On a random Tuesday afternoon, a friend of mine messaged our group chat and asked if everyone was finally ready to go skydiving. Almost immediately, everyone in the group shot him down, myself very much included. I barely liked flying Delta from New York to Chicago, why on earth would I jump out of a perfectly good plane?
Well, two weeks later I found myself strapped up to one of the most prolific skydivers in the entire world, someone who has jumped out of a plane or a helicopter over 20,000 times. That someone was Luke Aikins, a Red Bull Air Force stalwart who became famous by jumping into a net without a parachute from 25,000 feet in the air.
I got to spend an afternoon with Aikins in San Luis Obispo, CA at a Red Bull hangar where we went skydiving out of a helicopter and I got to learn about his next project, dubbed Plane Swap. For a guy like Aikins, he is always in search of the next thrill, or the next project to satisfy his hunger of constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of skydiving. Conventional wisdom would tell you that jumping from 25,000 feet in the air sans parachute is about as crazy as it gets, but my afternoon in SLO proved that it’s possible to push those limits even further and to risk even more.
“I call it more calculated than crazy,” Aikins says. “We work really hard to make sure that everything’s going to be okay. We don’t flip a coin and fingers crossed and hope it all works out. We mitigate the risk down to something that’s acceptable and what’s acceptable to me.”
For the 25,000-foot free fall, Aikins had to make a deal with his wife that he would complete 75 straight jumps, pulling the parachute at 1,000 feet above the net each time, without issue before finally trying it without one. After messing up a few times in the beginning and missing the net (but landing safely) he was able to complete 75 straight attempts, making it a guarantee to him that he’d have no issue doing it one more time without the safety of a chute.
As Aikins said, what’s crazy to him is far different than what might be crazy or unconventional to you or me. During our afternoon together I called his upcoming project a “stunt,” and he quickly corrected me. To him, the word “stunt” makes it seem like something that isn’t calculated and something that he’s been doing for 32 years since he was 16 years old.
On April 24th, Aikins and his cousin Andy Farrington with the help of aeronautics engineer will attempt a new project, dubbed “Plane Swap,” a project that I’ve read the plans for over a dozen times and ever so slightly participated in myself, and still can’t full comprehend. Aikins and his cousin will pilot their own Cessna 182 single-seat aircrafts to 14,000 feet above Eloy, AZ and then each deploy the custom-built speed brakes on their respective planes.
Their planes will then tip over and start to nosedive straight at the ground for the next 40 seconds. During my afternoon with Aikins, I got to experience this nosedive first hand, and it was truly unlike anything I had ever felt before. Your entire body becomes sort of weightless as you hurdle straight down towards the ground at a speed of 140 mph. The video footage below shows that our dive was around 30 seconds long, but in the moment it felt like a matter of 3-5 seconds maximum.
For Plane Swap, the dive is just half the battle, as once the break is in position and they are perpendicular to the ground, Aikins and Farrington will jump out of their planes and free fall alongside the aircrafts while attempting to swap planes mid air, regain control, and then land them both safely.
Why would people do something like this? Well, for more on the upcoming Plane Swap project next month and to learn a bit about Aikin’s career as a professional skydiver, read my conversation with him and Paolo Iscold below. Plane Swap will be exclusively streamed live on Hulu in the US on April 24.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
When did you first decide that skydiving was something that you wanted to pursue professionally?
Aikins: I’m a third-generation skydiver. My grandpa got shot down in the war and he always wondered what it would’ve been like to open up the cockpit and jump out. He crash-landed in allied territory in his P-47. When he came home from the war he really wondered what it would’ve been like that day to jump out; it was always in the back of his mind. So he and a buddy in the ‘60s went out to a skydiving club, and he made a jump and they fell in love with it. And then they started their own club and my dad learned to jump with my aunt, Andy’s mom. So it’s kind of a family thing. It wasn’t so much for me if I was gonna jump, it was when. You know, as soon as I was allowed to. I mean, everybody wants to do what their dad does as a kid, right?
After your first experience with skydiving did you know that it was something you wanted to make a life out of?
