On March 14, Polish pilot and air racing champion Luke Czepiela added a new line to his resume. The pilot maneuvered his CubCrafters Carbon Cub UL short take-off-and-landing aircraft to an incredible landing on a helipad perched on the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel in Dubai. The landing makes the pilot the first to land a plane on the building’s helipad. Let’s take a look into the incredible work it takes to get a plane to land on a “runway” just 88 feet long, 695 feet above the ground, next to a building, and with drops at the end.
Red Bull has published a video showing the skilled landing. The company is calling the 88-foot helipad the shortest runway in the world. The claim does appear to have merit. The Dutch Caribbean island of Saba claims the shortest commercial runway with Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport‘s 1,300-foot-long strip. That particular airport is famous in part because at the ends of either end of the runway sits a ledge going straight into the ocean. If you ignore commercial airports, Simko Field in Idaho claims a length just 400 feet. The ground roll of a Cessna 172 is more than twice that distance. That really puts this landing into perspective. Czepiela basically parked his plane on a dot, check out the video:
STOL Aircraft And Competitions Are Otherworldly
Before I get into this, I should note that the type of flying here isn’t anything new. According to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, engineers have been looking into the idea of shortening runways since before the Jet Age. National STOL, a competition series, notes that the military has been working on shortening take off runs since World War I. The idea here was that if the vertical take off and landing capabilities of a helicopter could be combined with the cruising capabilities of a plane, runways can be very short, if not eliminated entirely. Thus engineers across decades of time have developed aircraft that could take off in a short space.
The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission notes that from the 1940s onward, around 40 military VTOL and STOL aircraft designs have been tested with just four getting put into production. Two notable examples would be the Harrier “jump jet” and the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey.
[Update: Though, it should be noted that the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission’s site is out of date and more designs have been introduced since then. Thanks, reader!]
The Commission describes the difficulties in getting a plane to land and take off like a helicopter:
The biggest problem with achieving V/STOL flight is that conventional wings provide a good amount of lift for a relatively low amount of forward thrust. Getting an aircraft off the ground with little or no forward motion requires that engine thrust—and not wing lift—support a significant portion of the aircraft’s weight—or all of it. This usually requires big engines, lots of fuel, and complicated flight controls, all of which weigh more.
Zenith Aircraft Corporation, a producer of STOL aircraft kits, notes that while you can just overpower a plane with a big engine, it’s an inefficient way to achieve STOL performance. Zenith goes on to say that big engines with big fuel loads impact slow flight performance. Over time, engineers figured out ways to get planes up in the air quicker through the use of long wings, leading edge devices, light weight, and big power. National STOL notes that in the search to increase wing lift while also increasing an aircraft’s capable load, leading edge slats were invented in 1919.
In short, STOL planes can get up into the air in a small footprint because designs often involve wings that can produce a lot of lift, engines that produce a lot of thrust, and often extreme weight reduction. When you’re flying in the backcountry, sometimes you don’t have nice long runways to lift off from, so you need your plane to have the performance to take off from small fields.
STOL competitions have become a bit of an internet phenomenon. Pilots can hone their skills by seeing in just how much room they can land or take off their plane. There are even STOL drag races where one pilot will race another to see how quickly they can move their aircraft a certain distance. In 2018, pilot Dan Reynolds broke a record when he set his homebuilt Chinook down in just 9 feet, 5 inches in a competition.
Back to the helipad landing, Czepiela used up 68 feet of the 88 available in coming to a stop. He did not land the plane in a space smaller than itself, but his achievement is still incredible. In the aforementioned STOL competitions, getting it wrong means trying again. You aren’t trying to land your plane on an 88-foot circle with a 695-foot drop off of the edge.
The plane used for the job was a CubCrafters Carbon Cub UL. This aircraft is a variation of the Piper J-3 Cub that first flew back in 1938. Pilots have found that the Cub’s design allows it to have good low-speed handling and exceptional short-field performance. Founded in 1980 by Jim Richmond, CubCrafters first provided parts to Cub owners before modernizing the aircraft’s design and materials, making an already good plane even better.
