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Confidence, Speed, Lighter Plane Help American Goulian Soar to Red Bull Air Race Win

Michael Goulian was the first pilot on course in the Final 4 of the 2018 Red Bull Air Race World Championship season opener Feb. 4 at Abu Dhabi, with three fellow elite aerobatic pilots waiting in the wings to challenge him.

But the moment he crossed the finish line, Goulian knew all of the questions – from himself and others – were answered.

Goulian ripped through the course over the marina bay in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, with a sterling time of 53.695 seconds that caused him to celebrate with fist pumps and screams from the cockpit of his No. 99 Edge 540 V2 race plane. It was more than a blistering time – it was a statement of intent for 2018.

None of the three pilots laying in wait – two-time World Champion and fellow American Kirby Chambliss, reigning World Champion Yoshi Muroya or 2017 title contender Martin Sonka – could top that time, and Goulian earned his second career victory and first since 2009 in Budapest, Hungary.

“We have a really good team, a really good airplane, and we have a legitimate shot of winning a World Championship,” Goulian said. “That’s what we knew we had going into it. But until you can pull off a big win like that, you still always have a bit of a question mark of: ‘Hey, do we have everything? Are we one of those top three teams?

“And we left Abu Dhabi saying, ‘Yep, we are.’

“To me, that’s the best thing. Now until the next race, we’ve got confidence instead of finishing eighth or ninth and saying, ‘Oh, we’re almost back to where we were in 2017.’”

Goulian will enter the next race in the eight-event schedule for the world’s most prestigious aerobatic flying championship, April 21-22 in Cannes, France, as the Master Class championship leader. The penultimate race of the championship will take place Oct. 6-7 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That position in the standings is a marked change for Goulian, 49, from Plymouth, Massachusetts. He flew into the Round of 8 five times in eight events in 2017 but reached the Final 4 just once, with a third-place finish at Kazan. He placed ninth in the season standings. It was an improvement over his 10th-place finishes in 2015 and 2016 and 12th in 2014 but nowhere near where he wanted to be.

“For whatever reason in 2017, I just couldn’t close the deal in the Round of 8,” Goulian said. “We got into the 8 very consistently but were only able to punch through in the Round of 4 one time. It was a little bit frustrating from that standpoint. We know we’re close; we’re consistently there. We needed to find a few tenths.”

The difference between winning and losing in the ultra-competitive Red Bull Air Race World Championship often is a matter of hundredths of seconds. So finding tenths wasn’t going to be easy.

But Team Goulian undertook a comprehensive program to improve during the short offseason, with no area overlooked.

First, Goulian hired Emily Mankins as the team’s coordinator. Mankins has worked with Goulian for nearly four years in his busy air show program, so she was a familiar face and trusted hand.

Mankins’ new role on the team allowed Pablo Branco to focus solely on his role as team strategist. In previous seasons, Branco also worked as team coordinator, which provided less time for him to help Goulian devise successful flight plans for race events.

Then the team set its sights on Goulian’s race plane. Red Bull Air Race planes are single-seaters, but Goulian uses a wing from a two-seat plane on his race plane to help it turn better. But that wing is heavier, which can lead to slower straight-line speed.

So team technician Warren Cilliers found other places to cut weight on the plane, trimming 15 pounds. The personable Goulian, an avid cyclist, also worked out harder and improved his diet to lose weight, making the overall package lighter.

“We’re still a few pounds heavy, but we’re trying to fix that with my diet and get me as lean as we can and also take a couple of pounds out of the airplane and be right at the minimum,” Goulian said.

The team also automated some systems within the cockpit over the winter to help Goulian focus more on flying precise lines during races. No time-consuming changes were made to the plane’s cowling or winglets, so Goulian also enjoyed a rare luxury as the season approached that he lacked leading into previous years.

Goulian’s race plane was ready to fly approximately eight to 10 days before it had to be packed into a cargo container for the journey to Abu Dhabi. That allowed him to train hard in Florida for four or five days, which paid dividends in the season-opening race.

“The biggest problem that all the teams suffer is that the winter is so short and the modification program that you go through,” Goulian said. “In anything, it always takes more time and money than you think.

“Teams are struggling to get the airplanes in the air and tested and giving the pilots training before it leaves for Abu Dhabi. We’ve struggled with that in the past. We’ve almost put the airplane in the container with wet paint on it. Then you get to Abu Dhabi, and your testing and practice starts there.

“This year we had a good eight to 10 days, which allowed us to do a few days worth of testing, confirmed what we’ve already done and allow me a good four or five days of hard training in the plane. It’s really nice when you can pull the airplane out of the box, put it together, and it was ready to race.”

Goulian’s calm nature entering the season opener at Abu Dhabi also was reflected in his race strategy. He and Branco devised their preferred line through the course before the event, and that planning proved fast right from opening practice and didn’t need to be altered due to changing weather. So Goulian stuck with the strategy.

Smart move. Goulian qualified second behind Matthias Dolderer and beat Nicholas Ivanoff in the first round and 2017 title contender Matt Hall in the Round of 8.

The field in the Final 4 was stacked, with Goulian taking on two-time World Champion Chambliss, reigning World Champion Muroya and Sonka, who won two races in 2017 before falling just short of Muroya in the standings after a dramatic final race at Indianapolis.

Still, Goulian wasn’t intimidated. He mixes his affable nature with the confidence of a veteran aerobatic competitor. Plus, when he earned his first career victory in 2009 at Budapest, he beat World Champions Paul Bonhomme, Hannes Arch and Chambliss.

Goulian blitzed the course with his outstanding run of 53.695 as the first pilot on course in the Final 4. Neither Chambliss nor Sonka could touch that time. Then came Muroya, who produced the flight of his life as the last pilot on course to win the race and the world title last October at IMS.

But there was no repeat magic from Japanese pilot Muroya. He finished the course in 53.985, almost three-tenths of a second slower than Goulian. The celebrations began in the hangar for the jubilant Team Goulian.

“When you look at my ability to fly an airplane compared to any of those guys, it’s exactly the same,” Goulian said of the tough competition in the Final 4. “All of the pilots are just so good. Just because a guy has been winning and has been great, it doesn’t mean you can’t knock him off the top of the table.

“It didn’t matter to me who was in the Final 4. The game is you controlling your nerves and you flying the airplane as fast as you can do it. I can’t dictate what any of those other three guys are going to do on the track.

“You kind of have to walk tall with a little bit of swagger and say: ‘There’s a time. You three guys go try to beat it.” And they didn’t. When you’re confident in the machine, you know it and everybody knows it, and it’s just better that way.”

Goulian hopes practice between the victory in Abu Dhabi and the next round, in April in France, will help him continue his momentum toward his long-sought first world title. A slight change in approach to his flying will help, too.

“That was kind of the thing going into the Final 4 (in Abu Dhabi),” Goulian said. “I said: ‘We’ve already done what we wanted to do here. We’re in the finals. So whether we were first or fourth, we already have the momentum going into the next race.’

“That allowed me to fly a little bit more free, if you will. Let the airplane run. Don’t worry so much about penalties and mistakes. Just go fly like an athlete and not like a robot and let your natural skill come through.”

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