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What Red Bull Got Wrong in the Wake of the Great Plane Swap Debacle?

The aftermath of the failed stunt is a fascinating study in corporate culture and personal responsibility, or the lack thereof

Red Bull Plane Swap pilots Andy Farrington (at left) and Luke Aikins (far right) study the aerodynamics of the planes' speed brakes with aerodynamicist Dr. Paulo Iscold. - Red Bull Plane Swap Debacle
Red Bull Plane Swap pilots Andy Farrington (at left) and Luke Aikins (far right) study the aerodynamics of the planes’ speed brakes with aerodynamicist Dr. Paulo Iscold.

It’s been more than a week since the Red Bull Plane Swap went south and a perfectly innocent Cessna 182 became the victim of the dynamic forces associated with meeting back up with Mother Earth all at once instead of a little at a time. Luckily, the two pilot/parachutists (can’t anybody be just a pilot these days?) were fine, and no one on the ground was hurt, either. It was really just that Cessna Skylane.

In case you somehow haven’t heard what happened, the Plane Swap stunt called for two pilots, cousins Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington, flying identical planes to go up identically high, put their planes into identical nosedives, bail out of their respective Cessnas and then free fall to the other nosediving plane, get in and fly away. After the bailing out part, and before he could get into it, the Cessna that Farrington had his sights set on started to spin, so he very wisely stayed a parachutist instead of becoming a pilot again. He parachuted safely while his cousin Aiken got into and flew the other Skylane to a safe landing.

The whole thing was enough of a debacle before we all learned that neither Red Bull nor either of the pilots had gotten the thumbs-up from the FAA to do the flight, which by design violates a handful of federal regulations, including not jumping out of a perfectly good airplane when there’s no one left to fly it! There are, for very good reasons, no regulations that prohibit jumping into another airplane. In real life, it just doesn’t happen very often. In terms of proceeding without the FAA’s okay, we’re not sure who knew what and when they did or didn’t know it, but after the fact, Aikins confessed that it was all on him, that he had acted alone. It’s the kind of thing a good guy does to protect his cousin and his future sponsorship opportunities. It also might have been true, I don’t know.

What Red Bull did around that same time was to throw its two pilot/sky divers under the proverbial air bus by saying, “this is a matter between the Federal Aviation Administration and the two pilots. Luke and Andy are courageous, highly skilled athletes who have been friends of Red Bull for many years and we look forward to their continued friendship.”

When I first heard the statement, I was dumbstruck. The FAA has been clear that it was going after (i.e., investigating) the pilots themselves. They never even hinted that they cared about the organizers. Which struck me as odd that they didn’t at least consider that Red Bull might have had some culpability. To the FAA it was as though the two pilots had planned and coordinated this stunt all on their own instead of painstakingly planning it over the course of six months with what Red Bull made out to be the assistance of its aeronautical experts.

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I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought had Red Bull not written that it was all the pilots’ fault and they were blameless and they look forward to being real good friends with Aikins and Farrington in the future. It just kind of struck me as something Tony Soprano would say about a botched mozzarella heist. “Hey, I had nothing to do with it, but they’re good guys and I look forward to being friends with them for many years to come.”

It would have been nice if Red Bull had said something to the effect of, it wished it had more effectively supervised the approvals required for the stunt, but it fell down on that job. Instead, it left its two pilots, who, again, worked hand in glove with Red Bull in creating and pulling off this stunt, and all the media coverage associated with it only be left standing there, the only two guys in a plane on fire, metaphorically anyway, without a single parachute between them.

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