A Red Bull stunt where two parachutists make a mid-air “plane swap”, did NOT go to plan. And it seems the FAA previously refused to OK it!
We recently saw the FAA taking a hard stance on what it saw as a deliberate crash. Trevor Jacob lost his pilot’s license, after claiming to have lost his engine and jumping out of his aircraft. As we saw, Jacob did not convince many in aviation about the true nature of his plane crash. And it seems that the FAA is concerned about such events potentially creating a negative precedent.
A team with full Red Bull branding organized a project called “plane swap”. This involved preparations lasting several years. The idea was that two parachutists, each flying a Cessna 182, would jump out of the planes as they dived, in formation. In a dive, planes would normally be much faster than skydivers. In this case, the planes (now in Experimental status) would feature a huge air brake, to slow them down.
These Cessna 182s also have large tyres, and the pilots/skydivers would switch off their engines. Other modifications for the Red Bull Plane Swap included aircraft parachutes and an autopilot, to hold the wings level in the dive. It appears that this autopilot, in particular, did not work as advertised on one of the aircraft.
Red Bull Plane Swap – Practice And… Waivers?
The Red Bull team had practised their Plane Swap on multiple occasions, each time with another pilot in the controls. But the big event would have the pilots/parachutists perform their stunt alone. So the planes would be empty, during the swap. To make this possible, the team needed two things. Firstly, they needed that autopilot modification. Secondly, they needed the “blessing” of the FAA.
The sticking point, for the FAA, is § 91.105(a)(1) of Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR). What § 91.105(a) says, is as follows:
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.
Obviously, with both aircraft having nobody on board during the Red Bull Plane Swap, (1) is a problem. Media are reporting that the team asked for an exemption, specifically to perform this stunt, with a record of it being online. The FAA denied the exemption, reasoning that the petitioner did not provide sufficient reason why doing this was in the public interest. Previously, the petitioner said that “he has made media and sponsor commitments regarding this event.”
Spinning Out Of Control
The petitioner is Luke Aikins. He was one of the two skydivers/pilots, taking part in the Red Bull Plane Swap. The other pilot is Andy Farrington. Both of them hold commercial pilots licenses, in addition to having conducted over 20,000 skydives. Luke Aikins has been in the public eye before, most notably in July 2016. This was when he skydived from 25,000 feet to the ground, with NO parachute – landing in a special net.
To be clear – we don’t know if the Red Bull team obtained a waiver from the FAA for their Plane Swap stunt, after the initial denial. However, the FAA is investigating the occurrence, which it characterizes as an accident. After the two parachutists left their planes, one of them did not keep its wings level. Instead, it began to spin.
This spinning meant that the aircraft slowed down substantially. This made it impossible for the skydiver/pilot to stay with it. And obviously, it would have been far too dangerous for the pilot/skydiver to approach a spinning plane, even if it wasn’t too slow. According to media reports, a parachute deployed from the back of the plane, before it reached the ground. However, the Cessna appears to be a total loss.
Unable to complete the plane swap, the second Red Bull pilot instead deployed his parachute and landed safely. The other pilot got to the other aircraft and brought it in for a landing, as planned. There could be more to this story. It will be interesting to see if there is further information from the team and/or the FAA, about the circumstances of this event.