Maggie Hartford talks to a world champion pilot about his life and motivation

Flying a plane between pylons at top speed, looping the loop – it’s all bread and butter to Nigel Lamb. As an aerobatics pilot, he has flown everything from a high-performance MXS to a Second World War Spitfire.

And at 58, with 40 years of flying under his belt, he is still having the time of his life.

“If you are not loving it, you should not be doing it, or you will start making mistakes.”

Now he is world champion of the Red Bull Air Race, an extraordinary competition which boasts of being the fastest motorsport series in the world. It harnesses speed, precision and skill as the high-tech planes are manoeuvred along a low aerial track of 25m air-filled pylons.

Born in what was then Rhodesia but is now now Zimbabwe, he wanted to fly from the age of 11.

“I wrote a letter to the air force – I can’t imagine what it looked like – and they gave me some good advice, which was to get an education and re-apply.

“I was very lucky to get in when I was 18, because we lived miles from the nearest airfield and we weren’t wealthy, so I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.”

After so many years dreaming about flying, he faced several months of gruelling physical exercise and hard work in the classroom.

The pilot training programme had a high failure rate and he has vivid memories of his first flight.

“My first flying lesson was in the Piston Provost in 1975. To us young cadets it was a 550HP beast – an amazing aircraft. My first solo 15 hours later was an epiphany.”

He realised that flying came quite naturally and he had a good chance of succeeding.

“Being solo on left-hand downwind, looking across the cockpit and having no instructor in the right seat was an amazing and unforgettable feeling.

“I remember the total freedom I felt when I looked across and there was no one with me; I was all alone in the cockpit.

“I’ll never forget that feeling of being really completely free for the first time.”

After flying jets and helicopters during Rhodesia’s so-called ‘bush war’, in 1980 he moved to England to join an aerobatics team.

He spent the next two decades flying in formation, enjoying the heyday of UK air shows, winning the British National Unlimited Aerobatic Championship eight times in a row.

Some of his work was at Wycombe Air Park, and he and his African-born wife Hilary moved in 1986 to an Oxfordshire village near Thame, where they have lived ever since, bringing up three boys.

His father, from the North East of England, had been an RAF Spitfire test pilot during the Second World War, but did not discuss his wartime experiences.

So Mr Lamb was fascinated, when he started organising flying displays at Duxford Air Museum, near Cambridge, to meet people who had known his father.

When he spoke to The Oxford Times, he had just returned from the Middle East, and was just about to leave for his next race in Japan, followed by Croatia.

Then a short gap before Budapest, Ascot (August 15-16), Austria and the US.

While he travels the world, his wife, who is also a pilot, runs the business, providing display teams for various events, with a sideline as a governor of Lewknor Primary School.

The world of aerobatics is a small and apparently dangerous one. Does he know pilots who died in crashes?

“I do. But it’s a risk to jump into your car on a foggy morning and drive on the M40. It’s a question of risk management.

“Very few things are risk-free and many things look complicated and dangerous from the outside until you understand them and apply logic and common sense.

“If you don’t understand the risks it is very dangerous. If you understand the engine, how it is maintained, and what to do if there’s engine failure; if you have practised scenarios, it’s different. You train for every eventuality.

“You have to look after yourself – exercise, diet, etc. If you have done all that, you are completely at ease, and if you haven’t, you shouldn’t be doing it. My wife is pretty comfortable with what I do.”

As well as maintaining aerobic fitness with sports like racketball, he also does yoga and pilates, perhaps a surprising choice of exercise for such a macho occupation.

“Core strength is very important to combat the G-force, and as you get older I think you need to do more stretching.”

He says display flying makes hard physical demands on the body, though racing is “very much a mind game” of strategy and tactics.

“It’s hard in a mechanical way. You do have to put work into keeping your neck and back in good shape.”

He has flown stunt planes in movies like Fly Boys, Hart’s War, and Dark Blue World, and loves vintage aircraft. He was particularly touched to fly a P-51 Mustang, the last type his father flew before being shot down by a flak barge in Holland in September 1944 and spending the rest of the war as a test pilot.

Would Mr Lamb be happy if his own sons took up aerobatics?

“I would point them in the direction of getting the right kind of base training, so that they are well prepared. It’s not something you can do on impulse.”

In fact, none of his sons has yet learned to fly. The oldest, Max, has just finished a degree in architectural engineering, Dan is still at university, while Ben is at Lord Williams’s School in Thame.

Just to prove that he isn’t a daredevil, Mr Lamb says there are plenty of adrenaline sports that are “only for nutters”.

“Potholing, for example. It would be too claustrophobic, especially under-water caving.

“And base jumping. There are too many things that are not under your control that could go wrong.”

As for retirement, his exit plan is the same as it was 25 years ago.

“Age is not a major factor, and we have a lot of medicals and heart tests. More important than age is your desire and your passion to do it. I still have that.

“But when the flame of passion is not burning strong, I will stop.”