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Flying low and fast, air racers battle clock

LONGLEAT, England -- When Mike Mangold is zipping between trees at speeds exceeding 250 miles per hour, he has no time to enjoy the view.

''You get kind of tunnel vision," said Mangold, a pilot in the Red Bull Air Race World Series, one of 10 fliers from seven countries competing at races around the globe.

Pilots fly just yards above the ground, swerve through a series of 60-foot gates and perform aerobatic maneuvers on a 1-mile course. If pilots graze a gate, fly too high or too low, they receive a penalty. The pilot with the best time is the winner.

The most recent race -- the fifth in the seven-event series -- took place Aug. 7 at Longleat in southwestern England, where sweeping green fields and the stately Longleat castle provided a picturesque setting. About 60,000 fans came out to watch.

''I'm not seeing the houses go by," said Mangold, a 49-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio, native who flies an Edge 540 aircraft.

''I'm focusing on going through the gate, and then the path to the next gate. You're eyes are scanning, but you're very focused on where the plane has to go."

The planes reach high speeds and are built with advanced carbon composites capable of withstanding 12 times the force of gravity. They can also twist 420 degrees per second.

''We are operating close to the ground -- high speed, high G -- trying to get through gates, flying around trees and we do make it look easy and we can't make light of that because we've all got a lot of experience," Mangold, a former military pilot, said. ''But the thing is, if something goes wrong, we're finished. We're in serious trouble."

Pilots wear fireproof clothing and crash helmets, are equipped with parachutes -- not that they'd be of much use at these altitudes.

''It's a nice seat cushion," said American pilot Kirby Chambliss.

Pilots use four types of planes -- the CAP, Sukhoi, Extra, and Edge -- each valued at around $267,000. CAP planes are easy to steer, while the Sukhoi requires much more work to operate. The American-made Edge and German Extras are considered best suited for the competition because the precision aircraft are agile and can accelerate well.

Pilots earn points depending on their position at the end of a race. The one with the most points after all seven legs wins the series.

Mangold won the Longleat competition by 2.99 seconds, and trails Hungary's Peter Besenyei -- who helped create the sport -- by 1 point in the overall standings. Besenyei placed third at Longleat, behind Mangold and Chambliss.

Chambliss, who is also a commercial pilot for Southwest Airlines in the United States, is fourth in the overall standings. The next race is Aug. 20 in Budapest, Hungary, and the series concludes Oct. 8 in San Francisco. Organizers hope to add more races next year.

''The plan is to create a series that is similar to Formula One in scope," Red Bull spokeswoman Christie Poulos said.

Gill Owen traveled about 100 miles to attend the Longleat event. She's an avid F1 fan, but came away a convert to the air series.

''You can see all of it, whereas if you went to a Formula One race you can't," the 47-year-old pharmacist said. ''You only see them zip past. So, I prefer this."

At the end of the race, fans lined the barricades and shouted for autographs. British pilot Steve Jones, who finished sixth, said he loved competing in front of a home crowd.

''I think you've only got to witness the scenes around here now to see that they were definitely all cheering for the Brits," Jones said. ''We obviously couldn't hear it in the airplanes, but it is nice to see them now."

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