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On flying, fulfilled dreams and future without Red Bull Air Race

Fast Confession - Pilot Martin Šonka: Red Bull Air Race was a dream come true

Karolína Lišková
08.Jul 2019
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10 minutes

A charming guy whose head is literally in the clouds. Martin Šonka feels at home behind the wheel of anything that comes with an engine, but planes are where he truly excels. He has won so many titles that it's hard to count them all, and his enthusiasm for aviation is inexhaustible. Recently, however, he lost his job overnight. Red Bull Air Race is about the end and Martin as well as his colleagues have to deal with the circumstances as fast as possible. The pilot shared his thoughts in this issue and much more in an interview for Luxury Prague Life.

How did you actually get to flying?

Probably thanks to my dad, which influenced me in my childhood. He's a big fan of flying, but he never actually tried it, I'm the first one in our family to fly. But he had a lot of books on airplanes, which I liked to flip through, and that’s probably when my admiration for airplanes in the sense of machines started. Then it developed through aircraft models.

I longed to become a military fighter pilot, and at the age of seventeen I experienced my first plane ride in the Aeroclub in Tábor. We lived close to the airport, I used to go there to play with my models, watching airplanes up in the air. Once I’ve saved enough money, I bought a sightseeing flight. Right after landing, I signed up for pilot training on gliders.

What’s a career in military aviation like? Is it hard to get there?

In order to be a military pilot, one must graduate from a military college. It used to be called Military Academy in Brno, today it is the University of Defense in Brno. After graduating from high school and finishing my first year at the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport, I was admitted to the Brno academy for the pilot field of study, which I successfully finished. The pilot group is divided into three groups according to basic training - those who fly fighters, i.e .jet aircraft, airliners and helicopters. I was lucky and got to fly fast jet aircrafts.

Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ
Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ, Okolí Prahy

Have you ever been in danger?

There were a few of such situations, but I wouldn't say I was in any real danger. I guess I was lucky that I haven’t experienced anything truly serious. A malfunction here and there, but nothing that couldn’t be solved.

What do you find most entertaining and fascinating about it?

It’s difficult to explain to someone who does have the same desire, who has never sat in a fighter plane, never experienced the feeling when you’re standing on the runway, start rolling forward and pull the aircraft up. Or when you’re speeding across the sky ten kilometers above ground. It is unreal, for every boy or girl who is attracted by something like this, it is a truly incredible experience. My entire military career was a childhood dream that came true.

What about your family? What did they think about your decision to pursue such a dangerous career?

When I came home after the first sightseeing flight, I needed my parents' approval to enroll in pilot training because I was under eighteen. I gave it to my mom, who told me "if you kill yourself, don't come home". But of course she’s been supporting me from the beginning. Dad as a big fan of flying, so he’s also been supporting me from the beginning.

What did your older brother think about it?

My older brother, my great guru, silently nodded and then he said I was allowed to do it. (laughs)

How do you behave when you get into a plane and someone else is piloting?

It really depends on the person, because every pilot is different. I can probably make an educated guess, when it comes to pilots, but it's similar to a driver riding on the passenger seat. He’s also paying attention to the other person’s driving. So it depends on who I am flying with. Some people I’m nervous with, some I lecture and with some I’m enjoying the flight.

You are also an instructor, teaching future pilots…

It's a great school, one really learns what mistakes people can come up with in an airplane.

Are you strict?

Yeah, I'm like a guard dog. But I’m also fair.

What does it mean for you to fly for the Red Bull Air Race?

The fact that I started flying the Red Bull Air Race is another fulfilled dream. At the time when I was offered the opportunity to enter the qualification, I was - so to say - a beginner in the national team of aerobatics, in the unlimited category. During the World Championships, a person who worked for Red Bull Air Race, came to me and said he was scouting for new people, that he liked how I fly and if I don't want to try and qualify myself.

It was a dream come true, because at that time there were legends and stars of sport aviation that I looked up to flying in the race, and it felt unreal that someone offered me to join this group. From a sporting point of view, it is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced anything like competing in the Red Bull Air Race. It's an amazing thing, an amazing experience.

Do you have a trophy that is most valuable to you?

I have a few trophies that are important to me. Of course, the most important one is last year's World Cup from the Red Bull Air Race, and another from the previous year when we landed a second place. Also three titles of European Champion in Freestyle in Acrobatics, the title of general Vice-Champion in Acrobatics and three titles of World Vice-Champion in Freestyle in Acrobatics. I'm fortunate to have a couple trophies on the shelf at home, and naturally I'm proud of them.

Where did you enjoy flying most?

