ROX Interview: Kirby Chambliss

World Champion Aerobatic Pilot

Interview by Bea Lueck

GC LIVING: We’ll just start at the very beginning. You were born in Texas, where?

Kirby Chambliss: Corpus Christi.

GC LIVING: And how long did you live there?

Kirby Chambliss: I went basically through high school there, aside from a couple of short stints out to California.

GC LIVING: And your dad was into skydiving?

Kirby Chambliss: Yes. My dad was a jumpmaster in the military, but I’m not sure if that’s what really sparked me with airplanes. I don’t really even remember wanting to be a pilot, I mean, I was always going to be a pilot. There are pictures of me dragging model airplanes around when I was 2 years old, and I had all the remote controls.

I would also get to go with my dad when he was teaching skydiving. We would go up in this little single-engine 182, I was probably 7, 8 years old. I couldn’t jump out with the guys, but I would ride down with the jump pilot in the airplane. I was like, this is really cool. I’m sure that had something to do with it, but I always knew that I wanted to be a pilot, all I had to do was figure out how to do it. I think I was 17 or 18 when I soloed and got my license.

GC LIVING: What did you do after that careerwise?

Kirby Chambliss: Well when I was doing that, I was working for Southwest Airlines in Corpus Christi, working as a line guy where we load the bags. I ran out of money before I could get my private and other ratings. I didn’t do that until I was, I think, 18 or 19. And then I worked in operations, and I then quit Southwest for two and a half years. And the whole time I was instructing, too.

After quitting Southwest I flew a little business jet for La Quinta Motor Inns and was very fortunate. Most of the time when you fly a business jet you do a lot of sitting. I did a lot of flying. We were flying 80 to a hundred hours every month, so I built up a lot of jet experience at a relatively young age. By the time I was 24, I wanted to go back to work for Southwest as a pilot. They hired me as a pilot, been there ever since.

GC LIVING: So you still fly for Southwest?

Kirby Chambliss: Yes. Southwest was nice enough to give me a leave of absence, and I was actually gone for 11 years. So I was so busy flying the air shows and air racing. When COVID hit, all the shows canceled. I thought, “Well, I’ll go back and fly for Southwest a little bit.”

So I had to go back through training. I was in Dallas for two months, and then I had to fly 14 hours with what they call a check airman. And then they were like, “Here’s the keys, have a nice day.” So yeah, and I’ve been flying for Southwest again, I’ve been back for a year. That’s crazy, I’m just getting ready actually today, to go down for my annual recurrent training. And I was like, “Man, I can’t believe it’s already been a year.”

GC LIVING: I can just hear the flight attendant’s announcements now: “And flying the plane today is a world champion aerobatic pilot. He promises not to do any of that today with this jet.”

Kirby Chambliss: Sometimes the flight attendants are like, “Oh my God,” and I say, “Look, if we do any of that, it’ll definitely have been an accident.”

The reality of it is if you’ve got a Formula One car and you’ve got a school bus out on the track and you’re driving the Formula One car and everybody’s like, “Hey, you ever think about getting in that school bus and running around the track?” And you’re like, “Not really, I’m driving a Formula One car,” right? I mean, what’s the point?

GC LIVING: So, how did you get into the aerobatic world from the corporate world?

Kirby Chambliss: I was 21 years old flying the business jet, and our chief pilot said, “Hey, all my pilots get aerobatic training because if the jet ends up upside down with a CEO on board we want you to be able to turn it right side up.” It made sense to me. They paid for my aerobatic training. I went out in an aerobatic airplane, we turned the airplane upside down and were just flying upside down. I was like, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever.” Quite frankly, I’d started to get kind of bored with just regular flying anyway. I’m an adrenaline junkie.

And to me, it was just like, “Wow, this is it.” And that’s all I cared about for 35 years. That’s what I lived, breathed, that’s all I did. I still had to go and fly for the airlines and do those things in order to support my new habit, but I was full-on hooked.

GC LIVING: Awesome. And when did you meet your wife Kellie?

Kirby Chambliss: So the first time we met, Kellie was a flight attendant and I was an airline pilot, and we met down in the jetway. She’d had a really bad day, so I chatted with her. That was the first time I met her, but I really didn’t have anything to do with her until two years later.

