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View from the cockpit with Ben Murphy

Release date: September 2019

Ben Murphy in race plane cockpit
Amanda Jones meets Ben Murphy, head of the Blades, aerobatic and racing teams and current GB Red Bull Air Race pilot to talk heart-stopping moments, setting a Red Bull Air Race rookie record and the day his life changed forever


Murphy’s love of flying was cemented at an early age. Both his grandparents flew with the RAF during the Second World War and hearing their daring exploits as a young boy firmly sowed the seeds for his flying future. His first trip in a glider at the age of 12 eventually led to him completing his pilot’s licence with an RAF flying scholarship at the age of 16. Flying solo gave Murphy an incredible sense of freedom and sealed the deal that this was what he wanted to do with his life.


“I remember thinking I could fly but I was too young to drive a car, so my mum had to pick me up from the airport. But the day I was handed my private pilot’s licence everything changed for me. The sense of freedom is amazing when you get into a plane on your own, there is nothing like it,” he asserts.


Best of British


Murphy’s path to become one of the world’s elite aerobatic display pilots was certainly not straightforward. It could have easily been very different. After joining the Air Squadron at Newcastle-upon-Tyne University in the UK and notching up a couple of hundred hours flying experience, he applied to join the Air Force after graduating. 


Murphy says, “It took me four attempts to get into the Air Force. They kept turning around saying ‘no, we don’t think you’re good enough.’ I had to be persistent and on my fourth go I was accepted. I always remember the feedback after the third application, which was ‘we don’t think you’ll make it as a pilot, we don’t think you’ll make an officer’. Thirteen years later, when I became Commanding Officer of the UK’s elite display team The Red Arrows, I remember thinking I’ve proved them wrong!”


This is an understatement, but true Murphy style to downplay such a career defining moment. It’s also this tenacious spirit that led to Murphy being selected to fly with the Red Arrows and to becoming the second youngest pilot ever to serve as both Commanding Officer and Team Leader in the 2010 and 2011 display seasons. Murphy’s early career also saw him fly the Harrier and later becoming an instructor. It was during this time that he recalls a heart stopping incident.


“In the military you spend so much time talking about how to handle contingencies and emergencies in the air, and you practice them in the simulator, but of course that’s not the real deal. At the back of every pilot’s mind is the same question: How would I perform in a real-life scenario? “.


It was while flying as an instructor in a two seat Harrier that Murphy got to answer that question. He was flying at low level as a battle pair with another student sat in the back when they hit a flock of birds.


“The cockpit canopy was destroyed, and the blast shield went completely red with bird remains. I immediately started to steer the plane back to land, however my student came very close to pulling the ejection cord and ejecting us both out. The canopy above me was broken, so if he had pulled the cord then I would be missing some limbs now. But in the heat of the moment the training took over and we landed safely. As a pilot you are taught to wait, then make a decision. This has stood me in very good stead over the years.”


It’s no coincidence that aerobatics appeals to ex-military pilots who are used to flying some of the fastest, state-of-the-art aircraft on the planet in difficult and often dangerous conditions. These skills are put to good use as the demands of flying in aerobatic competitions means you’re right on the edge and flying, even momentarily, at up to 12Gs takes years of experience.


Red Bull thrill


In his first season as a Masterclass pilot in 2018 Murphy set a Red Bull Air Race World Championship record finishing seventh overall.  Now into his second season he finished second place at Lake Balaton, Hungary in July. Murphy is now impressively, fourth place in the overall rankings.


But even with all the military training and flying in a high-tech Harrier with full kit Murphy is quick to point out this still doesn’t fully prepare you for flying in the Red Bull Air Race.


“It is a very different type of flying,” he explains. “It’s very tough physically, pushing and pulling up to 12G. You essentially have 12 times the weight of your head sitting on your shoulders, but you still have to keep your wits about you, concentrate and make constant adjustments without the support of an anti G-Suit.”


Ahead of the race in Hungary Murphy reveals he made significant changes to how he prepared for the championship.  And it paid off. He’s physically fitter, which has made significant gains in his stamina enabling him to get through a practice week and be race fit.


“You can get to race day and feel absolutely exhausted,” he says. “I didn’t want that to happen. I train six days a week and do way more strength work as well as cardio than previously.” 


Murphy also trains extensively in a simulator which is tailored to the course and can simulate wind conditions. He admits there is a misconception pilots get plenty of time to practice in your race plane. 


However, he reveals, “it’s very similar to Formula 1 racing. After a race the plane is broken down and shipped off to the next race. Fuel is another area which can make the difference between winning and losing. You can see the instant difference between a bog-standard fuel and a high-performance fuel. You have to get the correct fuel/air mixture. It’s key to have high quality fuel in the plane.”


The last ever Red Bull Air Race is in Chiba from 7-8 September. And beyond that Murphy’s diary is already full with commitments including the Dubai Air Show in November. But juggling various responsibilities while remaining cool, calm and collected is second nature to Murphy. His day job is head of the Blades, a role which requires him to balance flying duties with corporate responsibilities. And, fortunately for Murphy, his wife Kirsty is also part of the Blades team and has equally impressive flying credentials. She was the first (and only) female pilot for the RAF Red Arrows.


As he prepares to take to the skies in Chiba, we wish Murphy every success in clinching a podium place in Japan.

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