Polish aviator Łukasz Czepiela is one of those pilots who likes to break aviation records and push beyond the boundaries. It is therefore not surprising he did it again and, on 14th March this year, one more time went down in aviation history. But first, before we go into details, it is worth having a closer look at his pilot´s career.
Although Łukasz Czepiela is world-known aerobatic and stunt pilot, his daily work is to fly as a captain of Airbus A320 airliner with the Wizz Air company. In addition to the big passenger aircraft, his pilot logbook includes many hours flown at the controls of aerobatic aircraft such as Extra 300, Extra 330, or Zivko Edge 540.
As a member of the Polish national aerobatics team, Łukasz Czepiela competed in several national and international contests, having achieved many successes. Additionally, in previous years of his aviation career, Czepiela was also a member of the British aerobatic group Honda Dream Team and the Polish Żelazny Aerobatic Group (Grupa Akrobacyjna Żelazny). Nevertheless, he gained wider international recognition since his participation in Red Bull Air Race World Championship. Between 2014 and 2019, Czepiela was the only Polish pilot to compete in that well-known air race series, and won the 2018 and 2019 World Championship title in Challenger Class.
Since 2017, Czepiela began to participate in air shows, flying the aforementioned Zivko Edge 540 aerobatic special, painted in navy blue and yellow colours and with the Red Bull brand logo on the aircraft fuselage and wings.
However, apart from being highly experienced and one of the best aerobatic pilots in Poland, Łukasz Czepiela is – as we mentioned in the beginning – also one of those who likes to go beyond boundaries and set new limits in aviation.
One of Czepiela´s first stunts of that kind was performed in the morning of 2nd May 2017 in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. On that day, the Polish celebrate the Flag Day and – as a part of that celebration – the citizens of Warsaw could see an unusual Polish national flag created over the river Vistula. Two aerobatic aircraft, trailing smoke in the Polish national white and red colours, flown along the Vistula, low under the Warsaw bridges.
The first of those aeroplanes was Edge 540 flown by Łukasz Czepiela, while the second was Extra 330 with Czech aerobatic pilot, and another Red Bull Air Race competitor, Martin Šonka at its controls.
Regrettably, the year 2019 – when Czepiela defended his championship in the Challenger Class of the Red Bull Air Race – marked the last season for this amazing aviation race. Shortly after conclusion of that season, it was officially announced that the competition would not be continued in further years. However, and fortunately for Łukasz Czepiela, that fact did not mean the end of his successful collaboration with the Red Bull brand.
In the same year 2019, Czepiela made headlines with his amazing stunt of an aeroplane landing on a seaside pier. On the morning of 24th April, he landed a CubCrafters CC11-160 Carbon Cub EX STOL aircraft, carrying a Red Bull livery, on the historic wooden pier in Sopot. The event was thoroughly planned and was performed as an unconventional inauguration of the new summer season in that popular Polish seaside resort. It is worth noting that Sopot Pier, although being the longest one at the Baltic Sea and the longest wooden one in Europe, is just 10 meters wide and 511 meters long (with 458 meters in the sea). It was the very first landing – and then also the take-off – of that kind ever and the news was spread broadly, especially among aviation enthusiasts, in Poland and all over the world.
It was only matter of time, when Łukasz Czepiela would surprise us with another incredible stunt. However, no one could predict how spectacular and amazing it would be. All doubts were dispelled a few days ago, when Czepiela made aviation history again by becoming the first person in the world to land an aeroplane on the skyscraper helipad. In addition, it was not an ordinary helipad, but the one located at the iconic sail-shaped building of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai.
Without any doubts, Łukasz Czepiela had raised the bar again, not only for himself but for the whole category of aviation stunts, and this time it was set – quite literally – an incomparably higher. His landing on the Sopot Pier was undeniably a remarkable feat. However, at that time, the touchdown took place on a 100-metre-long section of that wooden pier. Now, the landing zone was critically short – it was just the helipad circle with a diameter of only 27 metres, situated atop the 56-storey building, 212 metres above the ground and without any visible points of reference.
Although the very event lasted just a few minutes, preparations for this unusual feat took two years. The training began in 2021 and included six hundred and fifty on-ground test landings performed in Poland, the United States and Dubai.
