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There's probably few things in the world as sphincter-clenching as flying a plane surrounded by concrete walls on all sides just feet from your wingtips. Italian pilot Dario Costa did just that last week in a Red Bull stunt, and put himself in the Guinness books in the process. The record? The first airplane flight through a tunnel.
Costa took off in the early hours of Saturday, September 4, in his Zivko Edge 540 V2, modified with a Formula One seat, weight reductions, and a human-made drag-reducing "sharkskin." The flight covered two consecutive passages in the Çatalca Tunnels, part of the Northern Marmara Highway outside of Istanbul, Turkey.
The single-seater plane had only 13 feet of clearance from either wingtip as it passed through the 1.1-mile second tunnel. Costa also had to maintain a narrow vertical distance lest he crash into the roof, maintianing an altitude of between 28 and 63 inches above the asphalt.
While the stunt lasted just 43.44 seconds, it took a team of 40 people over a year to prepare. Not only did Costa endure training at Red Bull's athletic center in Salzburg, Austria, to improve his physical and mental reaction times, but he drove a car through the tunnel at 168 mph in order to acclimate to the speed.
In training, the Zivko aircraft was modified with a laser measurement system. 3D scans of the tunnel interior and the plane were taken to determine exactly how much leeway Costa had and what speed he needed to achieve. Even the time of day was carefully chosen so the sun would be at Costa's back rather than in his eyes when he exited the tunnels.
In addition to the main Guinness-certified achievement, Costa set a few other records as well. Those included a first takeoff inside a tunnel and the longest flight under a solid obstacle (1,730 meters, or 1.1 miles).
The challenge proved to be more than just keeping the aircraft steady and pointed straight. Because he took off inside the first tunnel, Costa was limited in terms of rotation — angling the nose up — forcing a smooth takeoff while keeping the plane largely horizontal. Changes in air pressure at each tunnel's entrance and exit, as well as crosswinds in the open space between the two tunnels, and even changes to the tunnel's shape were just some of the difficulties Costa had to account for.
As he emerged from the second tunnel, record complete, Costa soared skyward, hollering in triumph before crying tears of joy. “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,” said Costa. “It was a big relief, of course, but big, big happiness was the main emotion. For me, it’s another dream come true.”