Red Bull “Plane Swap” Ends in Crash, FAA Investigation

Two pilots attempted to jump out of their aircraft in mid-air, fly into each other’s planes, then land them safely. The stunt didn’t go as planned. 

redbull plane swap crash
May 4, 2022
Owen Clarke

On Sunday, April 24, veteran skydivers and cousins Andy Farrington and Luke Aikins attempted to become the first to successfully swap planes mid-air unassisted, a feat most of us wouldn’t imagine ever seeing outside of a James Bond flick.

In short, the duo hoped to pilot their respective Cessna 182 Skylanes into parallel nosedives, then jump out of the planes mid-air, dive alongside and into their partner’s plane (through a door no wider than a refrigerator), and then safely pull up and land both planes. The planes used custom-made air brakes to help slow them down in mid-air, designed by a team at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Larger wheels and custom autopilot systems were also incorporated to help the planes maintain steady speed and course.

The Red Bull-sponsored stunt, which took place in the Arizona desert near legendary drop zone Skydive Arizona was streamed live on Hulu and attended by several prominent skydivers and tunnel flyers, including Kyra Poh and Maja Kuczynska. Both are Red Bull athletes, and won first and second place, respectively, in Solo Freestyle in the Indoor Skydiving World Cup earlier this month.

Farrington and Aikins are both veteran flyers. Farrington has logged 26,000 skydives and 6,000 flight hours to his name is one of the world’s best wingsuit flyers. Aikins, who has logged 21,000 skydives and nearly 9,000 flight hours, achieved worldwide fame in 2016, when he became the first person to attempt a skydive with neither a parachute nor wingsuit, jumping from 25,000 feet and landing (safely) in a 100 x 100-foot net.

The stunt commenced at approximately 6:00 pm on Sunday, when both pilots jumped out of their respective prop planes at 12,000 feet. The stunt failed, however, with Farrington becoming unable to reenter Aikins’ plane (which went into a flat spin), though Aikins did manage to re-enter Farrington’s plane and land it safely.

Luckily, Farrington managed to deploy his parachute and land safely as well. The plane he failed to enter crashed, though it deployed a tail chute to slow its descent. Despite the overall failure of the effort, Aikins still became the first pilot in the history of aviation to take off in one plane and land in another.

“[The plane] just went and instead of stopping in that 90-degree dive, it just kept going and got over on his back,” Farrington told USA Today. “[There] was just not a chance. You’re just happy everybody’s here and good and all that stuff, but just disappointed.”

“I thought I left Andy a good plane,” Aikins said. “I’m trying to think of what else I could have done to make it better for him when I left. We do what we can to prepare for this stuff and we hope it never happens. This is the best outcome of a bummer situation.”

Not only was the stunt a failure, but Red Bull and the pilots are now under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

An FAA statement reported that Red Bull’s request for “an exemption from federal regulations that cover the safe operation of an aircraft,” was denied two days before the flight, on April 22, yet the company went ahead with the plane swap anyway.

“Because the FAA cannot conclude that the operations for which relief is sought (i.e. an operation without a pilot in the airplane and at the controls) would not adversely affect safety and because [Red Bull] can continue to perform this demonstration in compliance with FAA regulations by including an additional pilot for each airplane, there is no public interest in granting the exemption request,” the agency wrote in the April 22 rejection letter, which was signed by deputy executive director for flight standards service Robert C. Carty.

It remains to be seen what the outcome of the investigation will be, but unfortunately, in addition to a hefty dose of fines, Aikins and Farrington could lose their pilot licenses.

Published: May 4, 2022 | Last Updated: July 28, 2022

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Written by,
Owen Clarke
Owen Clarke is an American action sports and adventure travel journalist. In addition to serving as an executive editor at Indoor Skydiving Source, he is an editor-at-large for Climbing magazine and lead writer for the adventure guiding outfitter Benegas Brothers Productions. He also writes for Backpacker, Outside, SKI, and Trail Runner, among other publications.

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