If you have lived in Coronado for more than eight years, you’ll probably remember the last Red Bull Air Race held over the San Diego Bay in April 2009. This Easter weekend, the Red Bull Air Races are back. Local residents can look forward to the thrilling sight of twisting stunt planes shooting across the San Diego skyline once again.
What may surprise you, however, is that the Race Director is a Coronado resident. Retired Navy Captain Jim DiMatteo has lived in Coronado for 14 years with his wife and children, and his son and daughter are students at Coronado Middle and High Schools.
He also has a long history in southern California as a Navy fighter pilot and as the former commander of the TOPGUN Adversary squadrons. For nearly 30 years, he flew fighters in the U.S. Navy including the F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, A-4 Skyhawk, F-5N Tiger II, and F-16N Viper. He also commanded the two TOPGUN Adversary squadrons on both coasts: VFC-13 Saints and VFC-111 Sundowners. He finished his career at CNAF, the headquarters of naval aviation, at NAS North Island in Coronado. As Jim summarized, “The stars aligned, and I was blessed with a very fortunate aviation career.”
His naval career prepared him for enormous responsibilities in the civilian world of jet performance and competition as well. After retiring in 2013, DiMatteo went on to serve as Race Director for the Red Bull Air Races as well as vice president of flight operations, features, and attractions for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh (the world’s largest annual airshow) and as Director of Aviation for the Breitling Jet Team, the world’s largest professional civilian flight team performing in jets.
What are the Red Bull Air Races, exactly? Unlike the trick airshows that the Breitling and Blue Angels teams put on, these races are a competition between pilots. These international civilian pilots must race one at a time around a track with large, inflated pylons, and the fastest pilots advance towards the final competition. “These are some of the top race pilots in the world with about half having a military fighter pilot background and the other half coming up through the competitive aerobatic world and having placed in the top three in international competition.”
The Red Bull Air Races are held in multiple cities around the world; this year races will be held in the United Arab Emirates, San Diego, Japan, Hungary, Russia, Portugal, and Germany. The final race of the 2017 championship will be held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When I spoke to Jim last week in Coronado, he had recently returned from the first Red Bull Air Race of the season, held in sunny Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
San Diego’s race will be April 15-16, with grandstand seating available in San Diego’s Embarcadero. “You will be able see the airplanes fly from Coronado,” Jim explained, “but you will miss the competitive ‘sport’ side of it if you’re on the Coronado shoreline. After about the 10th plane, it all looks the same if you don’t know who is winning and who is losing.”
Because of this, Jim recommends, “If you live in Coronado, maybe enjoy the Ferry Landing on Saturday with your kids, but then come over to the San Diego side on Sunday for the real competition and events. It’s on Easter Weekend, so we made the competition later in the day so that people can have the morning for Church, Easter brunch, and Easter egg hunts. The race doesn’t start till 1pm. Tickets are from only $20, and military will get 30% off this price. We’ll have food, beverages, skateboarding, the Red Bull girls, and lots of cool Red Bull stuff.”
For mariners and boaters in the bay, Jim explained, “I am trying to see if we can do a radio simulcast for people on their boats but we are having challenges with getting that approved. There will be a notice to airmen and mariners because we are closing the entire Bay between Coronado and San Diego while we race. We have Harbor Police and Coast Guard protecting the area, as well.”
Tickets and more information here.
As you prepare to enjoy the races, here is a little more about our local TOPGUN commander in his own words, including what keeps him up at night in his role as Race Director and — of course — why he loves Coronado.
The Coronado Times (CT): You have been busy since retiring in 2013! Do you still fly often?
Jim DiMatteo (JDM): Yes, absolutely, I am very lucky. For the last two years as Director of Aviation for Breitling, I was fortunate to fly with the Breitling jet demonstration team. The team is basically like the Blue Angels of Europe, and it consists of seven L-39s jets. The Team is based in Dijon, France, and every pilot, other than me, is French. So my role as the Director was basically to coordinate and integrate the Team into how we fly jets around the U.S. and in Airshows within the U.S. and Canada. I was very fortunate to fly with such a respected international team.
It was a very busy two years for me, though, as I would direct a Red Bull Air Race, then do couple of air shows for Breitling, then go back to another Red Bull Air Race, and repeat it all over again. It definitely was a surge, a sprint, to do Red Bull and Breitling all at the same time, but I loved it. Now, after our two-year tour, the Breitling Jet Team has returned to their home base in France. I decided to stay in Coronado, and even though I still am the Director of Aviation for Breitling and Red Bull Air Race, I have much more time now at home in Coronado.
CT: How would you put your role as Race Director in your own words?
JDM: My primary role is the safe and expeditious execution of the race. In addition, I monitor and ensure the sport is fair for all aviators.
I have two halves of my world. One half is making sure the races all run safely on the aviation side: the rules, regulations, permitting, pilots, flying, and the track. The other half is that the Red Bull Air Race is a sport, not a show. We want to make sure at the end of the day that the guy who raises the trophy should really be the one who won. We have sporting rules and regulations that we ensure are followed by all pilots. During the actual race, I am like the head referee on the football field. I apply penalties for anything the pilots do against the rules, for example; starting too fast, too many G’s, flying too high and so on.
