Hungary's biggest sporting star is an aerobatic pilot whose wife is far more worried when he drives than when he flies.
Asked to name a famous Hungarian sportsman, most people would think of Ferenc Puskás. But it's not so straightforward in Budapest. Aerobatics champion Péter Besenyei has been Hungary's sportsman of the year 14 times. He is a household name and has been decorated with the country's highest honor the President of the Republic's Gold Medal.
The 50-year-old pilot, rated among the top three in the world, is routinely mobbed for autographs when walking the streets of the capital. His success during a 31-year career in which he has won 21 national championships and several world titles has made him a national hero, but it is his daring creativity in the air that distinguishes him from his competitors. Besenyei has invented numerous spins and rolls including the „knife-edge spin” and the „inverted flat spin”. Six years ago he was approached by a TV company to perform a daredevil stunt flying under the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the first bridge to span the Danube in Budapest.
„I said for me it is no problem, just tell me if you want it normal or upside down, „ says Besenyei, who then flew upside down. „But I did not do it because I wanted to show how clever I am. Some pilots do stupid tricks to show off, but I'm a sportsman. I prefer to fly races or competitions, they have a value. To fly this kind of circus or media thing for me has no value.”
His enthusiasm for competition, at a time when international aerobatics competitions were in flux, starting up and then being taken over by a new format or sponsor, caught the eye of Austrian company Red Bull. That same year they asked Besenyei if he would help devise a format and select the pilots to compete in an international -aerobatics competition. And so, in 2003 the first Red Bull Air Race took place. Aerobatics pilots can be generally characterized by a wicked sense of humor and Besenyei is always on the verge of breaking into a smile, the moustache quivering in handsome -anticipation. But his good humor does not reveal the depth of his past.
Besenyei was born into a bloody chapter in Hungary's history. In October 1956, when Besenyei was four months old, the Hungarian Revolution was brutally quashed as Nikita Krushchev sent the Red Army into Budapest and 20,000 Hungarians were killed. Soviet control was restored and Besenyei was destined to spend the first part of his career under communist rule. Besenyei doesn't talk about what it was like to live for 33 years under communism, but instead refers quietly to the „different system”. But whatever restrictions that system brought, the benefits of communism for Besenyei meant free access to a government-run aero club.
Growing up next to an airfield in Budapest, he was fascinated by aeroplanes from a young age. „It was so mystic for me, especially the planes that flew aerobatics, loops and rolls. I was always hanging around the airfield watching the landings and take-offs, going into the hangars and touching the planes. To join the aero club, we didn't have to pay, just work. We had to push the planes, clean the hangars, cut the grass, we had to pay with our free time.”
By the time he was 16 Besenyei had made his first solo flight and had his mind set on becoming a pilot. Plagued with worry, his -parents were unhappy about his choice of career, but by 1981 Besenyei had made the national aerobatics team and was competing regularly. „I was very proud to be in that team, „ he recalls. „I was the youngest, but the trainer selected me because he said he saw something. He told my team-mates that he could see my talent and he wanted to teach me personally.”
But Besenyei's relationship with his mentor and his team-mates was cut short in 1982 when the entire national team died in a terrible accident. „It is a very bad story, „ says Besenyei. „Every Tuesday at the airport we had a training day and this Tuesday the weather was very bad. The chief of the airport asked the pilots to go to another airfield and bring some aeroplanes home that had been stuck at the other base over the weekend due to the bad weather. I didn't have the experience for the planes we needed to fly so the air chief told me, "No Peter, you cannot go." It was not a nice decision, I wanted to go with them.”
Besenyei's nine team-mates took their seats as passengers in a carrier plane that would fly them to the other airbase, and a non-aerobatics pilot took control of the plane. „They took off and in the bad weather he drove them into the mountain. I was shocked, my team-mates were just passengers. There was nothing wrong with the plane, just that somebody made a wrong decision.” For four months Besenyei could not bring himself to go to the airport. „I wanted to stop flying, „ he says. „All my friends, all my role models had gone. They were the guys ahead of me and they all went in the same moment. Still I cannot understand or accept it. Every week they are in my mind. It was very bad for Hungarian aviation. We had no trainer for years we taught ourselves and it was not easy. If this tragedy had not happened aviation in Hungary would have been in a much better situation.”
