competition standard within a matter of months. In 1982, Spitzerberg, Austria, hosted the 11th World Aerobatic Championships. “I was not ready for that”, says Péter, “[but] I was in the Austrian National Championships and I won all the four programmes in a Zlin Z-526.”
Two years later, by now flying a very new Zlin Z-50LA, he was the highest-placed of his country’s entrants in the 1984 World Aerobatic Championships, held on home ground in Békéscsaba, Hungary. Placed twelfth, he set in motion a competition career which included no less than ten Hungarian National Championships wins and which, internationally, peaked in 1995 at that year’s European Aerobatic Championships in Hradec Kralové, Czech Republic. Here, he finished in second place overall, winning two programmes including the Four-Minute Freestyle: the international competitive aerobatics programme in which the highest-ranked pilots can demonstrate their creativity outside the fixed-manoeuvre limits of the standard Known and Unknown programmes – a perfect platform for Péter’s exceptional talents and the element of aerobatic competition flying that he most enjoyed.
Fluid but always tightly-structured, his rhythmically dynamic and visually appealing Freestyle programmes included super-precise flick rolls, huge descending tumbles and – a real Besenyei hallmark – characteristically fast-paced direction changes. “In Russian, Péter’s surname sounds close to ‘mad'”, says Elena Klimovich. “The way he flies his Freestyle and his surname gave him an affectionate nickname – ‘The Mad Hungarian'”. According to Patrick Paris – a three-time World Aerobatic Champion: “Péter has a fantastic capacity to fly, at very slow speed, very spectacular manoeuvres…within an extremely narrow box. He has a very good feeling with choreography and flies a very nice Freestyle synchronised with music, which is very difficult to do and very nice to watch when done perfectly as he does.”
Péter is no longer active in competition aerobatics but the same qualities are still very much a part of his airshow routines. Following the same, improvised pattern as did his Freestyle programmes, they’re framed by those sharply-inputted axis shifts, pulling him up and away from the A (crowd-parallel) and B (right-angled to the crowd) lines. No two displays are ever the same but they’ll generally conclude with a series of passes, including an incredible ‘Crazy flight’ demonstration. How did this take on freestyle aerobatics start and just what is its ongoing appeal? “When I was young I used to play piano and I liked improvisation with the instrument”, Péter remembers. “If a musician uses just a small amount of voices…by a time, it can be boring! I like unexpected voices, new combinations and [using] a wide area [of the keyboard] and I try to do the same with the aeroplane.
“Freestyle is my favourite – to fly in every second, or every five seconds, what I want and what the plane wants to do is using the three dimensions and you can dance in the sky…it’s a great, great feeling of freedom. Sometimes when I’m practicing – just flying for myself – I start to play with the plane and see how it will react. I try different things, let the plane do what he wants and then if I feel “ok, that’s nice!”, then I’m happy. Sometimes the plane doesn’t want to do something and I don’t force it. You have to play together with the plane and that’s how I find new manoeuvres. Of course, if I’m flying an airshow, or the Freestyle Programme, I don’t try new manoeuvres but depending on my position, the position of the sun, the position of the public and the wind – and depending on my actual mood and that of the aeroplane – I’ll just improvise and always try to make it more interesting and more exciting.”
Fuelling Péter’s imagination and creativity, advances in unlimited aerobatic aircraft technology have helped raise these interest and excitement levels. From the Zlin Z-526 and Z-50, Péter progressed in the early 1990s to the two-seat EA-300 – the start of a lengthy relationship with Extra Flugzeugbau/Extra Aircraft types. Much more recently, he’s been flying a remarkable high-performance aircraft designed to his own specifications: the supremely strong and agile Corvus Racer 540. Of all the types he’s flown, which does Péter consider his favourite? “I must tell you, somehow, I enjoy the Zlin Z-50 very much because it’s a very nice, very honest aeroplane but, of course, it’s of its time and not really as good as planes nowadays. Now, I really enjoy the Corvus because it’s very light, very easy and very precise. In all in my career, I always had a problem with altitude and I could not fly as fast or as difficult as I wanted because I was limited by the horsepower. In the Corvus, I can really fly what I want: a dynamic airshow programme without losing altitude and suffering with low energy.”