Aikins: I didn’t know that it was possible to make a life like actually doing what I’m doing. This job doesn’t really exist. We created this job, this isn’t something you go to school for, it’s not one of the options that they give you at a career fair. So for me, I grew up as a little kid sitting on the picnic table and my parents were packing parachutes and doing all that stuff. Slowly I was able to turn it into a career, whether it’s working with military coaching, filming for Hollywood stuff or doing the one-off cool project like this one.
You mentioned working on projects like this, but how did you come up with the specific idea behind Plane Swap
Aikins: When I was in high school in the early ‘90s there was a picture in a parachute magazine—it was the only thing you can get that shows skydiving—there was a parachutist with a Stearman biplane engine in a dive at the ground, and there was a drogue chute, which is like a round parachute behind it, holding it up so it could go slower. And there was a guy in a big floppy yellow jumpsuit skydiving next to the airplane. And I just remember that as a kid and I always had that picture and I always wanted to do a version of that. It was just a dream to be able to do something like that, and originally it was just a skydive next to a plane. When you become a Red Bull athlete, they ask you to provide some projects that you would like to do before your career’s over. I had to think about it a little bit, and then I had my neighbor draw a picture of two airplanes in a dive with the drogue chutes behind them and two jumpers switching planes like that. And that was back in 2006. Then after the no parachute jump I said, well, I’ve always wanted to do this. And I sent ‘em back in the picture and here we are.
Before Plane Swap, what’s been your favorite project that you’ve worked on?
Aikins: It’s a little bit selfish, but it would be the no-parachute jump. You know, I jumped from 25,000 feet without a parachute and I landed in a giant net. But probably the project that opened my mind up to what was possible was when I worked on the Red Bull Stratos program with Felix Baumgartner where he jumped from the edge of space. I was in charge of keeping him alive from a parachute standpoint, designing the equipment, how he was gonna position his body and all that. And I learned in that project, how to do a flight test program, how you can do something that seems impossible, how you can accomplish something that seems that you can’t do or seems crazy if you take baby steps and work up to it. So I think my favorite project and the one I learned the most from are two different ones.
Obviously you’ve done things like this so often, I assume that that fear isn’t really in your vocabulary. But for something like this, there’s a new danger that you haven’t experienced before. Do you have any butterflies or reservations about it?
Aikins: Fear is a weird one. Fear and scared. I always say that scared and excited are almost the same thing. In my mind, it’s like, you’re gonna go up to a jump with me and you’re gonna feel like you’re scared and you have to remember excited and scared are almost the same. They’re right next to each other. They’re friends. So you gotta kind of like ride that line. I did a dive this morning, I did two yesterday and it’s all fresh in my mind, but when I go away for a week and I come back, for that first one I’m always rattling through my checklist. It’s not normal what we’re doing, so you have to make yourself psyched up, otherwise you get complacent. That little bit of fear gets you razor-focused on what could happen. So every time before I do this, I go through all the emergency procedures that we have in my head before we send it over.
You mentioned that this isn’t normal. What would you say to people who think this is crazy?
Aikins: I think everybody’s crazy is different. To me it’s a little bit crazy to get in my car and sit in traffic for two hours a day, going to work each day. It’s hard to argue when someone says that what you do is crazy and, but I call it more calculated than crazy. You know, we work really hard to make sure that everything’s gonna be okay. We don’t flip a coin and fingers crossed and hope. It all works out. We mitigate the risk down to something that’s acceptable and what’s acceptable to me risk-wise is way different than what’s acceptable to you, and even Paolo, and even Andy that’s doing this with me. If you just find what’s acceptable, you try to mitigate all the risks down to what you feel is safe. And at some point you are taking that, that step, whether it’s jumping outta a plane without a parachute, Felix jumping from the edge of space, us leaving this airplane empty, you’re just accepting that, hey, something could happen, but we’re ready,
Iscold: I tell people that they do brave stuff, but they’re not brave. And the things that they do are very unusual, but the approach that they take to do that stuff is very standard, very calculated. And very methodical.
How much of your role has been considering the safety elements and making sure that this project goes off without a hitch?
Iscold: It’s the biggest part for me for sure. It’s all about approaching the problem step by step and, and learning what the problems are that we could face and talking about those problems and creating procedures and emergency plans for everything.