GC LIVING: Was she a pilot at that point in time?

Kirby Chambliss: No, that happened later. We were flying along, we had a Cessna 180. We’d been together for quite some time, I forget how many years, but she said, “I’m going to get my license.” And I said, “What, did you lose yours?” And she’s like, “No, my pilot’s license.” I’m like, “Well, you never really expressed any interest in it.” When she decided to do it, I helped as much as I could. I’m smart enough to know that you shouldn’t teach your wife something like that, so I had a buddy of mine do it. And then I did her tailwheel training. So that was interesting.

GC LIVING: How did you end up in Arizona?

Kirby Chambliss: I was working for Southwest as a pilot, and I lived in San Antonio and commuted to Houston. I had to go and get on an airplane to go to work, which is not any fun because sometimes you get stuck, and you can’t get home and it’s frustrating. Southwest said they were going to open a pilot base in Phoenix for me; the biggest part of my wanting to do that is the weather.

In San Antonio, I would get home off my trip wanting to fly aerobatics, and the weather would be crummy. And about the time it would clear up I had to go back to work. I moved to Arizona in 1987; it’s hot, but at least I can fly every day. I could drive to work so it made things a lot simpler for me.

GC LIVING: OK. Is that when you built the house and runway out by Silver Bell Estates, west of Picacho Peak?

Kirby Chambliss: No, I lived in Tempe first, we didn’t do that until 2000. I bought the land about five years before that. I purchased the land, then we finally got up enough money for a down payment and were able to start building the house. And I think it was in ’99, 2000, somewhere in there.

GC LIVING: What’s the difference between the aerobatic shows that you do and the air racing?

Kirby Chambliss: Completely different. The airshows are for display, and I always say, “The airplane is my paintbrush and the canvas is the sky, and I paint that beautiful picture.” People will walk away and go, “I’ve never seen an airplane go end over end and do all that.” While racing against the clock It’s all about who’s the fastest, and not incurring any penalty points, going between those gates. They’re just two separate things. We’re still flying in an airplane, but other than that it’s completely different.

GC LIVING: How did you get into air racing?

Kirby Chambliss: I was on the US Aerobatic Team from 1997 till 2005, I competed against a bunch of different countries, and a guy that was on the Hungarian team, Peter Besenyei, his sponsor was Red Bull, which I didn’t know that much about, this was in 2003. Right after the world championships, I got a call from Peter and he said, “Hey, we’re going to do this thing. We’re going to call it the ‘Red Bull Air Race’. You fly between these gates to see who can race the fastest, with the least number of penalties.”

It sounded cool, but I wasn’t going to do it because two days later I had to start performing at Oshkosh, which is the biggest air show in the world. What I didn’t know at the time is the selection criteria meant you had to be number one through 15 in the world aerobatic standings, so that made it to where I was the only American who could go. And if I went, it was going to be an international competition, or race, instead of a European race. They wanted to bill it as international, so every time they called me, they offered me more money, and finally I was like, “OK, I guess I’m going to be jet-lagged at Oshkosh.” I went and did it, and I was like, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever, this is super fun.”

It had a lot of the things I like; especially back then. It had racing, I love speed. It had a lot of low-level stuff, and I mean, you’re always just a few feet above the ground. It was like a really good fit. I didn’t even get a chance to practice but twice, and I ended up finishing third. And everybody else had been practicing all week. So I really liked it.

Then Red Bull said, “Hey, with all your accomplishments…” I’d won the nationals several times by then, I’ve won five times now. Red Bull said, “We want you to help us bring it to the U.S.” And that’s how my whole thing got started.

GC LIVING: So now you have your own team, correct?

Kirby Chambliss: Yes, I did for many years. So they stopped the racing, the last one was September of 2019 in Japan. Red Bull’s done with it, but a different company is going to start it up; I believe next year. I still do the display side and air show side for Red Bull. I’m still sponsored by Red Bull North America.

GC LIVING: What is on your bucket list, flyingwise?

Kirby Chambliss: I think my bucket is pretty well full and running down the side. There’s been a couple of projects that I would like to do that they’ve been kind of quiet about, I can’t really put it out there, because I want to be the first to do it. But other than that, I enjoy display flying. I love skydiving, I still do that. I really like jumping out of airplanes, that’s fun.

