A THRILLING RACE TO THE FINISH FOR THE UBER-COOL MATT HALL
With two generations of pilots before him, you could almost say flying was in Matt Hall’s blood.
Born on September 16, 1971, in Scone, it didn’t take long before Hall was following in the vapour trails of his father and grandfather, starting with his first plane ride at the age of two.
By the time he was 15 he was ready to take the controls for his first solo flight in an L13 Blanik Glider and just three years later successfully gained his aircraft pilot’s licence.
Red Bull Air Race World Championship 2016 Stop 5 - Ascot, United Kingdom. Photo credit: Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool.
At the age of 19 Hall joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an Officer Cadet in Point Cook, Victoria – following a military flight path previously taken by his grandfather, who was a World War II pilot.
Graduating Dux of his 159 Pilots course, he was assigned as a Jet Fighter pilot and in 1997 was named the RAAF Fighter Pilot of the Year.
He logged more than 1500 hours flying the F/A-18 Hornet in the RAAF and went on to become an elite Fighter Combat Instructor – or Top Gun, as it is also known.
A three-year exchange program with the United State Air Force saw him notch up more than 500 hours in the F-15E Strike Eagle and flew a number of combat missions in the Middle East during the Gulf War in 2003 – an effort that saw him receive commendations in both the US and Australia.
But despite a flourishing and decorated military career, it was the flying he was doing when he was off the clock that would set the direction for his future in the skies.
Hall had been flying aerobatics in his spare time for many years but stepped things up a notch during his US posting in 2002.
In 2003 he won the US East Coast Aerobatic Championship at the Sportsman level and in 2007, several years after returning to Australia he placed second in the Australian National Aerobatic Championships after taking out the Freestyle section of the Unlimited competition.
Around six months before that win, Hall had his first taste of the Red Bull Air Race, having travelled to Perth with his RAAF squadron to check out the adrenaline-packed event.
The Red Bull Air Race World Championship features the world’s best race pilots in a pure motorsport competition that combines speed, precision and skill.
Using the fastest, most agile, lightweight racing planes, pilots hit speeds of 370km/h while enduring forces of up to 10G as they navigate a low-level slalom track marked by 25-metre-high, air-filled pylons.
Despite his own prowess as a pilot, at the time Hall never imagined he would one day be within reach of taking out the World Championship of the event himself.
“(Seeing my first event in 2006) I thought the same thing then as I do now and that is that this is a really, really cool sport to be involved with,” Hall told intouch Magazine.
“Back then though I really didn’t see myself one day competing in the Red Bull Air Race. It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually believed it was possible.”
While Hall’s career in the RAAF continued to take off – he was promoted to Wing Commander in September 2007 – so too did his success in the aerobatics world.
The same month he was promoted he travelled to America to compete in the Unlimited section of the US National Aerobatic Competition and two months later he entered Red Bull’s radar after they offered him a chance to participate in a series of elite training camps run by former World Champion Patrick Paris.
More international aerobatics experience followed in 2008 when he placed 8th at the World Aerobatics Cup in Prague and 23rd in the European Aerobatics Championships – the latter earning him a berth at the Red Bull Air Race Qualification Camp.
The camp proved a turning point in Hall’s career, with the pilot successfully completing the training in September 2008 to become the first Australian awarded a coveted Red Bull Air Race Super Licence.
An invitation to join the World Championships in 2009 followed two months later, with Hall making the decision to resign from the RAAF and follow a new flight path onto the racing circuit.
The choice proved to be a good one, with Hall landing his first podium finish with third place in Portugal in September 2009 – just six months after he had made his debut in the Red Bull series.
Not only was he the first Aussie to contest the series, the Merewether man was now also the first pilot to secure a place on the podium in a race during his Rookie year.
Another entry into the history books followed, with Hall finishing the series in third place overall – the first Rookie to do so since the Air Race World Championships began in 2005.
In his second year in the event his secured his highest individual race finish to date, finishing second in the Perth round of the event in April 2010.
Another third placing kept Hall’s momentum going, however, he was only able to complete the series in seventh place overall after missing two rounds.
Several years out of the event followed before Hall returned to the Red Bull Air Race World Championships in 2014.
But it was 2015 that would prove to be his breakout year in the series, with Hall securing his first ever race win in Austria before taking out the final event of the season at Las Vegas with a sensational round of flying, only to miss out on the World Championship crown by a mere five points.
Despite the narrow loss, Hall entered the 2016 series ranked number one after the 2015 champion - Great Britain’s Paul Bonhomme – retired in the off-season.
While he may have been in prime position, the task ahead was far from easy with 14 of the world’s best pilots preparing to battle each other in eight races across seven countries for the title.
An uncharacteristic clipping of the air-filled pylons in the first race of the season took him out of the running early in the piece to finish 9th, while a back injury curtailed his efforts in race two to see him finish outside the podium places once again in 5th.
Another disappointing 7th in race three saw him well off the pace in the overall points early in the season – but that’s where things began to turn around for the former Top Gun.