Can you go into detail about how Plane Swap will be conducted from your perspective and the actual design of it?
Iscold: In terms of the action, both airplanes will take off together. One skydiver being the pilot of each airplane. We’re gonna climb to altitude probably 14,000 feet over the ground, the airplanes will establish a predetermined heading and formation flight. At some point probably Luke will be leading and he will deploy the speed brake and Andy will follow that and they’re gonna flip one switch and the airplane will start to nosedive. At that point, when the plane starts to dive, they’re probably out of their planes. From that point beyond that’s the part that I’m making sure works, the autopilot. Then as the airplane dives and they initiate the free fall, they’re going to then head to the other airplane approaching from the wingtip, and they’re gonna come to this strap here, grab this strap and walk back inside the airplane. Remember the airplane would be nose down. So there is no way that you can go back into your seat because your seat will be 90 degrees. So they are probably going to just put their chest on the edge of the door and flip another switch and then the autopilot will start to recover off the airplane, and they will jump on the seat, grab control, and then land the airplanes.
You mentioned making sure the autopilot works, what exactly has been your specific role for this project?
Iscold: I helped Luke develop the speed brake of the airplane. So if you just dive this airplane or a normal airplane like this to the ground, the airplane will pretty much disintegrate in the So without that speed brake, there is no way you can nosedive down. I did the autopilot because normally an airplane autopilot is designed to fly straight and level but this one is designed to fly straight down.
What do you think makes Luke and Andy the right people to pull off this project?
Iscold: Every project that I work on has a considerable amount of risk. It’s nice to have people like them who accept the risk, but as I said, they’re not reckless by any means. I have known Luke for maybe two, three years, but we ideate pretty well and if I say something, he will at least consider it. He might not accept that, but he will consider it.
Luke, how does it feel to get to work on a project at such a high level with your cousin, Andy?
Aikins: It’s awesome, Andy and I grew up together on a private airport where his family, my aunt and uncle took over the jump center for my grandpa and turned it into a business. Andy and his sister are now running the largest skydiving operation in Washington. We live on the same property, our kids play together every day. What’s great about this with Andy and I is we think a lot the same. So while he’s not here working on this—you know, it’s my baby, it’s my project, so Palo and I are doing all this engineering stuff—but then Andy will come down and he’ll do it with us and I just use him as a sounding board because I know we have the same risk factor where we both accept some stuff and we see things the same way. So it’s really unique to work on a project with someone that you’re so close to and you’ve done 5,000 skydives with. I mean, when I’m outside of the airplane and Andy’s in the airplane, I’m falling like this, we’re almost communicating without talking. I can see his body position. It’s like in sports, guys who have played together all the time, you know exactly what he’s going to do.
What type of resources does Red Bull provide to make a project like this possible?
Aikins: What’s really cool about red bull for me and this stuff is, this was a dream I had before Red Bull. When I was in high school, I wanted to do this, but it wasn’t financially practical for me to go buy two planes and go try to do this stuff. I have to mitigate the cost down for Red Bull, we have to find planes that are cheaper to work that down. But what Red Bull provides for me is the ability to do all of my dreams and not on a shoestring, hope-it-works-out budget, but on a true flight test style program. Otherwise I’m probably gonna do this, but it’s not gonna be nearly as safe and nearly as cool.
How do you choose the location in Arizona where you’re going to perform the project?
Aikins: So that’s kind of determined by the requirements from the FAA. We need a desolate area, something that if you weren’t able to get into the plane or something that it’d be safe. Once we put the plane in the dive position, it can’t do anything but go straight down. It’s almost not an airplane anymore. When that break comes down and we kill the engine and the plane tips over into this dive it can’t fly anymore. It’s just an object and so we need to make sure that area below it is totally desolate and empty. So that was kind of what forced us out to Arizona. There’s lots of other spots like where we are today, but also when you’re trying to do a live TV show, which I think something like this has to be viewed live. If you videoed it, people could say it’s tricks or whatever, you know, I would want it to be live and everyone to see it. You also have to plan for the weather, you have to stack the deck in your favor. You can have crazy weather anywhere, but most of the time in Arizona at the end of April is pretty much guaranteed as best you could do in the world for weather-wise.