‘It’s really, really intense.’ Cal Poly professor helps planes reach record-breaking speeds

Meet Red Bull Air Race team members Kirby Chambliss and Paulo Iscold

Kirby Chambliss is a Red Bull Air Race pilot. Cal Poly professor Paulo Iscold is Team Chambliss tactician who works to make racing planes faster. They're complete opposites, but they work in perfect harmony.
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Kirby Chambliss is a Red Bull Air Race pilot. Cal Poly professor Paulo Iscold is Team Chambliss tactician who works to make racing planes faster. They're complete opposites, but they work in perfect harmony.

In just a couple days, the world’s best racing pilots will maneuver lightweight planes through a low-altitude aerial racetrack above Abu Dhabi at speeds exceeding 220 mph — and a Cal Poly professor will be there, working toward another championship.

Aerospace engineering professor Paulo Iscold has already broken nine world speed records with the planes that he designs and modifies for competition.

This is the fourth year he’ll be strategizing to help Kirby Chambliss out-maneuver other pilots as a tactician with Team Chambliss in the Red Bull Air Race series. The first of eight races begins Feb. 8 in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates.

The air races, held all over the world, are like three-dimensional NASCAR with more G-force, as pilots negotiate quick turns in tracks just twice the width of their planes’ wingspans.

“(The course) takes one minute to fly. It’s really, really intense,” Iscold told The Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday. “We have races decided at hundredths of a second.”

That’s where his skills and expertise in flight optimization become crucial to cinch a victory. For example, Iscold developed software that identifies the optimized flight path and translates the data into a graphic that the pilot can use to mentally train himself.

Cal Poly professor Paulo Iscold works during the training at the second stage of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in San Diego on April 14, 2017. Red Bull

As a professor at a university that values experiential education, Iscold engages Cal Poly students to help problem-solve real-world problems.

“At Cal Poly, I’m trying to give them small tasks that can help me with the big tasks,” said Iscold, who as a professor in Brazil led a team of students that designed the world’s fastest four-cylinder airplane, named Anequim.

He came to Cal Poly in the winter of 2018 to give a lecture, and decided to accept an offer to stay at the university because he shares the school’s approach to hands-on learning, he said.

“I pressed Ctrl-Alt-Delete on my life. We only live this life once, so it’s best to live this life now,” Iscold said, speaking about his decision to stay in San Luis Obispo. He’s not sure how long he’ll be there.

This school year, he’s working with students to build a flight simulator, using parts from video games, to help train pilots and improve their reaction times to the course. Students are helping to design a joystick that realistically replicates the tension caused by the force of the flight.

“As soon as (the pilot) goes through the gate, he needs to move as soon as possible,” Iscold said. “Move too soon and we get a penalty. Move too late and we lose valuable time.”

The opportunity to work on a project that could influence the Red Bull Air Race is a big motivator for students, he said.

Team Chambliss pilot and team owner Kirby Chambliss competes in the Red Bull Air Race Championship in Kazan, Russia, in 2018. The Red Bull Air Race returns to the city in June 2019.

“They get super-excited about that,” Iscold said. “A big part of my job in the (College) of Engineering is first, of course, to teach how to do the job. And also, to motivate them to be passionate for their job. The race is important to do that.”

Iscold’s students don’t just work on optimizing planes for competition.

He is faculty coordinator of Cal Poly’s Prototypes Vehicles Laboratory, or, PROVE Lab, which is trying to build the world’s fastest solar car to break a land speed record, as well as a human-powered submarine. Iscold’s students are also helping him build Project Nixus, a fly-by-wire, high-performance sailplane wing.

Most of the technology won’t directly translate to the consumer industry to influence product development at large corporations, but Iscold said he is developing someting just as important: motivated people.

“What I can offer big companies is the people,” Iscold said. “They are competitive and they know how to win. They work hard.”

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: