Costa began his aviation career at 13 as a high school student in Bologna, Italy. He soloed when he was 16 years old and became the youngest flight and aerobatic instructor in his country. As Costa’s aerobatic talents continued to develop, he joined the elite Red Bull Air Race Team as a flight operations manager and development pilot.
Since joining the Red Bull team in 2013, Costa has achieved several firsts in aviation. Whether competing as the first Italian Red Bull Air Race pilot or becoming the first civilian pilot to fly a photo flight over Venice, Costa is always trying something new. But it wasn’t until this previous year that Costa pushed a new kind of personal boundary.
Flying through tunnels might not be on the top of our minds when discussing personal minimums and boundaries, but that’s where Costa’s mindset differs.
“I’ve always been interested in pushing the boundaries, and the tunnel is just the next step,” said Costa. In an AOPA Pilot Lounge conversation with the author and AOPA Air Safety Institute Senior Vice President Richard McSpadden, Costa elaborated, “There is a lot of science in this project that I wanted to …explore… I can’t believe that [none] of you have ever thought what could happen if a plane flies through a tunnel…I don’t think I’m the first … but [we wanted] to use science, which I really love… to explore and understand.”
The science that Costa is referring to goes well beyond most of our fundamental understanding of Bernoulli’s principle. It is a deep dive into the physics of ground effect, how wings react when flying close to tunnel walls, and Costa’s overall reaction times.
“The physics of the tunnel showed us that there are waves that will require me to react in less than 250 milliseconds, and my reaction time was not 250 milliseconds,” said Costa. Costa worked three times a week to improve his reaction time and mental performance in preparation for this historic flight. He trained with performance coaches to virtually prepare for the flight using strobe glasses to simulate fast-moving lights in the tunnel and first-person-view goggles to repeatedly examine what flying through the twin tunnels would look like.
On the morning of September 4, Costa awoke in a camper strategically placed inside of the first tunnel—a mere 6.5 feet from his Edge 540 “so that I could not only get used to the lights… but to the darkness … to the smell, to the sound … everything,” Costa recalled. At 6:43 a.m. Costa climbed into his aircraft, exclaimed “clear prop,” and completed what he had worked so long to achieve: a 43.44-second flight at 152 mph underneath the Çatalca Tunnels in Istanbul. The flight, which covered 1.4 miles, was the first of its kind. The feat earned Costa a Guinness World Record for “Longest tunnel flown through with an airplane.”
Although some may view the Red Bull pilot as a daredevil, Costa says, “I really think safety is paramount… If you ask me ‘Are you scared of flying?’ I am. If you ask me ‘Are you scared of flying through a tunnel?’ Oh my God, I am. I mean I was really, really scared. But that’s what helps me to… train and to get better, and better, and better.”