Czepiela’s ride, the CubCrafters Carbon Cub UL, has characteristics nearly perfect for a job like this. Its takeoff roll can be configured to be as short as 60 feet and its landing as short as 110 feet. Now, I now what you’re thinking: “Mercedes, isn’t the helipad just 88 feet?” Yes, and this is where CubCrafters modifications came in and found 384 pounds to remove to get the 1,320-pound aircraft down to 936 pounds. From Red Bull:
Guiding Czepiela onto the helipad was renowned American aviation engineer, fabricator and aircraft builder Mike Patey, who modified Czepiela’s plane with the team from aircraft manufacturer CubCrafters. Patey and CubCrafters made a number of modifications, reducing aircraft weight to 425 kilograms, moving the main fuel tank to the rear of the plane to allow for more aggressive braking and adding nitrous to enhance power for Czepiela’s secondary challenge – taking off from the helipad.
“In the lead up, our biggest challenge was reducing the weight,” recalled Patey. “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.”
Power comes from a Titan CC340 340 cubic-inch flat four making 180 HP, providing thrust from a composite prop. The plane has a 110 mph cruising speed and carries up to 25 gallons of fuel for an endurance of about 3.2 hours at cruise speed. For the attempt, Czepiela carried 22 gallons of fuel, which Red Bull says 15 gallons of which was for ferrying the plane to the skyscraper and 7 gallons were for the actual attempt.
As noted above, half of the battle was simply getting the plane down. On a normal clear day like the day of the landing, a pilot will have visual cues to help them. Namely, you can see the runway that you’re aiming for. Czepiela noted that during the landing, he had no points of reference. After all, his “runway” was essentially an 88-foot ledge hanging off of the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah hotel. Czepiela explains:
“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.”
And Czepiela got in tons of practice. Czepiela, like many aviation fanatics, had planes in his blood since he was a kid and in 2010, he joined Red Bull’s acrobatic training camps. Since the Red Bull Air Race World Championship was on hiatus, he went to the Żelazny aerobatics team in Poland before going to more aerobatic training camps. Czepiela finally got into the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in 2013, where he placed in the middle of the pack. Later, he would become an airline pilot with Wizz Air before taking in four podium race finishes in 2016 and five more in 2017. Among those podium finishes includes two wins and in 2018, he took home the Red Bull Air Race Challenger Cup win.
Outside of air racing, Czepiela spent some time flying under bridges and landing on wooden piers, so this was right up his alley.
For this challenge, Czepiela spent two years practicing 650 landings at ground level in the United States, Poland, and Dubai. Not all of the practice landings were on the mark, of course, but that’s the point of practice! The practice was worth it as after three attempts, Czepiela landed on the helipad, using up 68 feet of the available 88. His landing speed was 29 mph and as noted before, the pad sits 695 feet above ground level and 728 feet above sea level.
For some more fun facts about the plane, CubCrafters removed the baggage compartment, found a lighter pilot seat, fitted a lightweight battery, modified the seatbelts, the fabric covering the fuselage was replaced with lighter fabric, they added 29-inch wheels, and more. One necessary addition was Nitrous Oxide. See, once Czepiela got the plane down, he still had to get it off of the helipad. Remember, this plane would normally need 110 feet to lift off, space he didn’t have. To help get the bird off of the helipad safely, a shot of NOx kicked engine output up to 230 HP.
With this record in the books, Czepiela says that he couldn’t be happier and that he had so much fun. His flying career will continue, including continuing his role as captain of an Airbus A320. As for CubCrafters, this was such a success that the company plans to sell a STOL aircraft based on Czepiela’s plane. I see this as an inspiration. Flying is expensive, but if you can stick with it, you’ll have the time of your life and maybe do something amazing along the way.
