From cleaning airplanes to making a historic landing on Dubai's iconic Burj Al Arab helipad, how Lukasz Czepiela beat fear to achieve his childhood dream

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, the Polish aerobatic pilot breaks down the two-year-long journey that led him to become the first-ever person to land a plane on a helipad raised 212 metres above the ground

by

Somya Mehta

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Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Published: Thu 20 Apr 2023, 4:35 PM

Last updated: Thu 20 Apr 2023, 4:36 PM

Circa 2005. Two tennis legends, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi, played a breath-taking match on a makeshift court suspended 212 metres above the city of Dubai on the helipad of the iconic Burj Al Arab. “When you get over the drama of being up so high … it’s quite a feeling because once you start playing all you’re seeing is the [tennis] ball,” said Agassi in a flashback video on YouTube. Cut to March 14, 2023, the same helipad became the shortest runway when Polish pilot Łukasz Czepiela made a historic plane landing atop the iconic platform, becoming the first ever person to accomplish such a feat.

“Dubai is stunning but when I was flying for this project, I did not glance over for the views. I was completely focused on the helipad. That’s all I could see,” the pilot told Khaleej Times. What’s common in the comment made by Agassi and the 39-year-old aerobatic pilot is the grit and determination of hitting the ‘bull’s eye’. Albeit through a powershot in tennis or manoeuvring a modified 7m Carbon Cub aircraft, the raiser-sharp focus is what enabled them to persevere and move forward.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Dubai: The city that makes the impossible possible

Over the years, Dubai has gained an iconic status as a venue for exhilarating spectacles. Not too long ago, we saw skydiver and stuntwoman Nicole Smith Ludvik on top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and Dubai’s beloved Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum sipping a beverage from a mug on top of Ain Dubai — the world’s largest and tallest observation wheel. “Dubai has been great for us. Everyone has been so welcoming. The cooperation from the aviation authorities was unparalleled,” said Czepiela.

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“In such stunts, it’s common for people to think how dangerous it might seem for the pilot. But the most important thing to consider is that we cannot endanger anyone from the team or the public on ground,” said the pilot, adding that the beaches around Burj Al Arab had been cleared out for security and safety measures. “For example, if there was a bird strike, I would have to make an emergency landing on one of the beaches around. So, both the beaches around Burj Al Arab were cleared out by the Jumeirah group in case something went wrong,” said Czepiela.

Burj Al Arab: The making of an icon

The Burj Al Arab has also gained popularity for hosting thrilling and awe-inspiring stunts in the recent years. Whether it’s the former F1 driver taking a spin in a Red Bull Racing Formula One car around the helipad in 2013 or the 2019 BMX heli drop with rider Kriss Kyle jumping off a helicopter on his bike and landing on Burj Al Arab, the hotel has become the most-filmed helipads around the world.

“The idea came about when we were thinking of the next big step in pushing aviation boundaries, of what could be done with an airplane,” added the Polish aerobat, saying that zero-ing down on the Burj Al Arab helipad was a no-brainer for the team. “What’s more iconic than the Burj Al Arab helipad?!”

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

The historic Bullseye Landing

Revisiting the whirlwind moments after the historic Bullseye Landing with the Red Bull aircraft, the pilot added, “It was literally like hitting the dart on the bull’s eye! After I landed, I just wanted to shut down the engine, go out and hug all the team members because it was such a team effort.” From inception to fulfilment, the Red Bull project took over two years in the making, to put together world-leading aviation expertise to surmount this never-seen-before stunt. “It was like a huge explosion of euphoria,” the pilot added.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

The Bullseye Landing was made in the third attempt in the early hours of a pleasant Tuesday morning after about 20 minutes of flying around the Burj Al Arab. “When we were heading there on Tuesday morning, we heard on the radio that the wind was just two knots and we needed it to be seven knots. I was devastated thinking we wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task,” Czepiela mentioned. “After about two attempts of flying around, Mike [Patey], who’s our aircraft builder and expert on ground said the wind was steady at seven. Those were the magic words I needed to hear.”

