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Red Bull Plane Swap Debacle: Should the FAA Just Let It Be?

The failed stunt has polarized the aviation community and revealed deep-seated ethical differences

Red Bull Plane Swap Debacle
Photo courtesy of Red Bull

You know the story. Sponsored by energy drink giant Red Bull, a pair of talented sky divers (who are also pilots) were going to put their modified Cessna 182s into a dive from 14,000 feet and then each bail out of their plane and freefall into the other plane, assume control and fly away.

Each of the Cessna Skylanes (one of the most produced planes ever) was fitted with a giant aerodynamic speed brake to arrest the plane’s unpiloted dive. The plan was then for each pilot, Luke Aikins and his cousin Andy Farrington, who are accomplished skydivers, to bail out of their own plane and free fall into the other’s plane. The stunt was dependent on the Skylanes descending in a stable fashion at a steady rate. It has been reported that the two planes’ autopilots had been rigged to allow the very steep descent while keeping the wings level. 

With the one plane, that didn’t happen. It went out of control, and Farrington saw his target 182, the one that Aikens had until recently been flying, it was clear it was spinning out of control, and Farrington wisely decided to leave well enough alone. He parachuted safely to earth. The Skylane made it to earth as well, but not so safely. It was outfitted with a whole-airplane parachute system, but even though it deployed, it didn’t arrest the descent, at least not much. That Skylane is a very former airplane now.  

The Backstory

It’s apparently an incomplete cliché that you can ask permission before the fact or ask forgiveness afterward. There’s a third option, to ask for permission beforehand and then, if you don’t get it, do your thing anyways. However, when the permission-giving authority is the FAA, getting forgiveness after you’ve been denied permission…well, that ain’t gonna happen.

According to the FAA’s terse memo, Red Bull et al requested the FAA’s blessing just a few days before the stunt, which strikes us as a very odd thing to do. (Do they even know how the FAA works?) Why did they wait so long? We’ve got two theories: One, they weren’t going to ask permission at all but changed their minds at the last minute. Mistake. And, two, they intended to ask at the last minute to at least give the appearance of playing by the rules and to pressure the FAA to say yes. Which wasn’t going to happen either. For its part, the agency said in essence that it couldn’t be sure that the plane swap would be a safe thing to do. Well, duh. 

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Regardless, the FAA really had no choice but to say “no” (aka, cover their bureaucratic butts, which we get..that’s their business) and Red Bull and company had little choice but to go ahead with the stunt anyways. The economic pressure was huge. The whole thing was livestreamed via the Hulu service, and it wasn’t free. We’re guessing the streamer signed up lots of folks who wanted to watch the event live, and it’s a law of nature that businesses will go ahead with a crappy plan before they issue refunds. Don’t yell at me.  I don’t make the rules.

Despite the truly cluster-like atmosphere preceding the stunt, it might have worked had one of the planes not spiraled out of control and crashed into the earth below. No one was hurt, thank goodness. But the spectacle of the crash raised the visibility of the stunt..the failure was quickly a global news story.

At that point the FAA had to come down hard on the pilots. It’s in their nature to be the enforcers. And once an agency has adopted such a role, they apparently need to stay in character, and the FAA is doing just that. 

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How will the FAA will react to two certificated pilots jumping out of their planes and skydiving, or at least attempting to skydive, to the other’s plane, after having been denied permission to do so? It’s a trick question. The response ain’t gonna be pretty. We have no inside information on the subject, but we’re guessing that both pilots will get their certificates suspended or yanked altogether, the latter being what the feds did with Trevor Jacob. As you might remember, Jacob is the “YouTube” pilot who the FAA has accused of staging a loss of power in his Taylorcraft over rough terrain in Southern California late last year and bailing out of the plane. All of it was recorded, and Jacob’s YouTube video of the event has earned over a million views.

The question naturally arose in the online aviation community about how the two events, and the FAA’s response to them, compared. The consensus, and we agree with this, is that while both were stunts, Red Bull upfront about it, while Jacob wasn’t. 

So, should the FAA throw the book at the two Red Bull stunt pilots, as it did with Jacob, whose pilot certificate the FAA revoked?

On this question, the community appears divided. How free should pilots be to try crazy stunts? And how where do you draw the line between really crazy and slightly so?  Everyone seems to agree that Jacob’s stunt was beyond the pale, but when you think of it, the results were the same. Nobody got hurt and exactly one airplane got destroyed.

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Even though the Plane Swap stunt was inarguably the riskier of the two, most pilots feel the FAA was right to revoke Jacob’s certificate while many believe the agency should let the Red Bull pilots off with a slap on the wrist, if anything at all.

Jacob’s greatest sin seems to be that he lied about the whole thing. It was a betrayal of trust, not just the FAA’s trust—few people are concerned about the FAA’s feelings—but the pilot community’s trust, and that is sacred. But discounting the lie at the heart of Jacob’s stunt, was his behavior really any worse than the Red Bull pilots’ conduct? I think not.

I’ve been thinking back to the barnstorming days, when nobody asked the powers that be permission before they intentionally crashed into or flew through the open doors of a barn. They just did it. People sensibly figured that the pilots were the ones taking the risk, so it was really up to them, after all.

Like it or not, those days are long gone; aviation today is heavily regulated. And if the FAA were to be consistent, which, to be clear, it doesn’t care about being, it would rescind the certificates of the Red Bull pilots (and possibly other team members). Or it would let the Red Bull stunt slide but also give Jacob his ticket back.

What it will most likely do is what it knows how to do. Issue enforcement actions against those who violate the rules. And there are no innocent players in that regard from the cast of characters behind either stunt.

 

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