I enjoy it everywhere, I like that every Air Race competition is different. Once we’re flying over a river in the city center, then over a bay above the sea, the next race takes place over the Formula 1 racecourse.

If I should name one, Budapest is an iconic place where it is very interesting for both the pilots and the spectators. As an addition to the race, we are flying under a chain bridge in the center before taking off, which is a bonus experience. We also raced in Rio de Janeiro, or in Manhattan, New York. These places are really beautiful and it's amazing that you get there thanks to the air race.

Byt s výhledem na Prahu - Karlín - 308m
Byt s výhledem na Prahu - Karlín - 308m, Praha 8

You became famous thanks to Red Bull. How do you deal with this popularity? How has your life changed?

Hard to say. I do what I like, I fly. And it is only good that people are watching the sport and that I can help raise the popularity of sport and flying in general. The sport can alert people, especially young people, that something like aviation exists, and they may then decide to choose a life path revolving around planes.

As far as popularity is concerned, I don’t think that it is so bad that I wouldn’t be able to go to a shop in Tábor and buy bagels without being stopped by the crowds. It's nice that someone recognizes me every now and then, says hello and wishes me luck. It's still at the level where it’s pleasant and I’m pleased when it happens.

Do you have any funny stories about your fan girls?

Not really, I don’t.

Which is your favorite body part to sign?

Of course I have my preferences. I had the privilege to sign a few breasts as well as backsides during a signing session. (laughs) Otherwise, of course, I don't care; I’m glad that people come to ask for an autograph, that they’re following me and that they’re interested in the sport itself.

Which aircrafts do you own? And which ones would you like to own?

That's a big difference, I don't own any aircraft. I use three airplanes, two for sport flying, one is an aerobatic special. Then Edge 540, which I use for Red Bull Air Race, and Zlín 143, which is a courier four-seat machine. But all the aircrafts are borrowed from sponsors and I do not own them.

There’s a whole lot of aircrafts I’d like to own. The Zlín I’ve mentioned would actually be a perfect machine for family travels. I'd love to have my own two-seat aerobatic plane, some kind of WWII fighter, Spitfire, Mustang or Corsair that I’d be polishing in the hangar, that would be nice. Then one of the so-called bushplans, which is a big-wheeled plane that can start from fifty meters, so I’d have something to fly with when I head out to collect mushrooms. Also a nice glider with a pull-out engine, so that I wouldn’t be dependant on a towing plane. A business jet, and then a nice seaplane paired with a cottage in Alaska, or a s training center in Hawaii, so that we could travel around the islands… And I could keep going on and on. (laughs)

How much money do you invest in flying monthly?

All the money. (Laughs) It depends on whether I should include the Air Race in it, because then it would be a really big sum. Dunno if I’ll include acrobatics training and flying with our courier Zlín. But it’s many tens of thousands, the cost of flying. Of course, the flying also needs to earn on itself a little, so we must add flying in exhibitions across Europe and the Czech Republic into the equation. That's flying that makes money, which can then be invest back in training because if I didn’t train and had no results to show, no one would invite me to aerodays. It's a closed circle.

How does a typical day of a pilot look like?

It’s virtually impossible to generalize my day, which is something I like and enjoy, every day is completely different. One day is dedicated strictly to training, when I practise all day at the airport, and in the evening I’m really tired. The next day I have a meeting with sponsors, or a discussion panel at school. The following day comes physical training, the next one I’m involved in development of an aircraft and I have to go various places to deal with things concerning the plane. I'm not the type of person who’s capable of going to the same office every day.

Do you have any ritual that you perform before a race?

I don’t have any special kind of ritual, preparation is my ritual. The way I’m getting ready with my brother, who represents the coordinator team. We have a particular regime - how I warm up before every flight, how I climb into the cabin, how the mechanic hands me the belts, how we signalize to each other when the plane starts rolling. All of that is a ritual that I need to feel comfortable and relaxed before take off.

What was your reaction when you heard about the end of the Bull Air Race?

That was a sad moment. My reaction was that my eyes went wide in shock. And I think they’re still the size of plates. It was something I hadn't expected at all, I was very surprised that they would put a stop to such a popular and successful sport. I guess that whoever finances it decided something was lacking. But I still think the sport has a huge potential.

Did you even have time to think about what next? What are you going to do for a living?

Of course, as a father of a family, I have to think about what to do next, what options are open for me. Of course I have some plans how to make a living without having to quit flying because that's something that really fulfills me. But so far it's still in the background. We’re in the middle of a racing season and I don’t want to distract myself from the races. Of course, we don’t have detailed information about the end of the race yet, I’m still waiting to find out more.