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Presumably the “Centennial of Flight Commission” dates to 2003-ish, and there have been additional V/STOL aircraft built since then. They include the F-35B (briefly referenced) flown by the Marine Corps and several foreign countries, which in use is considered a “STOVL” aircraft – it has a Short Take Off, and then Vertical Landing. There is also now the Leonardo AW609 tilt-rotor in production. The Bell V280 tilt-rotor is about to go into production for the Army in the near future, though there will be some contract protests from Sikorsky first that will be dismissed.
And who am I to argue with the Commission, but I’d have said there were quite a few more STOL aircraft that have been produced, memorably the German Fiesler Storch and the Serbian Slepcev Storch, a 3/4s derivative of the German plane.
It did NOT go into production but the German Dornier DO 31 VTOL transport is too weird not to check out.
National STOL is craaaaazy!
(You can say anything you want to about the F-35A and F-35C: the F-35B is very good at being an F-35B and only going to get better. Ooh Rah.)
Shout out to the Pogo Stick too! That plane was insane!
You know, I’ve wondered about the publish date of those Centennial articles and if there have been any updates. I’ll have to be careful to make sure the information is updated enough for what I’m writing.
With that said, I’ve had the pleasure of watching F-35s at Oshkosh and the sound of them tearing through the sky is still deeply ingrained in my memory.
We were talking VW Type 2 support vans for Porsche the other day? Don’t forget Dornier’s, it goes flying!
Honestly not that impressive.
Yes, a kite with 230 HP will takeoff and land short. Kinetic energy is what you’re fighting so you need lots of drag, lots of horsepower to counteract the drag, and light weight.
My guess is that they use the CubCrafters Carbon Cub because CubCrafters was willing to sponsor it for the “exposure” and they’re capitalizing on it by making their own factory version of the aircraft.
To me this isn’t impressive at all. I’ve damn near landed that short in a Cessna 150D without a significant headwind. Use those manual flaps and pull all 40 degrees of them and you damn near have your nose pointed straight down to keep yourself from stalling.
To me the properly impressive STOL aircraft and pilots are the types who flew them in uncontrolled environments using factory aircraft (without beta thrust) to deliver goods. Pilots who flew for Air America flying Helios, Dorniers, etc., Drug smugglers flying a variety of bushplanes, pilots working for various air ambulance and medicine delivery operations in various parts of the world, etc.
I know a guy who probably has the most complete collection of privately owned Dornier Bush Planes in all of the world, but certainly the US. He also used to fly a Helio H-700 as his standard plane to travel. He only got rid of it after getting his twin rating at over the age of 50 so he could fly both of his Twin Dorniers and the Helio was just sitting. He doesn’t consider himself a bush pilot, but he has a great appreciation for them.
The era of bush pilots is basically over, there are a few sticklers in cobbled together Helios and Dorniers flying about, but everyone else is either in a not STOL Cessna with a few VGs and maybe even fixed slats added, older cubs, or they’re part of the 1% and have a ton of money burning a hole in their pocket so they can afford to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new production cub, Porter, etc. so they can roleplay being a bushpilot.
What’s the point of landing short if it doesn’t help anyone but a company selling overpriced airplanes and a massive corporation (I do love your product though Redbull) selling energy drinks?
CubCrafters doesn’t need exposure.
Well yeah, but I’d bet the Red bull audience aren’t students of aircraft short landing techniques and history. I thought this was a cool video and appreciate the pants-shitting risk involved.
To be clear, the part that impressed me was the overall landing and takeoff, not the distance. I’ve never landed on a helipad on a building, so I’ll take their word that it’s not as easy as it looks.
I also see that I probably should have spent more time covering how other people use STOL aircraft. Of course, I’ll defer to you readers, who almost certainly have more hours in the logbook and experience than I do.
Nor have I, the winds would be my main concern, that and stalling short of the building, going off of it isn’t much of an issue as you got the height to recover.
You didn’t do anything wrong, Redbull did this for publicity, they got publicity, and you’re the one in charge of the coverage of aircraft on The Autopian.
