A pair of skydiving pilot cousins sponsored by Red Bull have attempted a stunt that aviators have only dreamed of doing. The pilots put their planes into dives, jumped out and tried to swap into the other’s aircraft. They managed to complete only half of the stunt, leading to one plane crashing and an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration over defying an order.
If you’re into planes and like stunts, chances are you know of Red Bull’s antics. The brand has set up everything from a plane flying through a tunnel, a plane slalom around wind turbines and even a skydiver transferring himself between gliders. There’s a lot of work and preparation that goes into these stunts, including some safety measures to help ensure that people don’t get hurt. This was the case when Red Bull skydiving cousins Andy Farrington and Luke Aikins wanted to achieve their dream of swapping their planes in-flight.
To set up this stunt, Red Bull chose a location out in the Arizona desert where in the event of an emergency someone wasn’t getting a plane through their house’s roof. The skydiving pilots and their Cessna 182s were equipped with parachutes and the dive portion of the stunt was practiced more than 100 times.
And the whole thing was performed live on Hulu and Red Bull TV. It was a stunt 10 years in the making and involving 200 people to make it a reality.
Let’s talk about the Cessnas for a second.
When skydivers typically jump out of a plane there is a pilot keeping the aircraft under control. But in this case, Farrington and Aikins jumped out of planes without any other occupants in them. To keep the planes in control, California Polytechnic State University professors Leo Torres and Paulo Iscold developed an autopilot system that kept the planes in a controlled dive.
The planes were also equipped with a giant air brake that created enough drag to keep the planes under their never exceed speeds. The engineers even accounted for changes in weight and center of gravity between rehearsals and the live stunt.
On Sunday, Farrington and Aikins took to the sky, reaching 14,000 feet before putting their planes into their dives, switching off their engines, then hopping out.
Aikins completed his swap. Farrington approached his plane but was unable to enter. His aircraft appeared to have entered a spin. Aikins landed his plane while Farrington’s plane deployed its parachute and crashed. Farrington landed safely with his parachute. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.
However, as WDSU reports, the stunt has sparked an investigation with the FAA. Not just because of the crashed plane, but because the regulator didn’t approve of either plane being empty for the stunt. The Code of Federal Regulations for General Operating and Flight Rules states:
§ 91.105 Flight crewmembers at stations.
(a) During takeoff and landing, and while en route, each required flight crewmember shall –
(1) Be at the crewmember station unless the absence is necessary to perform duties in connection with the operation of the aircraft or in connection with physiological needs; and
(2) Keep the safety belt fastened while at the crewmember station.
Allowing a plane to be empty comes at odds with this regulation, but it was something that the skydivers prepared for. Aikins petitioned for a waiver to § 91.105 for their stunt. Aikins supported his petition by listing all of Red Bull’s safety precautions and by noting that the stunt is in the public interest.
However, the FAA denied the request two days before the stunt, citing safety concerns and rebuking the claim that the plane swap was in the public interest.
The regulator noted that the stunt could continue if they have pilots in the cockpits during the swap. The stunt continued anyway, disobeying the denial by proceeding without anyone at the controls during the swap.
The FAA is investigating this incident alongside the NTSB, with a preliminary report likely to be released in the coming weeks. At this time it’s unclear why the second plane entered a spin. What Red Bull and its skydivers have in store is also unclear, but we’ve seen what the FAA will do when pilots do something wrong.