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FAA investigating plane-swap stunt that resulted in crash

<i>Michael Clark/RDBLP/Red Bull via AP Images</i><br/>
Red Bull via AP Images
Michael Clark/RDBLP/Red Bull via AP Images

By Greg Wallace and Pete Muntean, CNN

A live-streamed, mid-air “plane-swap” stunt that ended with a plane crashing in the Arizona desert is under federal investigation after organizers allegedly defied a government order.

Event organizers said two pilots on separate aircraft planned to skydive into each other’s planes, leaving each aircraft pilotless for less than a minute. But one of the pilots did not successfully reach the other aircraft. That plane “crashed after it spun out of control” and its would-be pilot “landed safely by parachute,” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said.

Both pilots survived the botched pilot swap, which involved two single-engine Cessna 182 planes flown to 14,000 feet, then dropped into nosedives in close formation.

Organizers asked the FAA for special permission to hold the event, which was sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull and aired on the streaming service Hulu.

They outlined a number of safety precautions including practice runs using “safety pilots;” holding the event over a remote stretch of desert; and equipping both the planes and pilots with parachutes in case of a mishap.

“At this point we have conducted more than 100 vertical dive test flights with zero safety issues,” organizers wrote in a request to the FAA in February.

On Friday, the FAA denied the request to leave the planes empty during the televised stunt, noting the team “can continue to perform this demonstration in compliance with FAA regulations by including an additional pilot for each airplane.”

Representatives for neither Red Bull nor Hulu immediately responded to CNN’s request for comment. Emails to pilot Luke Aikins — who is also a world-famous skydiver — and a California Polytechnic State University professor who organizers said they consulted also were not immediately answered on Monday.

Video of the three-hour show featuring the event was not available on Hulu’s website Monday morning.

The event involved Aikins and his cousin Andy Farrington, both pilots and stuntmen whose bios note thousands of flying hours. Organizers said the pilots planned to recover the planes before they reached 4,000 feet.

Aikins’ notoriety includes a successful jump from 25,000 feet without a parachute. A veteran of some 21,000 jumps, Aikins has worked as a stuntman and consultant on Hollywood blockbusters and trained US Navy SEALs.

Farrington has completed more than 26,000 skydives, according to his bio on the Red Bull website.

The FAA has not said what kind of punishment those involved could face.

Last week, the FAA announced it revoked the pilot certificate of a YouTuber the agency said crashed his plane on purpose. Trevor Jacob posted a video in December showing him parachuting from an airplane he claimed had engine failure. The FAA says Jacob was “careless and reckless.”

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