Eventually, Besenyei began flying again and took charge of a new -generation of Hungarian aerobatics pilots. But he would never feel comfortable as a passenger in a plane. „That's what I worry about when I fly,” he says. „That someone makes that wrong decision, you must know your limits. Planes can fail. It's Murphy's Law, if something can go wrong, it will. I have had several engine failures and fires, but pilots practice for that. There is always a solution if you make the right decisions.”
To compete in the Red Bull Air Race the pilots are flown to various locations around the world from Abu Dhabi to Perth but Besenyei is an unenthusiastic passenger. „If I take a commercial flight, I know it's the safest form of transport, „ he says. „But if I'm sitting in the forty seventh row at the back of the plane and I have no idea about the pilot, or what is going on in front, it's not a good feeling. Maybe the pilot has had a bad night or they're in a bad mood. In an emergency situation I don't know what he'll do. I like to be in control. Maybe that's why I don't like to ride horses they have a personality. I prefer technology, it goes where I want, then I know I'm the boss.”
Besenyei loves fast cars, but he says his wife Tünde worries most when he is driving rather than flying. „If I drive down the highway she is worried. Whenever I travel she asks if I go with my plane or my car. If I say by car it's "ahhhh" and she's worried. On the highway you can have an accident without making any mistakes of your own.” The two make an effort to go flying together. „She loves to fly. Every year on our anniversary she says, "Don't give me flowers, give me a flight." So we fly aerobatics and she loves it. She is always asking for the stick and she tries to make loops and rolls. Like me she also loves fishing and she is a good fishergirl.”
Besenyei's list of hobbies is long: playing the piano, skydiving, fishing, photography and skiing; he also has his own wine label and a huge collection of bottles in his cellar. „Yes, the problem is I don't have time to drink them,” he says. „The day is only 24 hours. I take five hours' sleep, but I'm sorry even for that. We spend 20 years of our life asleep. It is terrible.” A music enthusiast whose interest spans Beethoven to Tangerine Dream, („but not rap, da da da, boring”), Besenyei says playing improvisations on the piano is like flying a plane. „For me the freestyle program is a kind of improvisation, this time the aeroplane is my -instrument and I play my feelings, my mood. I always try to understand what the plane wants to do and let it do it. I like to play. Sometimes I have an idea in the sky and I try it, but for that you must always feel your plane.”
It is sensitive talk from a man who resists the macho urges of a daredevil sport. He is proud of his record as a host pilot. „I always take care when I have -passengers in my plane, „ he says. „I tell them what to expect and I fly gently without a lot of G [force]. In my plane no one has been sick in the last 25 years, nobody has made my plane dirty.” He is unimpressed by the stunts pulled by younger pilots. „They want to show off. They don't worry about the passengers, after one minute the passenger is sick. For me the first task is always to make them happy.”
Next stop on the Red Bull Air Race tour is America with a race on Saturday at Monument Valley in Utah. After winning the first race in Abu Dhabi and with eight points under his belt, Besenyei hopes to challenge for the title this season after finishing second the past two years. Of all the exotic locations the series covers, Besenyei insists with a smile that Longleat in Wiltshire has been his favorite. „The track is challenging and the landscape is beautiful, „ he says. „It is not flat you really have to fly in three dimensions because it is hilly and there are so many big trees around.”
But aged 50, and with 10Gs pulling on him every flight, how many more years will Besenyei be able to compete? „Our good friend Klaus Schrodt is the oldest in the team and he is 10 years older than me, but Klaus is a special guy. I will fly as long as I can, but I don't want to fly another 10 years. I look forward to when I have more time and my mobile phone rings less.” (sport.guardian)