GC LIVING: Do you do any formation work or just the jumps?

Kirby Chambliss: I usually jump with my buddy. You get people out there who are pretty serious about it. I’m not as serious. If I walk off the grass at the end of the jump, it was awesome. It doesn’t matter how many times I grabbed somebody’s hand, or docked or whatever. I’m just there for fun. And I’ve already taken something that was fun and made it a lot of work, so for me, it’s all about fun.

GC LIVING: So with your flying, have you had any really scary moments in life?

Kirby Chambliss: I’ve got probably, I’m just guessing, somewhere around 30,000 or 35,000 hours. And somebody told me that’s like if you took off and then you landed four years later, so I’ve been in the air a lot. And I think anybody’s going to have those moments that you’re like, “Aaah!” I’ve broken just about everything you can in an airplane. I was a test pilot from 1993 until 2005, and I did all the flight testing. I’ve broken the stick off, I’ve broken the tail. I’ve broken longerons, all kinds of stuff. I’ve had control failures, had governor failures, had engine failures.

GC LIVING: I’m sure during the length of your career, you’ve had friends and associates who had less than favorable landings. Have any of those really impacted your life to where you were, “I’m not sure I want to continue to do this?”

Kirby Chambliss: The short answer to that would be, for sure. I’ve lost more than a hundred friends doing what I do. So, it is dangerous. I mean, you can balance it with experience, but if something breaks on the airplane and it’s something catastrophic, then you’re going to die, and it’s just that simple. Or you can make little mistakes, but doing what I do, you can’t make any big mistakes or you’re going to die.

I’ve had a lot of friends who have proven me right on that over the years. A lot of them really, really close, and I always say, “That’s the dirty side of the business.” I have other pilots call me upset about it. And I just say, “Hey, one of two choices. You can stop. Or you can just try not to let it be you.” And I’ve always been able to answer the question that it’s worth it to me. So someday I may say, you know what, it’s not worth it to me anymore. So we’ll see.

GC LIVING: In a few years you’ll be coming up on the mandatory retirement from Southwest. What’s in your future?

Kirby Chambliss: I love flying. People are always like, “Your aerobatic airplane is so cool. It’s amazing. I mean, you must just love flying it.” I do enjoy display flying. But to me, it’s my job. I really make the bulk of my income display flying and racing.

I own five planes now, and one is a little 3/4 scale, Fieseler Storch. It takes off and lands really slow, and we can go out and it’s very maneuverable and you can land anywhere. It’s got big tires on it, you can land literally anywhere. I can take off in 50 feet and land in less, and I just have a ball with that airplane. Go out and chase the coyotes, wild horses, wild pigs, or just seeing things when you’re a few feet above the ground. I mean to me, that’s the flying that I really, really enjoy. I’m sure that as long as I’m able to fly, I’ll fly. I guess that’s really what’s on my bucket list.

One of the things we also want to do as a family, in 2020 we had it all set up was to fly down, either all the way down to Central America, which I’ve done before and then back up through the islands or even if we have time, all the way down in South America and just stop and spend three nights at about 10 different places. So, I plan on doing that next year.

GC LIVING: What’s your favorite aircraft to fly?

Kirby Chambliss: The Storch. The one that is super simple. And people are always like, “Airplanes are so expensive.” I mean, my truck costs more than that plane, my Ford F-150. But it’s real flying. I mean there’s no autopilot, there’s hardly any instruments in it at all. It’s just a blast. And my daughter from the time she was 2 years old, she’s been in it, and we’d go hiking, and kicking rocks and landing everywhere. I mean again, I call it my dirt bike with wings, basically, that’s what it is. I don’t even wash it.

GC LIVING: If given the opportunity, what airplane would you want to fly? Anything out there, regardless of your ability.

Kirby Chambliss: I really want to start flying helicopters. I’ve got a few hours and I think they’re cool! So maybe that’s on my bucket list, helicopters.

The other thing I’m trying to do is, Goodyear is one of my sponsors and I’ve been trying to get them to let me go out of the blimp. But not just jump out of it, I want to take that big, long rope from the nose of it, hold onto that and then step out and it’d be like a big swing, and then let it go end to end.

GC LIVING: Given the opportunity to go to outer space, would you?

Kirby Chambliss: I’d jump on that in a New York minute.