This is absolutely insane! Yesterday, 4 September 2021, pro race and stunt pilot Dario Costa of Italy wrote a new chapter in aviation history as he flew an aeroplane through the narrow confines of two enclosed tunnels just outside Istanbul, Turkey.
In near-darkness and closely surrounded by the concrete arc of the walls, Costa executed a tricky takeoff inside the first tunnel, flashed through an open-air gap and then continued his 245kph flight through the second tunnel, flying less than 1m from the ground.
Dario Costa, 41, has over two decades of flying experience. He’s flown more than 60 aeroplane models and logged over 5,000 hours in the air—more than half in high-performance aerobatics. He won the top category of the Italian Aerobatic Championship and became first Italian pilot to join, and earn a race win in, the Red Bull Air Race Challenger Class.
‘Tunnel Pass’ was by far Costa’s most demanding and complex undertaking yet, requiring a team of 40 people, specially developed training technology and more than a year of preparation. Throughout, the project was shrouded in secrecy to limit variables and distractions, allowing complete focus for a successful flight that was no more than a simple idea on paper 12 months ago.
Flying an aeroplane through a tunnel
Located outside Istanbul on Northern Marmara Highway and initially put into service in March 2020, the dual Çatalca tunnels are state-of-the-art; but were designed for automobile traffic, not the flight of an aircraft.
At the controls of his specially modified Zivko Edge 540 raceplane, Costa took off inside the first tunnel at 06:43am, with the early hour putting the sun at the pilot’s back and offering optimal ambient conditions. Limited overhead clearance meant that he had to keep the aircraft on an average flight path between 70cm and 1m above the asphalt, while also managing a tight distance of about 3.5m between each wingtip and the unforgiving tunnel walls. Complicating the trajectory were changes in tunnel incline and shape.
From takeoff to exiting the second tunnel, the flight lasted 43.44 seconds, covering a distance of 2,260m/2.26km and reaching a top speed of 245kph. One of the most critical moments came at the 360m gap between tunnels, which exposed the raceplane to cross winds as Costa prepared to thread it into the low, narrow opening of the second tunnel.
“Everything seemed to be happening so fast, but when I got out of the first tunnel, the plane started to move to the right because of the cross winds, and in my head, everything slowed down in that moment,” explained Costa. “I reacted and just focused on getting the plane back on the right path to enter the other tunnel. Then in my mind everything sped up all over again.”
When the raceplane shot out of the other side, Costa pulled it into a celebratory loop before landing. “I’d never flown in a tunnel in my life—nobody had ever done it—so there was a big question mark in my head whether everything would go as we expected or if there would be something to improvise,” he said. “It was a big relief, of course, but big, big happiness was the main emotion. For me it’s another dream come true.”
The achievement set a new Guinness World Record: Longest Tunnel Flown through with an Aeroplane (1,610 m). Four other notable records were: first aeroplane flight through a tunnel, longest flight under a solid obstacle (1,610 m), first aeroplane flight through two tunnels, first aeroplane takeoff from a tunnel.
Costa was mentored by Hungarian aerobatic and racing pilot Péter Besenyei, 65, an aviation legend renowned for his role in developing and competing in the Red Bull Air Race. Besenyei is also well known for feats such as flying upside down under the Chain Bridge in Budapest.
“To fly in a tunnel is not a normal situation,” Besenyei said. “The main point is the mindset. Because to fly straight at one metre off the ground and follow a centre line is not really so difficult technically if you are over a runway. But in the tunnel, especially a dark tunnel, and to come out of the tunnel into the light and then back into another dark tunnel, it’s different. And also there are air waves that can affect the flight, and you should expect some bumps. It’s difficult in your mind because you know that if you make a mistake, the wall is hard.”
Video: Red Bull Content Pool