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US FAA revokes pilot licences after midair plane-swapping stunt

  • Arya Sundaram, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-13 15:34:19 BdST


The Federal Aviation Administration has revoked the licences of two pilots who attempted to swap planes in midair over the Arizona desert last month, calling their actions in the stunt, in which one plane crashed, “reckless” and “egregious.”

In addition to the revocation order, dated Tuesday, the FAA also fined Luke Aikins, whom the agency called the lead pilot, $4,932 for abandoning his pilot seat and operating his plane in a “careless and reckless” manner, after an investigation announced shortly after the April 24 stunt.

Aikins and Andy Farrington, a fellow sky diver and pilot, planned to send their single-engine Cessna 182 planes into synchronised nosedives at 14,000 feet and then jump out to swap cockpits midair.

But when they attempted the switch as they flew over the desert in Eloy, Farrington could not enter the plane from which Aikins had jumped, according to an FAA emergency revocation order. The plane spun out of control and crashed nearby, midway between Phoenix and Tucson. No spectators were present and no one was injured in the stunt, which was livestreamed by Hulu.

In an Instagram post five days later, Aikins admitted that he had received an email from the FAA denying a request to exempt him from federal aviation regulations, and he said he would cooperate “transparently” with regulators. “I made the personal decision to move forward with plane swap,” he said in the post. “I regret not sharing this information with my team and those who supported me.”

Red Bull, the energy-drink company, called the event “Plane Swap” and advertised it as a “first-of-its-kind jump.” A spokesperson for Red Bull called the licence revocations a matter between the agency and Aikins and Farrington, saying the company looked forward to its “continued friendship” with the two pilots. Both pilots are still listed on the website of the Red Bull Air Force, a team specialising in aerial stunts, as members.

Red Bull called the stunt “partially accomplished” with Aikins swapping planes and landing safely. Farrington could not enter the other aircraft and parachuted safely to the ground, the company said.

Both aircraft needed to slow down so the jumpers could catch up to them, and they needed to remain steady enough for the sky divers to squeeze into a door about the width of a home refrigerator, Red Bull said.

Aikins, Farrington and Hulu did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The FAA said in its revocation letters that Aikins and Farrington had violated federal aviation regulations requiring pilots to stay in their stations, to maintain “vigilance,” and to not operate planes in a “careless” or “reckless” way. The pilots have to “immediately” return their certificates to fly commercial planes, or else pay up to a $1,644 fine for each day they keep the licences in their possession.

Both men will have to relinquish most other FAA certifications they have, including Aikins’ licence to fly drones and Farrington’s licence for parachute rigging. They can appeal the agency’s decision until May 20.

In Aikins’ request to the FAA from earlier this year, he sought an exemption because “during the swap, both aircraft will be unoccupied.” The agency said in a reply dated April 22 and signed by Robert Carty, deputy executive director for flight standards service at the FAA, that granting an exemption “would not be in the public interest” and that the agency could not “find that the proposed operation would not adversely affect safety.”

The FAA announced the actions against the two pilots nearly a month after it said it had revoked the pilot’s licence of Trevor Jacob, a daredevil YouTuber, who posted a video of himself last year parachuting out of a plane that he claimed had malfunctioned. The agency said an investigation found that he had deliberately abandoned the aircraft and allowed it to crash in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.

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