Can you imagine doing a job that doesn’t revolve around planes?

No, I can't. Of course, if I had to, I'd do it to support the family. But I will definitely do my best to stay in aviation. And I hope it will be somewhere in the cabin of an aircraft.

How did you meet your partner?

Our profession brought us together, my girlfriend is a stewardess, I'm a pilot. We were both invited to the same aviation show where we met. It was thanks to our jobs that we got together.

So it’s true that pilots date flight attendants?

We are a stellar example of that, so yes.

Do you interfere in each other’s jobs?

I definitely interfere in my girlfriend’s job, but not vice versa (laughs).

Are you planning a wedding? Could you imagine a unique kind of wedding in the sky?

I can’t talk about that, these things are obviously very secret, I have to pass without a comment. (smile)

What do you think of professing love by drawing a heart in the sky with your airplane?

That’s a beautiful romantic gesture, but a lot of people do it, so I’m not really inclined to do it myself. (laughs)

What was the last time your partner surprised you?

The last sirloin in cream sauce she cooked was really luxurious.

So you’re picky about food?

I am, I like to give my opinion and I love good food.

Do you have a recipe for a happy partnership, since you have to be away for work all the time?

Tasty sirloin in cream sauce, obviously. (laugs) I have no recipe, people don’t live generic lives. Something that works in one household may not work in a different one. The two people need to understand each other, make compromises and be tolerant.

What about kids? Aren’t you afraid that they’ll want to fly to, be it for safety or financial reasons?

I'm afraid it'll make money tight, especially if all three of them wanted to. (laughs) Otherwise, no, on the contrary, I’d like them to be able to fly at least a little. I think I'm going to make them anyway, and they actually sort of can already, the two older ones are practically in charge of an aircraft. I'll be glad if they know how to pilot a plane, but it’s entirely upon them if they’ll want to get into flying or not. Main thing they’ll be doing something they’ll enjoy.

What do you do to stay in shape?

I keep in shape as much as I can. I like to do sports, I try my best, although there is not much time for it. In addition, I have to keep my body at the lowest possible weight. I practically had to stop going to the gym, I exercise with my own weight, run a lot. So far it’s working, I’m keepingmy weight eight to nine kilos below my average, where I used to be at all my life, so it’s alright. But when my mother sees me, she always tell me to eat something, and suddenly there’s a pile of dumplings in front of me. So I sometimes cheat on the diet.

What do you consider luxury?

It means something else for everyone, of course. For me, it is a luxury when I have enough free time, which unfortunately doesn’t happen very often, and when I can spend it with my family. Also a beautiful sunset, a few clouds strewn in the sky, and a plane with a full tank, ready for take-off.

Where did you go for the last vacation with your family?

Typically, the races are our vacation, otherwise we don't have much free time. Three years back we were in the Maldives, that was our only “classic” holiday where we got to spend a week. And we flew to Hawaii for a week with my team last year before the end of the season.

What do you wish for yourself in the future?

Time for my family, kids. And I want them to be healthy. As far as professional and sporting things are concerned, I wish for the Red Bull Air Race to continue so that we could race around the world for many years to come.

Your message for everyone who’s afraid of flying?

Don’t be afraid, there’s no reason, it’s beautiful. But I guess you can’t force it, if someone’s afraid. It’s the safest way to travel though, much safer than going by car. So give flying a chance, maybe you’ll get over your fear.

Thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

Fast Confession:

What are you most afraid of?

I worry about my children.

Which of your victories is most valuable to you?

Except for my children, of course, last year’s title of World Champion.

What do you think about the moment before take-off at competitions?

Nothing, I think only about the flight itself.

Where did you take your partner on your first date?

For a beer.

A dream plane you'd like to pilot?

This one, my plane. (points over his shoulder)

How much money are you able to spend on flying?

All of it.

Have you ever thrown up on a plane? What flight was it?

I haven’t, but when I was little, I used to throw up in the car and in the bus regularly, on every trip.

Is it true that, pilots date flight attendants?

It’s true in my case.

How does a pilot keep fit?

With difficulty, there isn’t time, but he's trying hard.

Is there anything you can't drive, but would you like to learn?

A ship, I could use a yacht.

The most beautiful pilot you know?

My girlfriend.

Are you afraid when someone else is piloting?

Which politicians you wouldn’t take on board?
I’d take them all, so as to teach them a lesson and find out their merit.
Your career dream?
For Air Race to return, so that we could keep competing for many more years.
The interviewee asks the editor:

What are you most afraid of?

Flying. (laughs)
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