Such an unusual challenge required a suitable aircraft, so it was not surprising that Czepiela´s choice again fell on the Carbon Cub. Those small but sturdy aeroplanes have extremely good short take-off and landing capabilities already from the factory (click here to learn more about that design), however, several additional modifications to the aeroplane were necessary to land on the helipad.
It needed to bring together a team from Cub Crafters, the aircraft manufacturer, and Mike Patey, renowned American aviation engineer, fabricator and aircraft builder with great experience of extreme aircraft modifications. First of all, the weight of the aircraft was significantly reduced to just 425 kilograms. The placement of the fuel tank was also changed and it was moved more to the rear to enable more aggressive braking after touchdown. Interestingly, propulsion system of the aeroplane was additionally equipped with the feature similar to that known from car tuning – the so-called nitro injection to increase engine power.
‘In the lead up, our biggest challenge was reducing the weight. Any mass in motion wants to keep rolling and if we couldn’t stop it, Luke would have bailed off the other side of the building. But a lighter plane also means wind throws it around more, and you have less control. In this environment – with a tall building sticking up next to the helipad – weird wind currents go over the top and around the side of it. So we wanted some nice headwind to help the landing, but not too much. This was a truly unique challenge. It’s a love-hate thing.’ – said Mike Patey. ‘We added nitrous tanks to get a lot of power without a lot of weight. This fuel speeds up combustion in the engine, pushing its cylinders to accelerate more quickly. The Carbon Cub is the right aircraft for this project, but we needed the right person to fly it. And there are only a couple on this planet I would feel comfortable making this attempt. Luke is exactly that guy.’ – he added.
As mentioned above, the historic moment occurred on 14th March 2023 at 6:58 am local time. Łukasz Czepiela, guided over the radio by Mike Patey, successfully landed the Carbon Cub on the helipad at the top of the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in just the third attempt in favourable conditions and the steady wind at 7 knots. To achieve that feat, he needed only 20.76 from the helipad diameter of 27 metres, from touchdown to full stop.
‘Once I got to the aircraft and I started practicing with the little wind, I felt so confident, I felt so good. I just played some music in my helmet and Mike said the magic words ‘wind is steady at seven (knots)’, and I said ‘ok let’s drop this baby down on the pad’. When I stopped, I couldn’t stop myself. I was running, I was shouting, and everyone was hugging each other. We landed a plane on the helipad on top of the Burj Al Arab. I have too many emotions to give you technical details. We landed a plane on a helipad!’ – said Łukasz Czepiela after the landing.
About the hardest aspects of the landing, Czepiela said: ‘The biggest challenge was the lack of any external points of reference, which is usually found at an airport where you have hundreds of meters of runway. Normally when approaching a runway, I see how high above it I am, and I can easily control the approach path. Today the helipad disappeared over the nose of the plane and my periphery was reduced. I had to rely on my practice and instincts when my last few references went away if I wanted to come to a stop before running out of space.’
Shortly after the landing, Czepiela jumped into the aeroplane again to proceed with the second part of his stunt. He started the Carbon Cub’s engine up and made a few spins with the aircraft in the middle of the helipad with the smoke on. Then he took-off from the pad performing spectacular dive gaining speed and celebrated his success by flying around the famous skyscraper and along the beach located at its foot.
‘To be honest I couldn’t feel happier! Two years in the making, third attempt (to land) today and everything was perfect. We’ve managed to put a plane on a helipad 212 metres above the ground, on the most iconic, the most beautiful building in the world. The best bit after the landing was the take-off, I had so much fun just dropping the aircraft out of the sky and diving almost to beach level.’ – said Łukasz Czepiela summing up the whole event. – ‘From the first arrival here at the Burj Al Arab almost two-years ago we set out a plan how to do it, and now we’ve completed the plan, and everyone played their role exactly as scheduled. I feel awesome, there is no other word to describe it!’
In conclusion, it is worth to mention that while Łukasz Czepiela became the first person in history to land an aeroplane on a helipad, his landing is not the first time the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel has been the scene of an impressive feat.
In 2005, two tennis stars, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi, played a tennis match on the helipad. Then, in 2013, thirteen-time F1 Grand Prix winner, David Coulthard performed donuts in his Formula 1 car there. The Scottish F1 star congratulated to the Polish pilot after his historic landing, saying – ‘I want to send my congratulations to Luke for joining me as the only two people to do donuts on the Burj Al Arab helipad. What an incredible sight seeing him land an aircraft on the pad!’
Information from the Red Bull company press release were used.