Sometimes, the most mundane sounding sentences presage something anything but ordinary: “All right, seatbelt is on tight? Here we go,” skydiver Luke Aikins smiles from the pilot’s seat of his Cessna 182. “Brake coming down. Power off. Autopilot engaged.”
The plane slows abruptly, then pitches down, steeper, then steeper still, settling into the most precipitous of dives, pointed directly at the ocean below. To the left of us, the door of the little Cessna has been removed. The wind rages past as the Pacific coast pulls ever closer into view.
Aikins laughs as he counts the altimeter down, his hands fully off the yoke. “It’s doing it all by itself! 7,000 feet, 6,000 feet, 5,000 feet … recovery.” The Cessna’s engine restarts, and it eases back to a horizontal position.
CNN Sport is flying high above the Californian coast town of San Luis Obispo with world famous skydiver Luke Aikins. A veteran of some 21,000 jumps, Aikins has worked as a stuntman and consultant on Hollywood blockbusters and trained US Navy SEALs.
He has just given CNN a taste of one key element of a stunt that he and his cousin Andy Farrington will be attempting on April 24. Set to be broadcast live on Hulu, the Red Bull Plane Swap will be among the most ambitious skydiving stunts ever attempted.
‘I’m going to skydive into his; he’s going to skydive into mine’
“In a nutshell, I’m going to take one plane, my cousin Andy’s going to take another one, and we’re going to fly up to 14,000 feet in formation,” the 48-year-old explains.
“I’m in one plane, he’s in the other one, nobody else. We put the planes in a dive, straight at the ground, and then I’m going to get out of my plane, he’s going to get out of his plane, and we’re going to swap planes mid-flight.
“I’m going to skydive into his, he’s going to skydive into mine, I’ll bring his plane back to land and he’s going to bring mine.”
It all sounds so simple, but this most extreme of stunts has been decades in the making. For Aikins, it will also be the realization of a childhood dream.
“When I was 16 or 17, there was a parachutist magazine that came out, and there was a picture of an old Stearman biplane in a dive, with a big parachute behind it slowing it down, and a skydiver in a yellow jumpsuit flying with that airplane,” he recalls.
“I was so inspired by it, I thought it was so cool – I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it – and I thought, ‘Someday, I want to do that.’”
But Aikins wasn’t satisfied with just copying the wild feat. “As I got older, I’m like, I don’t want to do what somebody else has done, I want to take it to the next level and do something more impressive and better than what I saw.”
Dream to reality
Dreaming of the stunt and doing it were, however, two different things. Aikins knew he needed engineering expertise to design it. “This airplane weighs 2,000 pounds, if we just put this plane in a dive, normally, it would go so fast it would rip the wings off and the airplane would just disintegrate.”
The answer to the conundrum came at a Red Bull Air Race. “I got talking to somebody, and I was telling him about this project that I really wanted to do, and they said, ‘Oh, you need to talk to Paulo.’”
Paulo is renowned Brazilian aeronautical engineer Paulo Iscold, who was already aware of Aikins’ reputation following a previous stunt, where the skydiver had landed in a 100x100-foot net after jumping from 25,000 feet without a parachute.
“I was actually working for Kirby (Chambliss), another Red Bull athlete,” Iscold explains. “They went to a race, and they said, ‘Hey, the guy who jumped without a parachute is here and is a Red Bull athlete.’ And I said, ‘Well, I want to meet that guy because he is really crazy and brave.’
The two hit it off immediately.
“I sat down with Paulo at the lunch table, and told him I really didn’t want to use a drogue chute (a type of parachute), I wanted to do something that had never been done before,” Aikins tells CNN. “I wanted the plane to seem normal. He drew – on a napkin – this crazy speed brake system, just sketched on a napkin.”
No answers written anywhere
Iscold knew that the project would be far more complex than the sketch suggested.
“This was different to other projects that I did where you can go to the book and find the answers in the book – this project had no answers written anywhere.
“To find the parts and put them together to be able to do it, that’s what caught my attention, and that’s why it was a big challenge for me as an engineer, to do something that nobody had done.”
Inspired by their first meeting, Aikins immediately set to work too. “I went home after meeting with Paulo and I bought an RC plane,” he recalls.
“I took Paulo’s design of the speed brake on the belly, and I made one on an RC plane and started flying it. These actuators would push this brake down, and I would dive the plane at the ground, and we’d measure the speed, then we’d put the brake up and measure the speed.
“Paulo did the math, with the weight of this and the weight of the real plane, and scaled it out.”
The result was a giant 21 sq. ft. speed brake, which Iscold’s team worked to attach to a 1964 Cessna 182 – a classic workhorse plane renowned for its tough practicality.
In the hanger where the Cessna is being prepared, Iscold walks CNN through the bizarre looking brake.
“It’s composed of carbon fiber plates, which when deployed produce a lot of drag. The plates have holes in them: this is just an aerodynamic trick to reduce vibration.”
“But the biggest problem that we had to solve was how to attach this to the airplane because this needs to carry pretty much the weight of the airplane. The landing gear is designed to take the weight of the airplane, so why not put the speed brake on the landing gear structure?”
The Cessna is also filled with sensors and a complex vector navigation system, which enables Iscold to track and monitor every aspect of its flight – crucial given that it will be flying without a pilot during the stunt.
‘Jumping out isn’t the hard part’
Once Aikins and his cousin leave their planes, however, the rest is entirely down to their skill as skydivers.
“Jumping out isn’t the hard part, the hard part is getting back in,” Aikins explains. “We’ll fly in, chest to the ground, up to the plane, we’ll grab the wing strut, and then we kind of walk our way right into the airplane.
“As soon as your body gets halfway into the door, there’s no wind, it’s all fine. You’ll be able to flip the switches and recover the airplane, restart the engine, pull the speed brake up and bring it back around.”
The latest in a long line of skydivers and pilots, Aikins grew up around the sport.
“My Dad learned to fly when he was 13, flying for my grandpa, skydiving for my grandpa,” he says. “My Dad flew C-130s in the Navy, we lived in Guam and Japan and kind of grew up all around the world like that. (He) taught us how to fly – my brothers, my sister – I have two brothers and a sister that have a pilots’ license.”
As a husband, and the father of a 10-year-old son, Aikins doesn’t shirk from the fact that the life he has chosen is a dangerous one, a point underlined by the fact that his father lost his life in a plane crash in 2017.
“My wife and I we have all these conversations,” he admits. “We’ve talked about what happens if I die, what happens if this happens and, you know, we have all those hard talks, so I think that you have to have a partner, I mean, my wife goes into this with her eyes open.”
‘I need to worry’
Iscold says part of his job is to worry. “As the engineer, I need to worry about everything, that’s how we make it safe. My job is to think about all the problems that can happen and talk about those problems.”
“We make a good team,” Aikins adds, “Because he worries a little bit, I don’t worry too much, and I’ll leave and he’ll call me and say, ‘There’s a couple of things I’m really concerned about,’ and we talk about it, and I think we make a really good team that way back and forth. We both give a little bit, we’re pretty aligned.”
“I’m what you would consider an extreme athlete, out doing all this stuff. But what the world doesn’t see is all the research and development, all the testing, it’s essentially a flight test program from the ground up.”
In just a few weeks, the pair will test that partnership to the absolute limit, high above a remote part of Arizona – and a childhood dream, more than three decades old, will be brought to life at 14,000 feet.