Mike Goulian

Interview & Photography: Ryan Kelly, James Woodard

Precise, fast, aggressive, inverted...blast the Irish music. Full Disc Aviation had the opportunity to meet with the Massachusetts native, Michael Goulian. We met up with Michael towards the end of last season for a few minutes.

Michael recently achieved incredible success, winning the Red Bull Air Race in Indianapolis. When he isn’t precisely tossing an Extra-330C around, he’s flying the Edge 540 in the incredibly competitive Red Bull Air Race competition around the world. An inspiration for pilots across the United States and the world, Mike has been at the controls of an airplane for a long time and wowed millions of people with his abilities in the air. He also is one of the most humble people you will ever have the privilege to meet. - rk

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FDA- Let's start with a generic question, what got you started in aviation?  
Mike Goulian- It's an easy question to answer: my family; well, my dad [has] owned a flight school since 1964. So, as a kid in high school, my first job was washing airplanes and, you know, I tell everybody that I didn't find aviation, aviation found me. It's one of those things that when if you love it, when you're around the airport, you just can't get enough of it. I tell people I didn't know that I was going to fly for the rest of my life, but it was just one of those things that I never thought of doing anything else.

Not only do you fly airshows, you also are part of the Red Bull Air Races. Which one were you a part of first?
Well, you know, in our world, competition comes first. So, it's like being an Olympic Athlete; you learn all your skills competing against other people just like the Olympics, and then if you take the ICAS shows as the airshow crown, that's what happens. So, you learn all your great skills competing. It takes so much of your brain, you know, you can't think about anything else but competition aerobatics the whole time. I stopped competing after about 12 years of doing it and then just segwayed into airshow flying. In the airshow flying, it's a totally different thing where; in competition, you're trying to fly perfect for a judge but in the airshow business, the skill is to try to communicate how you feel about your flying through your airplane to the audience, so the audience can feel it...and that's hard. It took me years and years and years to do that and so, when I'm flying the airplane, I don't think about how to move the stick or anything like that. It's like flying the airplane is not the hard part, the hard part is making the performance a performance. Keeping it in close to the audience, keeping it tight, flying with aggression and expressively so the people can see how much energy you put into it. The Red Bull Air Race came around in 2006...with the initial group of us, they wanted people that were internationally known from the from the competition aerobatics side. But we're also were really comfortable near the ground because what you're doing in the air races is pretty dramatic, very close to the ground. So they wanted both of those and I was selected to do that.

So they approached you?
They did.

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I'd say they picked a pretty good pilot.
Well, you know...I'm pretty lucky, I have to say.

So, I ask most performers this; what's the one thing that stands out or hits home for you?
You know, I think for me, the thing that makes this special is the people that are doing it. The fans are special and the kids that come are very special, but [also] the air show business itself. The performers; it's a community that's built of people that all give 110% in their life like Paul Lopez “Loco” that flies the [F-22] Raptor, [he and I were] just talking and we said everybody that we know is just a super go-getter. Nothing better than perfection...and you don't find that in everyday life. So, for a guy like me, I'm always trying to be better and do the best that I can, and so in the airshow business, you surround yourself with people like that, you're immersed with people like that. It's a pretty energizing business to be in in...you're working with the best of the best all the time no matter where you go, and that's pretty fun. I've worked in other jobs where people are like "ehh, I want to do the minimum to get by" and that's just fine. But you can't do that here, right? One, you won't live a long time and two, you won't be very good at it. That's the cool thing and that's the special thing for me with airshows.

What is the biggest challenge transitioning from airshows to the Red Bull Air Races?
Racing and airshows are so different, they're 180 degrees out. The planes are completely different and fly completely differently. When you get home from a race, your brain is completely Edge 540 plugged in and then you have to unplug it and plug into an Extra 330SC and it's completely different. So, you know, if you're pulling G in the Extra, you move the stick an inch, if you're pulling that G in the Edge, you move it seven inches, and it's just completely different. So, what I have to do is get out of that and get practicing and sort of get the Edge out of my brain and get back into the Extra, which you know, quite frankly, is a handicap that I fly airshows and race too. I'm in two different planes because you know, when I go and fly somewhere else you’re like “Oh, yeah, I am back in the Edge” and every once in a while, in whatever airplane I'm in, if I've been in one for a while, I'll reach for the mixture control and “Oh no, it's on this side of this one.” I get some of that, so, you just have to do a lot of practice in either one.

How many hours of practice [do you need] when you transition between the two?
Oh, you know, six or seven flights in each one before you can actually transition back.

Has it always been the Extra for the air shows?
I have flown Cap 232...I flew an Extra and then a Cap 232 and then back to the Extra, but all single wing monoplanes.

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What's the roll rate on the Extra?
About 400 degrees a second. Yeah, they roll fast, it’s awesome for sure.

