Red Bull Pilots to Attempt Midair Aircraft Swap

In Arizona this weekend, they’ll attempt to switch airplanes during free-fall. Here’s how it will work.

Pilots train and test dive in San Luis Obispo in preparation for the Plane Swap live feat on April 24, 2022. [Photo: Michael Clark / Red Bull Content Pool}

Formation flying and skydiving are done everyday. But thus far, no one has combined formation flying and skydiving with the intent to switch airplanes at altitude. That could change on April 24, when Red Bull Air Force pilots and skydivers Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington, both flying solo, will attempt to swap airplanes in midair.

The Red Bull Air Force is made up of some of the most skilled and experienced pilots and skydivers in the world. The organization performs precision aerial demonstrations at air shows and sporting events and produces slick videos of pilots and skydivers seemingly defying—or at least challenging—the laws of physics. 

According to a press release from Red Bull, what is planned is the first dual skydive into separate airplanes. Adding to the human interest element of the event is the fact that Aikins and Farrington are cousins, with a long family history of skydiving that pre-dated their joining the Red Bull Air Force. 

Aikins' grandfather Lenny started a skydiving club and Lance Aikins, Luke's father, was a skydiver and pilot, and taught both his son and Farrington how to fly when both men were in their teens. 

Like his cousin, Farrington has been skydiving since he was a teenager, and he’s known for his skill at flying a wingsuit. He won the first Red Bull Aces Wingsuit competition in 2014 and hasn't stopped since. He has also been in several movies.

The Swap

The event will take place in Arizona. According to a press release from Red Bull, the stunt will be seen exclusively on Hulu.

According to the promotional video from Red Bull, Aikins and Farrington will be flying specially modified Cessna 182s for the event. They will climb their aircraft to 14,000 feet; the airplanes will be in side-by-side formation when they enter a dive. Once this is achieved, Aikins and Farrington will depart the aircraft and attempt to change airplanes.

It is important that the aircraft and skydiving pilots fall at the same speed of approximately 120 miles per hour. 

Paulo Iscold is the engineer working on the project, and one of the first tasks he faced was to develop a way to control the speed of the pilotless aircraft. In the video, he notes that keeping an unmanned aircraft on speed is a challenge, as usually, an aircraft put into a nose-down attitude will accelerate, possibly past "never exceed" speed known as VNE, resulting in structural damage.

"The aircraft will start to disintegrate," Iscold explains. To prevent this, Iscold has designed a speed brake that deploys from the belly of the aircraft. 

"The speed brake produces nine times more drag that the aircraft normally has. That is the amount of drag we need to stabilize the airplane at 120 mph, which is the average speed Luke and Andy will have when they fall from the airplanes."

The speed brake is a panel that extends from the belly of the aircraft during the dive. Both Aikins and Farrington have been practicing flying the aircraft, putting them into dives and deploying the speed brakes.

In addition to speed, getting the aircraft to maintain the nose down attitude is also a challenge. 

"When the aircraft are in a dive and the pilots are outside, there is no guarantee that the airplanes will hold that trajectory," Iscold said, adding that they had to develop an autopilot capable of holding the aircraft at that trajectory and on speed, because if the airplane's nose starts to rise or it slows down, the skydivers could potentially smash into the aircraft's tail during the fall.

Ten Years in the Making

In 2010, the Red Bull Air Force achieved a glider to glider midair transfer. The demonstration involved a person moving from one aircraft to another and some formation flying, with one of the gliders inverted. Like all Red Bull Air Force events, the challenging was made to look easy. 

The Stuff of Movies

It used to be that midair aircraft transfers involving skydivers were strictly the stuff of action movies, with James Bond leading the pack. Some of the most technologically challenging midair stunts were performed pre-CGI by 007.

In the 1995 release GoldenEye, James Bond, as played by Pierce Brosnan, chases a pilotless aircraft attempting to take off. Bond got aboard the aircraft during the takeoff and threw the pilot out, tumbling out with him. Fortunately, Bond was able to grab a motorcycle and continue chasing the airplane. The runway is on a mountainous strip with a large cliff at the end. The pilotless aircraft goes over the cliff and Bond follows on the motorcycle. He releases the bike, then manages to free-fall until he grabs the landing gear of the aircraft, climbs about and pulls the aircraft out of the dive and flies away.

It wasn't just aircraft that the super spy commandeered during his daring escapes. In the 1979 release Moonraker, there is a skydiving scene where Roger Moore, as Bond, is pushed out of an aircraft without a parachute. The pilot (the bad guy), who is wearing a parachute, has already jumped. Bond free-falls, catching up with the bad guy and relieving him of the parachute. This scene is noted as one of the most intense real-world skydiving action sequences in the movies.

Stunt Pilot History

The Red Bull Air Force is the latest generation of stunt pilots, the latter who trace their roots back to the early days of Hollywood.

Both the powered airplane and motion picture were invented in 1903, and America's interest in them developed in tandem. Black-and-white movies involved daring stunt pilots intentionally crashing aircraft or flying them through barns or towers, or transferring from an airplane to a moving car.

In the 1910s to 1920s, these pilots often had a speciality, like intentional crashes or the airplane to car transfer, and they did not wear parachutes.

In the 1930s, Pancho Barnes, the first female stunt pilot, established a union for stunt pilots. The Associated Motion Picture Pilots oversaw the stunt flying, establishing a wage scale, insurance, and safety guidelines to protect stunt pilots.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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