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Goulian Takes Flight to Career-Best Season with Lift from Tight-Knit Team

It has taken American pilot Michael Goulian 10 seasons to get where he is today – on top of the standings and one race away from clinching the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. Key to that success was building the right team, which helped Goulian fly to an emotional victory Oct. 7 during the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s the human element that makes this a sport,” Goulian said. “The team has to work together really well. You have to have a common goal, and everybody needs to know their piece and to do it. It’s not a secret how to get there, but it’s freaking hard.” 

Goulian’s right hand is Team Manager Pablo Branco, whose aviation experience includes aerobatic competition, flying corporate and passenger flights, and piloting race car driver Nelson Piquet Jr. Branco still remembers the day in 2014 when his phone rang.

“I thought, this can’t be right, this is Michael Goulian calling!” Branco said. “He said, ‘I’m creating a new Red Bull Air Race team, and I know you’re into racing and fly aerobatic airplanes. I want to know if you’d like to join.’”

The opportunity in Massachusetts was “a dream job” that required a quick relocation for Branco and his family. He relocated to New England by January 2015.

“I had only just moved my wife down to Florida from New York,” Branco said. “But she said ‘Let’s go,’ and the rest is history.

“2015 involved a new race plane, which puts you on your back foot from the start. And a brand-new team – it takes a while to find the right personalities. But I think the main value is trust. A lot of trust. You focus on your job, and you trust that your next team member will do his job, and things just flow.”

Branco’s role has evolved, initially including team coordinator duties that have since been delegated so he can concentrate on other critical tasks.

“Now I’m more on the race plane development, race strategy side,” he said. “I work really close to our technician on the race plane and our tactician on the strategy – and close to Michael with the strategy on race week.”

As a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tactician Steven Hall seldom travels with the team, but his input has been invaluable since he signed on with Goulian in the second half of the 2014 season.

“Steve starts the process of race week strategy – he is responsible for the very complex calculations of how this race plane performs and how to get it to go as fast as possible through a track,” Branco said. “The very incipient look at a track – with the videos, simulations and everything that’s related to technology and engineering – comes from him. He’s the first to come up with the optimum line, then Michael and I develop it from there.”

Technician Warren Cilliers is a highly experienced professional specializing in aerobatic and high-performance aircraft, as well as an aerobatic competitor. When he joined Team Goulian in 2016, he hit the ground running.

“My first race was Chiba, the third stop of the season, and I’d never worked on an Edge 540,” Cilliers said. “So it was a huge learning curve, and to tell the truth, two races later at Ascot, we came in fourth, which was great – but I almost quit! I discovered so many things wrong with the airplane that we hadn’t known about and had to fix. It was extremely stressful, but once we figured all that out, it became a lot easier.

“The race plane was one thing, and the team is another. I think of us as a mechanical machine. We’re five moving parts, and to get to this level, everybody has to rotate and swing and do whatever their function is in order for this machine to move forward and produce results.”

The fifth moving part is Team Coordinator Emily Mankins. Her first race in the position was the 2018 season opener, but she has been part of Goulian’s air show operations for five years.

“I transferred over on the race side in 2017 – I went to probably half the races, doing mostly sponsor support, Mankins said. “And I think maybe the team voted that I was a good fit and I didn’t disrupt the flow, and now here I am!

“There’s a lot of logistics involved in this sport, and there’s no way to understand it until you’re actually in it.”

Her job is to handle not only logistics but also hosting sponsors, greeting fans and media, and much more. And she needs to make it seamless.

“Emily gets us where we need to be, stress-free, which affects the psychological side of things,” Cilliers said.

Said Mankins: “It’s more mental than I thought it would be, a lot of managing and navigating emotions from team to team, within my own team … and if I show that I’m stressed out about anything, it’s a domino effect. Then Pablo is stressed out, and Michael is stressed out, and Warren is stressed out. I can’t have that – not at all. Even if there’s a lot of stress at the race airport, it’s really important – almost of utmost importance – to keep that to a minimum for them.”

While Team Goulian is known for keeping things light with joking and banter, the pilot believes that different formulas work for different teams.

“Each team has to find their own magic – that’s the hard part, and there’s no blueprint,” Goulian said. “We come to each race ready to go, and we have trust in our plan and trust in each other. They’ve all given 100 percent effort, and then hopefully everything works out on race day.”

Goulian leads the Master Class with 70 points entering the season finale Nov. 17-18 at Texas Motor Speedway. Martin Sonka is second with 65 and Matt Hall third with 63.

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