Quick thinking and quicker decisions

The pilot had all of 30-40 seconds to make the decision of going ahead with the landing. “Even though we didn’t expect it at all, somehow the wind became perfect for landing and I had to make a very quick decision because I knew that the wind would die out very soon,” added Czepiela, who’s also the first-ever Polish pilot to compete at the Red Bull Air Race, winning the world championship in the Challenger class. “It turned out to be the perfect decision because right after I landed the wind had died down. We had such a small window,” he continued. “It’s a lot of luck but also great preparation from the ground crew who was checking the forecast and the Dubai MET office that helped us out with the predictions. A lot of factors came together at exactly the right moment.”

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Though adventure and risk-taking are second nature to Czepiela, the pilot admitted that this is the most challenging task he’s accomplished in his life. “Though we did many practice runs before, landing an aircraft elevated 200 metres above ground level in itself is hard to imagine,” said the pilot. “When you’re landing at an airport, you know the exact altitude and you gradually go down. Here, we were over 200 metres above the ground just a few moments before landing and even though we touched the ‘ground’ on the helipad, we were still very high up in the air. So, it took some getting used to,” he added.

Two years in the making

In preparation for this over-the-top project, the Red Bull athlete painted a circle with equivalent measurements of the Burj Al Arab helipad back home to carry out his practice runs. “I took my aircraft which is quite similar to the one we used for this project and started practising.” Following the initial practice sessions, the team reached out to US-based aircraft manufacturers, Cub Crafters, helmed by Mike Patey, who’s an aircraft engineer and a YouTuber. “For anyone who doesn’t know him, Mike is an aviation legend,” added the Red Bull athlete. “Mike started off by putting the aircraft on a diet. He shaved a lot of weight, almost 50 kilos from the aircraft and changed the centre of gravity of the aircraft towards the back. This would allow me to hit the brake more effectively and the tail wouldn’t rise up, which adds to the safety measures,” said Czepiela.

Mike Patey was the aircraft builder for this project
Mike Patey was the aircraft builder for this project

Eliminating fear

No matter how impeccable the planning is, how much one has prepared for it or how meticulous the team is, in tasks like these, there will always be certain factors that are beyond anyone’s control. When we asked the pilot how he overcame his fear, he responded, “When it comes to fear, you have to eliminate it.” While acknowledging that everything he does with the aircrafts has an inherent risk factor, the pilot believes, “Fear paralyses you. It comes in the way of your actions."

"I have a lot of respect for what we do. I respect the wind, the aircraft limitations, the building I’m landing on. But I’ve trained so much now that it has become muscle memory for me,” said Czepiela. Having said that, he also added, “You should not attempt to do anything that you feel is risky because it can kill you. I wouldn’t do something like this if I felt scared or unprepared. We do crazy stuff. We don’t do foolish stuff.”

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Developing mental tenacity

Czepiela’s early interests towards aviation and aerobatics took root when he was only six years old. “My father took me to a local airshow and it immediately fascinated me so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about the aircrafts stunts I witnessed. The six-year-old Luke told his father, ‘Hey dad, I’m going to do that one day’,” the 39-year-old added. “As I got older, I started reading a lot about aviation. I went to the local airport, started cleaning aeroplanes and got into the industry. It just grew from there. I’ve been immersed in this for many year.”

Developing the mental tenacity to handle such tasks is as important for the pilot as building the physical capacity for it. “If you’re in a state of flow, you will be calm, no matter how crazy the situation around you is,” said Czepiela. “Over the years, I have read a lot of books and spoken to sports psychologists to understand this mentality. I’ve attended Red Bull’s Athlete Performance Centre and worked with some of the best people to build on my resilience and skills,” the pilot added.

But did the pilot always know he’d be able to accomplish something as huge as this? “If you love something just do it. I believe in karma. I come from a poor family and we didn’t have much growing up. I couldn’t afford to fly. I was working as a babysitter just to make some money for flying. Then I started selling aircraft parts, working for somebody else, for 12 to 14 hours every day. If you really want something, the universe will try to help you achieve it. From a poor guy in Poland, now I’m someone who got to stay at the Burj Al Arab. It’s been great," Czepiela signed off.

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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