Plane Swap Partially Successful but Draws FAA Scrutiny
Industry News | May 16, 2022
Plane Swap Partially Successful but Draws FAA Scrutiny

USPA Staff

Photo: Courtesy of Red Bull.

May 2, 2022

On April 24, Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington attempted a world first during the Red Bull Plane Swap event, which aired live on Hulu. During the event, Aikins and Farrington individually piloted two Cessna 182s, dove them toward the ground, leapt from their respective aircraft and attempted to enter the other, take the controls and land. The pair—who are cousins and members of the Red Bull Air Force—are both highly experienced pilots and skydivers: Aikins has more than 8,700 hours of flight time and 21,000-plus skydives; Farrington has more than 6,000 hours and 27,000-plus skydives.    

Although arguably not intended to be a skydive (since the pair intended to land in the aircraft), the feat nevertheless required considerable skydiving talent to make it from one plane to the other. It also required creative aeronautical engineering to ensure that the planes could hold a 140-mph descent speed that would match the speed of jumpers in freefall. Over the course of a year, Lead Engineer Paulo Iscold developed a plan to build an airbrake system on the bellies of the two aircraft, as well as alter the auto-pilot mechanics, to hold the planes in a controlled vertical descent.    

Aikins, Farrington and their team made numerous test flights and jumps for months leading up to the event, but, as Aikins later remarked, “There’s no way to test it until you do it.” When the pair finally attempted their feat over an unpopulated stretch of Arizona desert, it started as planned. But soon after they exited their respective aircraft, the plane that Farrington was tracking toward began spinning and went inverted. This made it not only dangerous but impossible for him to enter it, so he tracked away and deployed his parachute. Aikins successfully reached and entered his aircraft—which had remained in its planned vertical descent—then took control and safely landed. The empty, spinning aircraft, which was equipped with a recovery parachute and an automatic activation device, landed hard under the canopy and sustained substantial damage.  

Due in large part to the extensive safety measures taken by the Plane Swap team, no one in the air or on the ground was injured. With one successful re-entry into the plane completed and Farrington landing safely under his parachute, the event was a qualified success. However, shortly after completion, national media outlets began reporting that on Friday, April 22, the Federal Aviation Administration had sent a letter to Aikins denying a specific waiver request to Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91—General Operating and Flight Rules.   

On April 29, Aikins released the following statement: “As project lead and chief pilot, it was entirely my responsibility to operate within the regulatory framework to ensure a successful outcome. I received email notice April 22, 2022, from the FAA that a specific exemption was not granted and I made the personal decision to move forward with Plane Swap. I regret not sharing the information with my team and those who supported me. I am now turning my attention to cooperatively working transparently with the regulatory authorities as we review the planning and execution.” Whether the Plane Swap team was in compliance with regulations is a matter being investigated by the FAA. USPA will update this article with the most recent information.

 

May 4, 2022

On Monday, May 2, USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold made the following statement: “We are aware of the ongoing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation into the Plane Swap stunt that one of our board members participated in on April 24. We are thankful no one was injured, due in large part to the extensive safety measures taken by the Plane Swap team. 

“We love skydiving when done safely. One way to ensure safe skydiving is cooperation with all government agencies connected with aeronautics. Though the USPA was not involved in Plane Swap planning or execution, we are prepared to take appropriate action following the FAA investigation to remain in compliance with our Constitution and By-Laws. 

 “More information about these standards is available in our Governance Manual.”

 

May 16, 2022

USPA is aware that on May 10, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revoked the pilot’s licenses of two USPA members, one of whom sits on our board of directors, for their actions during the April 24 Plane Swap event.

We value the statements of both opposition and support of the two members’ actions that we have received over the past three weeks from USPA members and non-members. Through USPA’s 76-year history, input from members has helped form rules and guidance, guide policy decisions, create positions and grow our sport and association to where they are today.     

In accordance with our governance, details and outcomes of any USPA compliance action regarding any member are confidential. USPA’s board and staff cannot discuss “any matter relating to any alleged offense with any person not a party to the action and shall express no opinion nor make any statement.” This confidentiality is afforded to any member who is the subject of allegations which may require inquiry, investigation or disciplinary action in accordance with the USPA Governance Manual.

USPA will continue to uphold our mission of promoting safe skydiving nationwide and establishing strict safety standards. More information is available in our Governance Manual.

 

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