When Red Bull Air Race pilots compete, the seat belt sign (ding!) is always illuminated.

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THE TENOR roar of the fast-approaching plane drowns out the collective gasps of 63,000 spectators watching in jaw-dropping wonder, but you know they’re all feeling what you’re feeling: thrill, terror, and awe that translates roughly as, “Holy cow! How fast is he going? How low is he diving? And -- wait, he can’t possibly clear that …” But the questions are barely formed before Mike Mangold’s Edge 540 aerobatic racing plane dives from 1,000 feet to 20 feet off the water of San Diego Bay, clears the first air gate at 232 mph, and begins a series of knife-edge slalom maneuvers that leaves everyone who’s watching breathless.

And those are only the first few seconds of the Red Bull Air Race, a sport that combines aerobatic maneuvers with low-to-the-ground (or just-above-the-water) flying so relentlessly fast and full of mercilessly sharp turns that spectators can practically feel the forces of gravity smashing them against the seats of the planes roaring through the sky. Pilots indeed pull extremely high g’s as they race against the clock -- up to 10 times the force of normal gravity -- separated from their competitors’ times by just a fraction of a second.

Red Bull Air Race’s reigning world champion is Mangold, who not only is a superstar of the emerging sport but also just might be flying the plane you’re sitting in. Mangold, 53, of Victorville, California, is an American Airlines pilot when he’s not flying in the Red Bull Air Race circuit. Air racing is something of an adrenaline rush for the former Air Force fighter jock. “I’m like the guy who drives a bus all day and then gets a chance to drive a Ferrari,” he says. Mangold has always sought outlets for his love of airborne activities, including skydiving, hang gliding, and competitive aerobatics. His was a made-to-order background for the Red Bull Air Race, which launched in 2004 as a three-event series that culminated in a Mangold victory at the Reno Air Races. The sport quickly caught on, and today, the nine-race season runs from April to November at venues all over the world. The Red Bull Air Race has played before live crowds as large as 1.2 million people and to a global television audience of 400 million.

UNLIKE CONVENTIONAL AIR RACES, which follow gigantic oval courses high in the sky, a Red Bull Air Race plays out right before the spectators. The full course is just 3,000 feet long and 500 feet wide. At the call of “Smoke on!” the race begins with a full-throttle dive into the first of a series of air gates, each composed of a pair of 65-foot inflatable pylons. That’s followed by a chicane, a series of knife-edge turns (wings perpendicular to the ground) around single pylons, and after that come intensely tight loops and passes through four sets of gates, some requiring wings parallel, others in the knife-edge position. The margin for error is nil -- the gates are only about 40 feet apart, leaving just a few feet between wingtips and oops. (Hitting a gate exacts a costly 10- second penalty but, thanks to the gossamer material of the pylons, causes no harm to the plane or pilot.) It’s all great spectacle, enhanced by a rock-festival vibe replete with thumping music, aerial sideshows, energetic play-by-play announcers, and giant-screen simulcasts that show the full race, including harrowing cockpit-point-of-view shots with crazily tilting horizons.

“I love it,” says Mangold. “It’s pure stick-and-rudder flying. And such a great format -- you’re right there with us. It’s the motorsport for the twenty-first century.” What does he think about when flying? “One thing: faster, faster, faster,” he says. His strategy for winning? “Fly faster.”

That, of course, is easier said than won when your opponents are 11 of the best aerobatics pilots in the world, flying planes that are extraordinarily well suited for the job. Mangold, along with most top Red Bull Air Race Pilots, flies an Edge 540 single-engine, single-seat propeller plane with a horsepower rating of around 340 and a top speed of 265 mph. With its carbon-fiber wings and steel-tube frame, it is at once extremely light (1,168 pounds), strong, and fast. That exceptional thrust-to-weight ratio allows the plane to pull up to 10 g’s -- more than an F-16 fighter jet. And how does this baby handle? Well, it can roll one and a half times in just over a second.

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BACK IN SAN DIEGO, the event comes down to a dogfight among three men who all happen to be airline pilots: Mangold; 2006 world champion Kirby Chambliss of Arizona City, Arizona (Southwest Airlines); and 2008 series leader Paul Bonhomme of Cambridgeshire, England (British Airways). All three are also veteran aerobatics fliers; Chambliss is a five-time U.S. national aerobatics champion.

In the semifinal heats, Mangold puts away his opponent, Hannes Arch, of Austria, with a crowd-thrilling 1:17.74, the fastest run of the weekend. Bonhomme tops that in the other semifinal, defeating Chambliss by 0.39 seconds with a time of 1:17.59. Each pilot punctuates his flight with a distinctive tip of the cap, aerobatics style -- dives and barrel rolls, loop-the-loops, and spins -- delighting the throngs who line San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina Park and Coronado Island.

But it’s all business in the finals, a race that matches the men who dominated the 2007 series. With the crowd cheering every maneuver, Mangold flies with a style that some call choppy (he calls it aggressive): sharp, quick movements that appear to be on the edge of what is humanly and mechanically possible. Bonhomme’s style showcases sheer speed and fluid movements more than it does heart-pounding aerobatics. The race ends with a victory for the Briton, who defeats Mangold by 1.23 seconds.

Afterward, the three pilots (Chambliss defeats Arch for third place) parade before the crowd, receive their trophies on a podium (there is no purse; the fliers’ income hails from sponsorships), spray one another with Champagne, and drink in all the glory that comes with being a champion of any great sport. But the fiercely competitive Mangold -- the man who was top gun in his fighter-weapons class back in the day -- is not at all happy with second place.

“For me, Red Bull Air Race is 20 percent pilot, 20 percent luck, and 60 percent machine,” he says after the race. “It’s a drag race, a sprint. The top pilots aren’t making mistakes. We all flew clean. It’s very difficult to make much improvement in yourself. So now, I have to look at making modifications and changes in my plane.”

Mangold says his team evaluates his Edge 540 just as a Formula 1 crew scrutinizes every detail of their machine after an automotive race. “We look first at broad categories, like weight reduction.” That’s not easy in a plane that is already stripped to the bone. Bonhomme shed 12 pounds in body weight last year to boost his flying performance. “Then, we see where we can minimize drag: smaller wheels, reshaped wingtips. But for champion pilots, it’s largely about power plant and finding the right balance. We can put in a bigger engine, but then we pay a weight penalty. I’ll talk it over with my engineers.”

Ultimately, Mangold’s mechanical formula will be a closely guarded secret. But his strategy will remain exactly the same throughout the series. “I’ll stay in good shape, fly a lot to keep my g-tolerances up, and in the races, go like heck.”