An Hour With: Matt Hall: Part I: The Air Force, Aerobatics & Air Race Quali Camp

Sheiban ShakeriSenior Analyst IJanuary 6, 2009

If you were to mention the name "Matt Hall" here in North America, one would think that you were talking about a friend of yours perhaps but the end result is nothing significant.

However, go down under and Matt Hall is a mini-celebrity, as has been told by my Aussie friends!

Matt is a decorated RAAF pilot and has logged thousands of hours in the cockpit, including flying in missions in Iraq. He is also a flight instructor, an aerobatics pilot and an accomplished public speaker–as was observed in our interview.

I telephoned Matt on a dreary and wintery January afternoon (summer in Australia) and we had a chat together. My questions in bold.

Congratulations on making it into the Red Bull Air Race! It must feel really good to make it into the top flight. What was the reaction of friends, family and all of Australia like when the news came out?

I found out a little before it was released to the press, etc. and my reaction and my family's was of excitement, but we had to keep a lid on it. It was quite hard to keep everything in control but once we were able to tell everyone, the population of Australia got excited that they have their own Air Race pilot.

Tell me a bit about your career in the RAAF?

I joined the Air Force in 1991 and joined straight up as a pilot. In Australia, we have an option to not go to university and fly aircraft. I joined as a teenager and went into pilot training. I was fortunate enough to fly fighters and have flown them ever since which includes operating out of bases all over Australia. I have been a top gun and run the top gun school here in Australia, I have been on the exchange program in the US and have flown in the F-15.

You went into aerobatic flying afterwards, what caused you to do that?

 I’ve always been involved in sport aircraft. Before I joined the Air Force, I did recreational aerobatics and I also flew gliders, hang gliders and ultralights. Anything that could fly I flew. I sort of put that on hold when I joined the military for 10 years so I could concentrate on flying fighters and being good in that field.

It occurred that after doing a tour as a top gun, I saw that there wasn’t more to achieve in terms of flying achievements in the Air Force but I still had a desire to improve and test myself so competition aerobatics was the natural way because it wasn’t something that could be done. It was me against other people and I had to do as well as possible so I was dabbling in it.

When I went to America, it was a bigger sport there and I met some people who were well known in the sport like Michael Goulian and really just developed naturally and enjoyed it and moved up through the ranks to unlimited. The Red Bull Air Race came along and I talked to them and they indicated that I’ve got the background for what they’re looking for. It combines basically everything I’ve been doing.

The challenge of flying fighters well and you’ve got to be very accurate and stay ahead of the aircraft as well as flying the aircraft extremely accurately. It also combines the speed I’m used to, the competition and the camaraderie of the team.

What is High Energy Display Flying?

Basically, it’s just a catchphrase that it’s not boring and it’s not lazy and you wouldn’t really call it graceful. It’s like watching a kickboxing fight where there’s nothing smooth. It’s all about the plane doing things that you’re not expecting.

Being a former fighter pilot for a national military force, and when compared to the background of some of the other pilots who were airline pilots or airshow pilots – do you find yourself to be at an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to the Red Bull Air Race?

I would have to say that the training I got in the military is an advantage. Whether I can capitalize on that advantage is yet to be seen. The mental disciplines I got in the military on how to stay focused, how to have very short, sharp, intense flights – that’s the life of a fighter pilot. The flights are short and are usually a duration of a minute and 15 seconds and in a fighter plane that count is about 15 seconds.

It’s a period of high concentration and high stress because you want to win and if you don’t win, you die! In training, we train at that stress level. That sort of mental discipline to be able to focus is a large advantage. Along with that, I have the thousands of hours in jet fighters at high speed and low level – about 700 knots, which is the better part of one and a half thousand kilometres per hour, and 100 feet (300 metres) off the ground. I pulled g for a job and airline pilots don’t pull that kind of g in their job but in the Air Race, they do a good job at it.

During the period when you were at the qualification camp back in late September, there was considerably more media coverage of you in the Australian media vs. that of your other colleagues and their respective national media outlets. Why do you think it was as such?

I wasn’t actually aware of that so it was a good thing! I don’t really know. I know that Australia is a sporting nation and Australians will follow any sport. We have frog races, and any sport is one to watch.

The Red Bull Air Race has been in Australia for three years now and a lot of people who have been watching it have (also) been commenting on it saying that an Australian needs to be in it. Australia has been exposed to it for a long time and there have been a few who have almost got in so there have been a few false starts.

When I finally got in, it was almost like a stress release went off and I wasn’t aware of what the other countries were up to but I knew that I was under demand for about two weeks with about five interviews a day.

How many years of practicing and working out were required for you to get to the point of quali camp? Did that interfere with your service in the air force?

I was only specifically targeting the Red Bull Air Race and working out for two years. When I went to the rookie camp, it was a two year period. But it wasn’t like I started out by going out to the street and saying “I want to be a pilot and I want to be a Red Bull Air Race pilot.” When I considered trying to become a Red Bull Air Race pilot, I was probably about 95% of the way concerned. You could say it’s been a lifelong evolution and I’ve been flying ever since I could stand up and just all the experience I gained over time gave me the qualification and mental discipline that when I put my application in, Red Bull saw me as an asset and not a liability. It did interfere (with my service in the Air Force).

I had to work reasonably hard and the Air Force had to bend over a little bit for me to allow the flexibility to do it. It was basically a year of training in Europe. A year of training in Europe is hard for someone in Australia for someone to duck over for a flight. The transit time I’ve found is about 36 hours to get from my home and back again. We were training for one week out of every three.

I would go there for a one week camp and then come back to Australia for about 10 days and then go back over again. Obviously, there are big time changes and so on. Because of that, I couldn’t go to the Air Force and work effectively or safely because of the fatigue I was under.

Because I had this career for about 17 years, I had quite a bit of leave stored up – annual leave and long service leave – so I told the Air Force that this was something I couldn’t pass and I needed the flexibility to go to Europe to train full time. They were flexible enough. A lot of people had to work a little harder by giving me six months of leave so I could become a full time aerobatic trainee in Europe for that six month period.

Stay tuned for Part II, when Matt talks more about his experience at quali camp, his training and more.

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