What's the most challenging maneuver you do across the board?
Man, so, you know what? There's not one maneuver that's harder than another one. But the biggest challenge that we have is, like playing golf or tennis, that requires just a lot of hand-eye coordination and a little bit of confidence and self confidence. So, a bunch of the tumbling maneuvers where the airplane is slow, you know, once you kick the rudder and you start tumbling [the] airplane is on its own, it's going. You just have to have the confidence that it's going to work and that's the biggest thing for me. So, I think the maneuvers themselves aren't challenging, it's just that your mindset is the challenge. If some days you don't feel quite good enough or if you’re like “Hey, I haven't had quite enough practice” and you’re tentative, then that's when bad things happen. So, that's the thing...even if I don't feel good, I don't play it soft. The only way to do it is to do it 100% and go for it. That's the biggest thing, and anytime the airplane's doing the slow speed tumble off the vertical line or whatever, there's some chance that, you know, it has a mind of its own. I fly what we call two mistakes high because every once in a while, it'll be like "Hey, why did you do that?” Well, if you have plenty of altitude, that's not a problem.

That's something I've always wondered...when you start doing a torque roll or snap roll, is it full deflection?
Yeah 100% ...when I'm flying, if I'm rolling, it's 100% deflection. If I'm snap rolling, it's full rudder. The airplane is full power all the time with these... put the throttle to the wall and go, so you're never really bringing the power back, doing anything like that. And the only way you can get the performance out of the airplane like that is to fly it at its limit, right? I'm sure there's some people that probably don't, but you can see that and I want people to think when when they watch me fly like "Oh man, that guy gave 110%.” So, if you give 110%, you want the audience to feel that you've given them 110%.

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Every time I have seen you, your performance is crisp, precise and you just nail it. Having flown in several aerobatic airplanes myself, I think that gives me a little more of an appreciation for how precise you fly.
Oh, thank you. You have to have done it to understand, right? And, you know...Clint McHenry was a great aerobatic pilot. He won nationals three times and he just said to me; 'Michael, from the very beginning, when you're going to roll, roll a hundred percent, and for a while, it's going to be wrong...but it's going to be 10 degrees over, then it will be eight degrees over, then it will be five degrees over, then it will be three degrees over and then, sooner or later, it will be right on almost every single time and it's muscle memory. Whether it's a beautiful day like we have here in Oceana, or it's a really miserable day with no visibility, to me, the internal timing that I have I almost don't need outside references. It's really the internal timing to do the roll that fast and stop it on a point like that.

Going forward, what's next for you?
You know, we're trying really hard to win the World Championship in the Red Bull Air Race, so we'll see. I hurt myself a little bit in the last race, we had a sick airplane and I tried to make up for it. So, it's between three of us and I'm sure somebody's going to shine. Out of the three of us, one of the three will will sort of just have great races and win the thing and then the other two of us might not, so it'll be interesting. And so, if we win, that's awesome. If we don't, I think we're going to try hard again next year, you know, and I would love to do that. And the airshow business; I think I'm going to fly for another five years probably, because I'm still enjoying it. I love it...and why not? Why not keep going, right?

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How intensive is you offseason?
In winter training, it's all gym work and stuff. I have a company that I work with and a trainer and all of my food is completely measured and prepared. We will make a week's worth of food on Sunday and it's all in the refrigerator and I eat the same meal plan all week. You can't do that so much in the summertime because you're at an airshow, and you can't bring it. It's difficult. So, you try to stay as close to it as you can, so most most of the stuff in the wintertime is, you know, putting your body back in perfect condition with sleep and nutrition and exercise and all of that stuff and then as soon as mid-February comes around, you get back in the airplane and start again because honestly, come November, you're like, "I'm ready not to be in that thing for a while." I've had it, you know, you close the door you give it to the maintenance guys and like "Okay, it's all yours." I'll see it in seven weeks because you’re like "I'm done" and because it's a lot of work and it's just taxing. So, in the wintertime, this is a business where the people don't see that there is so much logistics to accomplish between the years. We're actually busier in the winter than we are in the summer in a different way. So, all the sponsorship stuff takes a ton of time making new uniforms, making flight suits, making sure sponsor contracts are done so you can put them on the suit in time because the suits take 8 weeks make-to-pay. And then, starting to deal with all of the shows and making all new photos and all of that stuff. It's unbelievable how much effort it takes in the wintertime. And then in the summertime, you’re like; "Okay, let's go execute what we've done in the past two or three months." Everybody just thinks we sit at home and eat bonbons, I wish. It's a good question because you know, they don't see you flying, so what do you do when you're not flying, right? But the reality of it is, especially when you have sponsors, the flying is smallest part of it. This is like, okay. This is my time. All this hard work is the 10 minutes you get in the air, that's the reward of it.

Do you have any advice for the younger generation that's looking to get into aerobatic flying?
You know, I think that the reality of it is, anything in life that you're going to be passionate about, you'll be good at, and that's why I tell people it's like "Hey, there's no shortcut because this is just a skill, it's a sport." But it's an endeavor, and it will test you a lot. Some of your friends will get hurt. Some of your friends won't come back, and you're tested a lot on that. And it's a sport for people that are disciplined, but you can't be fearful either. You have to have some healthy respect [and] a little bit of fear, but you can't be afraid of it...and then again, on the other side, you can't be fearless. But you've got to be passionate and love what you're going to do.  

Full Disc Aviation would like to thank Mike for sharing some of his time with us. To follow Mike as he continues his adventures in the Airshow Circuit as well as the Red Bull Air Racing Season, check out his website over at mikegoulian.com.