If you want to go down the STOL rabbithole I won’t stop you, I will however warn you it is very depressing.
Pilots are people, and there are plenty of high time pilots flying rare who are idiots when it comes to flying sadly, and a lot of old ones who shouldn’t be driving a car, let alone flying a plane. As much as I hate the FAA they usually got good info in their books, and never ever ever feel like you have to fly somewhere. If you’re not feeling up to flying or you’re in a rush to get off the ground then cancel it. Most accidents are caused by being in a rush and or not being in the right headspace.
As the adage goes:
There is no shortage of old pilots
There is no shortage of bold pilots
There is a marked shortage of old, bold pilots
Impressive stuff, but I still think this STOL feat is among the best ever:
In 1963, LT James H. Flatley III (USN) and his crew members, LCDR Walter “Smokey” Stovall and Aviation Machinist’s Mate (Jet). V 1st Class Ed Brennan, made 21 full-stop, unarrested landings and takeoffs in a C-130 Hercules aboard the carrier USS Forrestal, which featured a flight deck just over 1000 feet long. The only modifications to the plane were to the nose gear anti skid system and the removal of the external fuel tanks.
At 85,000 pounds (39,000 kg), the KC-130F came to a complete stop within 267 feet (81 m), and at the maximum load, 120,000 pounds (55,000 kg) the plane used only 745 feet (227 m) for take-off.
Sixty years later, the C-130 Hercules is still the largest plane to ever land and take off from an aircraft carrier completely under its own power.
And yes, I flew C-130s back in the day, so I might be a bit biased.
Wait, one of the crew members’ names was actually Stovall??? Like STOVL? As in “Short Take-Off / Vertical Landing”? That’s perfect!
As others have said, the distances involved aren’t really that impressive given the performance of other STOL planes, but I bet the weird air currents that close to a building against such a light plane made things a lot more challenging than a typical landing on the ground.
Yeah that reminded me of the time I landed an ultralight with 30mph cross wind. I nearly flipped the plane that day because of turbulence created by a nearby hangar, I can’t imagine the weird shit that goes on around a skyscraper.
Did they give any indication of the cost of the plane? That’s gotta be a quarter mil easy.
Way more than a quarter mil.
I just want to know if they did the publicity photos at the same time – and just didn’t include the stop in the video – or if he made a second landing for them that they for some reason don’t even mention.
Yea. You can see in the cockpit shot that they backed up the plane before takeoff.
Remote control planes have similar contests. Getting a short takeoff in an RC STOL plane is easy. Flaps down, nose into the wind and nail the throttle. Yay brushless motors and high C lipo batteries. The short landings separate the good pilots from the stick mashers. My short landings usually involve rapid unplanned disassembly so I’m in the latter camp.
Oh hey, a mention of Zenith Aircraft. They’re kinda local to me, and their STOL planes are pretty bonkers. Somebody in New Zealand got one off the ground in under 16 meters in the bush pilot championships in February and some folks in England just flew an electrified version for the first time, designed for back country doctors in Africa.
They have an annual fly-in at the airport where they’re headquartered, and last year was their 30th anniversary. They had like 40-50 planes come in, which for an experimental kit-build company is insane.
Takeoff roll should not be an issue. Once over the edge, just point the nose down to pick up airspeed and in a few seconds you got all you need for level flight. As the pilot said, visibility would be a challenge. You want your final approach to have the nose as high as airspeed allows. Bad for visibility, and no runway to look down.
I liked in the video where just prior to touchdown he goes flaps up, to be ready in case he rolls a “little long”.
Yeah man that would almost certainly, “probably,” work.
I’m positive the pilot could have done that.. But come on dude, two years of practice for a reason. Sheesh.
Amazing with great video but no dragging it on. I wondered about take off as it usually needs more room. That high building helped and made the attempt safer not more dangerous. In the STOL video i thought they had a plsne land and takeoff with less space?