It was slated to be a never-before-seen air stunt, but Sunday’s attempted mid-air plane swap between a pair of Red Bull-sponsored pilots ended instead with a disastrous crash over the skies of Arizona.
Pilot cousins Luke Aikins, 48, and Andy Farrington, 39, were both part of the Red Bull Air Force aviation crew and were credited as some of the brains behind the first-ever attempted mid-air plane swap.
Between the pair, they’d successfully partaken in thousands of skydives, BASE jumps and thousands of hours of crewing both planes and commercial helicopters as pilots.
Had they been successful in Sunday’s stunt, it would’ve marked the first time in aviation history a pilot would have taken off in one plane and landed in another. Sadly, that is not how the day panned out.
The plan, as described on the Red Bull website for the event, had been for the two Cessna 182 aircrafts to shoot into the sky till reaching 14,000 ft, after which the pilots would tilt their respective jets to a nosedive, stop the engines and engage a custom-manufactured airbrake that the multinational beverage and entertainment company described as being capable of “holding the planes in a controlled-descent speed of 140 mph”.
After this, the daredevil cousins were expected to exit their respective cabins and skydive in unison till reaching the other’s plane, crossing over each other in mid-air until they could regain control of the nose-diving plane they’d hypothetically just entered. The stunt was expected to last approximately one minute, but an unexpected hitch forced one of the pilot’s to deploy an emergency parachute and land safely on the ground instead of swapping planes.
When Mr Aikins made his initial exit from his plane, the jet immediately began to tip uncontrollably and then began spiralling out of control. While the 48-year-old was successful in navigating to his cousin’s plane, Mr Farrington was forced to abandon the plan that had been months in the making and deployed his parachute while his cousin safely landed the other jet on the ground.
The custom-made air brakes, which had been developed with the assistance of the engineer and professor Paulo Iscold at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, had been tested multiple times and in the final trials had proven to be capable of maintaining a controlled-descent speed of 140 mph, a rate that the Red Bull team said would match the skydivers’ own descent.
“It just went and instead of stopping in that 90-degree dive, it just kept going and got over on his back,” the 39-year-old said speaking after the failed stunt. “It was just not a chance. You’re just happen everybody’s here and good and all that stuff, but just disappointed.”
In a statement issued ahead of Sunday’s stunt, Mr Aikins described the unbridled enthusiasm he had for attempting yet another record-breaking feat (in 2016, he set a new world record by freefalling from an altitude of 25,000 ft without using a parachute, and instead using just his body to land on a net).
“Plane Swap is the pinnacle of my career, and my goal is to inspire the world and show that anything is possible. You can set your mind on something that at times seems wild, crazy and unattainable, but through ambition and creativity, you can make it happen,” the skydiving record-holder said.
Ahead of Sunday’s event, organisers had reportedly applied for approval from the Federal Aviation Association to get an exemption from regulations that cover the safe operation of aircraft, but the agency later reported that they’d denied that initial request. The FAA has since said they are looking into the incident that went ahead despite their denial of an exemption.
In the days leading up to the Red Bull sponsored feat, Hulu, the streaming platform that was the exclusive streaming partner for the plane swap event, had shared images of the jets with captions reading: “no one at the controls” and “1 moment to watch”.