Péter’s involvement in the Corvus Racer 540 programme began in 2007. Having sampled Hungarian firm Corvus’ preceding design, Péter was highly impressed, both with the aircraft and “the quality of the factory” behind it. “I met the chief designers and I said to them: “I can see the quality of your plane. Can you design a racing plane for me?” They said “yes” immediately! I just knew what I needed and I told them – they listened to my ideas and they designed it according to these.” It took the Corvus team some 15,000 hours to engineer the design and, by early 2010, the Racer 540 was ready to be flight-tested. Unfortunately it wasn’t, at first, a satisfactory performer. “Corvus expected a big “wow” but I told them “that’s not good yet”. We had to go this way and that way with the modifications because, the first time, the ailerons were really awful – slow and heavy. So it took a couple of months but, finally, we made the ailerons light, precise and quick.”
The Racer 540 made its public flying debut in June 2010 at that year’s fourth Red Bull Air Race: the event series for which Péter’s probably best known on the global stage. Péter is, justifiably, widely-credited as the co-creator of the Red Bull Air Race, the roots of which go back to 1996. In that year, the first FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) World Grand Prix was staged at the then-newly opened Tajima Airport in Japan. Involving unlimited-level freestyle aerobatics flown to music, the event was staged 25 more times over the following 12 years and Péter participated in all but three editions, winning on seven occasions and only once finishing below fifth place.
In 2001, Red Bull-sponsored Péter met with company owner Dietrich Mateschitz and discussed setting-up an equivalent event. “That was the first step but, finally, he said he didn’t want to be a spoiler for someone else’s idea…but let’s create our [own] idea. Let’s make a race like in Formula One – a race in the sky in which the results are not depending so much on the judges – not so subjective – but depending on certain times.” Told to go home and think about what could be done, Péter pretty soon came up with a new plan. “I was not happy to not have the Red Bull Grand Prix but within a few weeks I came back with the drawings and the ideas”, he recalls. The three-dimensional low-level pylon-racing template that evolved was subsequently seen by spectators in 18 nations between 2003 and 2010. Four more join the list in 2014, with the Red Bull Air Race’s return after a three-year absence.
Initial Air Race events involved a variety of types but, over time, the line-ups become more standardised as the very capable Zivko Edge 540 showed its competitive strengths and become the generally-favoured mount. Amongst the other changes implemented in the reignited racing series, all competing aircraft types must now be equipped with the same engine – a 300 horsepower-rated Lycoming Thunderbolt series model – a factor that will go a long way towards creating a level playing field. “The variation is maybe less than two per cent each”, says Péter. “Before, it was a big, big difference: for example, I had an engine which was 310 horsepower, when most of the other guys had 400 horsepower engines. Engines sometimes on the limit are not the best for safety, especially if you are flying in the cities. So, the race will be more interesting and even more safe than before and the results will be more fair, because they’re not depending so much on the engine but depending maybe on the aeroplane and mostly on the pilot.” Hotly-anticipated, the revitalised Red Bull Air Race series begins in Abu Dhabi on 28 February, concluding in China on 2 November. It lands in the UK on 16-17 August at Ascot Racecourse – a venue well known for fast-paced sporting action.
Given all he’s achieved in aviation, is there anything still in Péter’s sights? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he wants to win the Red Bull Air Race series outright, in the Corvus Racer. If that happens, it’ll be a double-victory, both for Péter and for Hungarian aircraft design. “That will be the best because I think there’s the potential in the Corvus and I want to see the guys in the factory very happy because they’ve worked a lot. So, if I can ride the Corvus into the first position, that would be great.” Finally, what one piece of advice does Péter have for any other pilot wanting to emulate his success? “The most important is motivation. From the outside, it looks easy but if you have a result, there’s always a lot of work behind it. You need some talent of course but, if you want to be on the top of any kind of sport, you need to have lots of motivation. So…never give up!”
One of aviation’s most enduring talents and engaging personalities, 40-plus years into his career, Péter Besenyei shows no sign of slowing down just yet. Here’s wishing him every bit of success in the Red Bull Air Race and all else he pursues in seasons ahead.
Sincere thanks to François Le Vot, Elena Klimovich and Patrick Paris for their contributions to this article. Huge thanks to Péter Besenyei for his time and for giving me an enjoyable and memorable interview.