Kirby Chambliss’s search for adrenaline-fueled adventures can be traced back to chasing waves on North Padre Island as tropical systems were approaching.
Chambliss, a Corpus Christi native and aerobatics pilot, admitted he was a “surfer boy” and said he and his friends would make their way to the beach as the systems approached simply because waves that came from a tropical storm systems were not common.
“They used to tell us, ‘Get the hell off the beach, it’s closed,'” Chambliss said. “But the best time to surf was now, and we’d never get waves like this. We’d say, ‘Riptides … we use that to take us out.’ That’s a big memory for me, and sometimes when I go back (to Corpus Christi) I reminisce a little bit … the wind, the sand, the salt, the surf, the humidity.”
Surfing was a hobby for Chambliss, but his adventurous spirit led him to his occupation as an aerobatics pilot. Chambliss, who is now 55 and makes Phoenix his home, is one of the top air racers and aerobatics pilots in the world, competing regularly on the globe-hopping Red Bull Air Race Circuit and performing at air shows around the world. While he’s aged a bit and his penchant for youthful exuberance might be tempered slightly, he is making a living following his passion.
“There are pictures of me dragging airplanes around when I was two years old,” said Chambliss, who will compete with the circuit at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth this weekend. “When I was 13 years old, I helped my dad build an airplane and I knew I was going to be a pilot. All I had to figure out was how to do it.”
Chambliss was born and raised in Corpus Christi and graduated from King High School, and shortly after graduation he made his way to San Antonio College. At age 21, he was flying for LaQuinta Inns and the chief pilot for the organization told him about the possibility of doing some aerobatics training, mainly to make sure Chambliss could handle the plane in an extreme circumstance.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” Chambliss said of the training.
Chambliss, who also raced motorcycles in his younger days in Corpus Christi, continued to pursue a flying career and was the youngest pilot at Southwest Airlines at 24, and was a captain four years later, and he logged nearly 27,000 hours.
“If it’s got a motor, I’ve watched it or done it,” Chambliss said. “I’m definitely a motor sports guy. I did play a little bit of basketball in junior high, but I didn’t have time for all that. I knew which direction I was headed, and trying to get on that straight line to get there as fast as I could.”
But the draw of the aerobatics was always there.
In the 1990s, Chambliss’ aerobatics career began in earnest. By the end of the decade, he became one of the top pilots in the world and was a captain of the US Aerobatic Team. In 2003, he began his career racing in the Red Bull Air Race Series. He was invited to the series because he was ranked among the top 15 aerobatics pilots in the world.
Between 2003-10, Chambliss finished in the Top 5 in standings, winning points championships in 2004 and 2006. The series, which features pilots from around the world, was stopped in 2010 and restarted in 2014, and Chambliss finished 10th.
Chambliss, who owns his team called Team Chambliss, pilots a plane called an Edge 540, which has a thrust to roll rate of 500 degrees a second. An F-16 is about 240, and Chambliss says, “It’s like a Ferrari.'”
He said the pilots are not only from around the world, but come to the series with varying backgrounds, including military and general aviation.
“One thing we all have in common is you take something that’s pretty dangerous and you balance that with experience,” Chambliss said. “I was among one through 15 in the world aerobatic standings and it’s the way I got into it. I was the only American in there and they said, ‘We’d really like you to do this.’ I thought, ‘This is cool as hell, and it’s how I ended up where I’m at.”
The air race series features competitors going through qualifying runs around gates, and the pilots are seeded based on those qualifying runs. The pilots then go through an elimination style format during the race where they go head to head, and advance based on their times, which determines an overall winner each race.
Chambliss, who works at air shows when he’s not racing, said what is unique about the event at Texas Motor Speedway is that the fans will be looking at them at eye level or down on them because the course is in the infield of the 1.5-mile superspeedway. The planes will be housed and take off from the infield of the track as well.
“This is a whole different perspective,” Chambliss said. “(The fans) are actually above us looking down on us, and it’s more like a slalom course, zipping past those gates, and odd angles and pulling 10Gs about 30-feet off the ground.”
Chambliss is living the dream he had as a teenager. Even as he closes in on retirement age, he still seeks the thrill.
He’s not sure how long he will keep racing and flying but one thing is certain, whether it’s chasing waves or piloting airplanes, Chambliss will find a way to get the adrenaline rush.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Chambliss said. “I get my fix that way I guess.”
The Kirby Chambliss File
Born in Corpus Christi
Graduated from King High School in 1978
Attended San Antonio College, and later went on to work as a pilot for La Quinta Inns and Southwest Airlines
Has competed in Red Bull Air Race World Series since 2003, winning championships in 2004 and 2006
Logged more than 27,000 hours as a commercial airline pilot
Owns the air planes he competes in and his team is based in the Phoenix area, which includes an estimated 170-acre “Flying Crown Ranch” with a runway and hangar in the backyard.