Ben 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 Murphy’s 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.
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 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.
In his first season as a Masterclass pilot in 2018 Murphy set a Red Bull Air Race World Championship record finishing seventh overall. In his second season he finished second place at Lake Balaton, Hungary in July. Then in Japan he impressively finished fourth 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 never fully prepared him 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.”
He also admits that "fuel is another area which can make the difference between winning and losing. You can see the instant difference between a bog-standed 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."
Although the last ever Red Bull Air Race took place in Chiba, Japan, in September, his diary certainly isn't short of commitments going forward. In November he joined his fellow Blades pilots for the Dubai Airshow debut, while next year they will be displaying throughout the UK and further afield.