CT: Speaking of safety, how do you ensure the races are as safe as possible for the pilots — and the spectators, too?
JDM: Good question. Red Bull Air Race has really done a lot of work in this area.
In 2010, we took a short break from racing to see if we could improve the safety of Air Racing. We had a wonderful safety record up to that point but we wanted to keep pushing ourselves to have the safest possible air race; as usually in aviation, accidents have critical outcomes. The short break also allowed us to improve our TV product as we are televised in nearly 180 countries around the world and we wanted to make sure our TV product was the best in the world.
When we were in our short break, the Reno Air Races (which has nothing to do with our Air Race) had a tragic accident that killed and injured many in the grandstands. Subsequently, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) stopped the Reno Air Races (and all air racing in the U.S.) until they could figure out what happened at Reno and ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The FAA developed some new policies and guidelines that all air racing needed to follow to race in the U.S. Our standards already had exceeded what the FAA required, but we took the break to ensure we aligned all of our rules and regulations with the FAA. We then used those as our standard operating procedures regardless of where we race in the world. Repetition and redundancy is paramount to aviation safety.
We started our races back up in 2014, and we all work very hard to ensure that we follow these policies and make everything as safe as possible for our pilots and our spectators.
CT: What is your favorite part of serving as Race Director? The travel? The thrill of the races? Interacting with such highly-skilled pilots?
JDM: I truly enjoy the concept of flying competitively. This dovetails into my whole career as a Navy fighter pilot because it is all about performing your aircraft at the edge of its capability.
As a fighter pilot, we try to beat the other person in a dogfight. In the Red Bull Air Race, we’re trying to beat the other aviators in a race through the track. The pilots must fly their planes at the absolute best that their planes can fly for them to win. That skill set and that emotion and that drama — the competitive side of it — is very similar to being a fighter pilot. The competition of an Air Race fosters a lot of the same feelings that one gets in a “ready room” of a fighter squadron. They both have that same testosterone, same competitiveness, and same locker-room teasing. That espirit d’corps is incredibly unique in fighter aviation, and I found it again in these Air Races. I am not sure it exists anywhere else. I love the camaraderie combined with the competition.
On top of all of that, I love the international aspect. This competitive flying crosses all countries’ borders. The air is the same wherever you fly, you know; the air doesn’t see any borders. Regardless of your culture or your country or your beliefs or your politics, once your canopy closes and you start to fly and compete, it is mano a mano and may the best aviator win.
CT: What keeps you up at night with this job?
JDM: To me, my job now is very similar to being the commanding officer of a fighter squadron. You’re in charge of something where people’s lives are at stake. We are flying very close to the edge of the capabilities of the aircraft. We are minimizing our risk in a multitude of ways and constantly pushing ourselves to become even safer, but in the end there still is risk.
There is one major difference, though, between commanding a fighter squadron and directing the Red Bull Air Races. In the military, you might run at high-risk for a certain mission that is critical for your country’s military objectives. The Red Bull Air Race, however, is really just a sport and we must always remember that. But guys will be guys and they are competitive and they all want to win, so we need to allow them to compete while still being safe.
CT: You picked Coronado as your home when you retired from the Navy in 2013. What do you and your family enjoy about living in Coronado?
JDM: I would say our favorite thing about living in Coronado is the lifestyle and everything that this community offers a family. That’s true across the board, from the education for the children, to the community events, to the small neighborhood feel even though we’re right next to a big city, to the safety, the weather, the people.
I personally love the military integration, too. I credit the military with keeping this city so grounded. It’s almost that the Coronado community has adopted a sort of Navy family approach: as you know, in the military we support each other, the husband goes away and the wives are always there to help each other. I feel that the “we’re all in this together” approach that the military has seems to have transferred to the entire community of Coronado. That is truly unique. You don’t see that in other places that are really nice upscale places to live.
The other part for me is that when you travel as much as I do, you see everything in the world. You see how nice Coronado is compared to, well, pretty much everywhere else! There are wonderful places on the planet, and I think I’ve been to almost all of them. But we chose to live here. It’s paradise, especially when you have a family.
For the past 25 years I have owned bars and nightclubs in the Gaslamp Quarter, and that can get pretty crazy and stressful. When I drove home after work and got to the apex of the bridge, it was like, “Ahhhh!” I was leaving the craziness behind me on the other side. I still get that feeling every time I drive into Coronado and over the bridge. It’s a happy, special, and unique feeling.
CT: Last but not least, TOPGUN 2? Anything you can tell us?
JDM: It’s in the works! I can’t say much, but I will say that Tom Cruise wants to do this for real, with real jets, like he did with TOPGUN. He does not want to rely on green screens. I am helping the screen writers with the movie, and I can confirm that Tom Cruise will definitely be in it. That’s what ultimately matters, right? It will be hard to match up to the first one as it is one of the most iconic movies in history, but let’s see if he can do his magic one more time.
Thank you so much for your time, Jim DiMatteo, and for your service! The Red Bull Air Races will take place on April 15-16, 2017, and you can find more information and purchase your tickets here.