Injury-free once more, Hall took to the skies in Budapest for the historic 70th Red Bull Air Race in July. Despite poor weather conditions forcing organisers to cut the race program short, he was able to secure his first podium of the season, finishing third behind overall series leader Matthias Dolderer from Germany and Austria’s Hannes Arch.
The trio maintained their hold on the top three spots for the round five race in Ascot, however, this time it was Hall on the top-most step for the winner’s presentation, unstoppable all weekend to prove he was back to his best form.
Finally hitting his straps, Hall followed this up with another crucial win in round six, denying Dolderer, a victory in front of his home crowd at the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany last month. Hall said despite his poor start to the season, he was always confident of being able to turn things around.
“It hasn’t been easy but the main thing that helped us was that we knew our processes and practices were solid. They have not changed from last year and if anything have been improved.
“We knew we had a fast plane and that I was a fast pilot when healthy so we really just focussed on getting my health back in order and staying confident in what we were doing.
“In sport, you can never be guaranteed of a result, but we were convinced that things could turn around, and we’d end up competing for race wins again.”
The win in Germany saw Hall overtake Arch and move into second place in the overall standings, 16.5 points behind Dolderer with two races – each worth 15 points to the winner - remaining.
It sets up a thrilling race to the finish as the series moves to America this month, making its debut above one of the world’s most famous motorsports venues in Indianapolis on October 1-2 before wrapping up once again in the city of bright lights, Las Vegas, on October 15-16.
“My battle is with Matthias, and I’m chasing him,” Hall said.
“But in the hangars to the other side of me there are about five guys within about five points of each other, I think, so there’ll be a huge amount of pressure there because they’re looking at either side, going, ‘I could slip further down the ranks, or I could leap up a number of positions.’
“Right down at the end of the field you’ve got a couple of rookies who are going, ‘I don’t want to be the guy at the back end here, I’ve got to get every point I can,’ so all the way through the paddock, there are these little battles going on.
“My battle is for the world championship. But there are battles all the way through the field.”
While Hall will be feeling plenty of pressure going into the final two races, there’s no doubt that with his background in the RAAF it’s something he’s well equipped to deal with.
And although Hall is quick to brush off the notion of him having any unique attributes that allow him to handle these sorts of situations and this level of flying, he is willing to share the “secret weapon” he believes has helped get him to where he is today.
“I’m just a normal guy from the Hunter who has worked incredibly hard. I wouldn’t say I have any super talent or anything like that but if there was one attribute that has contributed the most to any success it has been the ability to set a goal and do whatever I could to achieve that goal.
“You have to chase your dreams – I’ve had that philosophy since I was a kid and still use it today.
“There have been many challenges but I think we all face challenges in our day-to-day lives, and the key is to identify how to accomplish what you need to and get on with it.”
Part of this focus includes a commitment to training to ensure his body – and mind – are in peak condition for the intensity of the racing series.
“There are a few parts to my training to stay in peak condition as well as mentally at my best. I do a lot of visualisation training, and I have it to the point I can imagine myself in any of the race tracks we compete in and ‘mind-fly’ my way through the track to within a second or less.
“It takes a lot of practice, but it really works for me and is something I started doing many years ago when I was in the military.
“From a physical standpoint I do a lot of walking, some swimming and time on the bike but then also a huge amount of core work and stability that helps with combatting the G-forces.” But his time in the skies is not all about racing to win.
Hall loves nothing more than jumping in a plane and cruising up the coast with his family, including wife Pedita (a fellow RAAF Officer), son Mitchell and step-children Cameron and Amelia.
He also loves to share his passion for flying with others, operating a joy flight business out of his base at Lake Macquarie Airport.
While there are a number of other pilots employed to satisfy the thrills of the everyday adrenalin junkie and aviation enthusiast, Hall will also jump in the cockpit for the premium “Matt Hall Exclusive” package, which includes an extreme 20-minute high energy flight in his Extra 300L two-seat aircraft.
This takes in everything from some of the advanced aerobatics involved in his airshow routine to a simulation of the Air Racetrack where, for the bravest of the brave, he’ll take them up to 400km/h, experiencing as much as 8Gs.
Clearly, too much flying is never enough for Hall, who holds a number of different pilot licences that enable him to fly everything from a glider, ultralight and hang glider, to a powered aircraft, helicopter and military jet.
He is passionate about generation aviation and light aircraft and over the years has owned nine aircraft - a Mustang P-51D, a Vans RV-4, an Acrosport II bi-plane, a Cherokee 180C, a Giles 202, a Debonair, an Extra 300L, a Super Cub and his 2014 Race Plane - an MXS-R.
And like a proud father being asked who his favourite child is, Hall is reluctant to single out one aircraft from the others as being his favourite.
“This is the question I probably get asked the most and to me it is simple – it’s the aircraft I am flying, or dreaming of flying, at any particular time,” he said.
“I can get as much joy in my race plane as I can in our old Super Cub. I learnt to hang glide off Newcastle Beach and have flown gliders all over the Hunter Valley before I became a fast-jet pilot on the Hornets at Williamtown. All of those things bring me great memories.”
Hopefully for Hall, his most excellent memory will come this month in the form of a World Championship title! For more information about the Red Bull Air Race series and to keep tabs on Hall’s progress visit www.redbullairrace.com