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Everything you need to know about Plane Swap

The people, the pilots, the planes and the physics it takes to swap planes in mid-air.
By David Rawlings
7 min readPublished on
On Sunday, April 24th, Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington will go down in history as the first pilots to take off in one aircraft and land in another after sending their airplanes into a nosedive and jumping out of them!
Plane Swap is an audacious challenge taking place this weekend and here are all the facts and figures you need to know on how it’s going to happen…


Luke Aikins and Paulo Iscold

Luke Aikins and Paulo Iscold

© Chris Tedesco / Red Bull Content Pool

The two pilots and skydivers taking on this first-of-its-kind jump are Luke Aikins and Andy Farrington. To say these athletes were born to be skydivers and pilots is an understatement. Andy and Luke are cousins and put their aviation heritage down to their grandfather, Lenny, a World War II fighter pilot. Their grandfather was shot down and due to his canopy freezing, was unable to evacuate his P47. When he returned to the USA, he wondered what it would’ve been like to jump out of a plane, so set up a skydiving school.
Preparing for flight

Preparing for flight

© Michael Clark / Red Bull Content Pool

Luke and Andy’s fathers also flew and jumped so it was obvious that the boys would be doing the same thing – Luke was still in the womb when he first jumped out of a plane. Both boys grew up on an airfield and jumped as much as possible they also took up flying and both took their first solo flights at the age of 16.
Aside from being cousins the pair are highly in-tune with each other, which is perfect for the Plane Swap challenge. They often fly in formation together and have completed more than 5,000 jumps together. This is why Luke picked Andy as his Plane Swap partner, the pair know instinctively what the other one is going to do, making it a more predictable and therefore safer challenge.

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So, the pilots and jumpers are sorted, but it was going to take an aviation and aeronautical expert to step in and work on the aircraft to make sure all this can happen. This is where Dr Paulo Iscold steps in. Paulo is a professor of aircraft design, applied aerodynamics and is a pilot himself. Paulo met Luke back in 2016 after the skydiver had just completed his 25,000ft (7,260m) parachute-less jump, landing into a giant net, so he knew what was in store when he was asked to help with the science on this project.
Although there are hundreds of people involved in making Sunday’s dream a reality the last two stars of the challenge are the Cessna 182s being flown by Luke and Andy. The Cessna 182 is a workhorse that has been in production since 1956 and there has been more than 23,000 built. These airplanes are reliable and used for all sorts of tasks from training aircraft to military operations. It’s the perfect companion for Plane Swap.
Preparing for flight

Preparing for flight

© Michael Clark / Red Bull Content Pool


The Swap

The planes take a nosedive during a test run in San Luis Obispo.

The two planes in a nosedive

© Michael Clark/Red Bull Content Pool

Plane Swap has been a year in the making with hours and hours put in by Luke, Andy, Paulo and Aaron Fitzgerald the Aerial Coordinator to ensure the plan goes off without a hitch.
Much like a million flights before, the two planes will take-off one at a time and ascend to 14,000ft (4,265m), where the pilots get into formation and complete their last checks – this is the last point where a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ call will be made.
When the ‘go’ call is made both Luke and Andy will put their 182s into a tandem nosedive. For both the aircraft to remain in a nosedive they require a custom-built autopilot system to ensure they stay on the correct trajectory (more on the physics of the jump later). Each aircraft has also been fitted with a speed brake and larger than standard wheels to help create more drag and slow the rate of decent and ensure the skydivers can catch up to them. The autopilot will activate once the pilots have manually entered the nosedive and switched the engines off to cause the planes to stall in mid-air.
With the airplanes holding their trajectory in the nosedive, Luke and Andy will then exit their planes and skydive to approximately 2,000ft above ground level before getting into the other aircraft.
Once back inside their new aircraft Luke and Andy will switch off the autopilot, retract the speed brake and restart the engines, whilst pulling level. They will then switch off the smoke to show to all around the mission has been successful.

The Science

5 min

The science behind Plane Swap

For Plane Swap to succeed aerospace engineer Paulo Iscold must push the boundaries of aeronautical innovation.

To make Plane Swap a success there were several questions that needed to be answered. The first thing that needed to be done was to work out a way to slowdown the decent of the airplanes whilst they’re in the unmanned nosedive. A falling skydiver will reach a terminal velocity of around 130mph (209kph), whereas a falling Cessna 182 mustn’t exceed a speed of 200-210mph (321-327kph), as it will start to breakup mid-flight. This number is known as the Vne or the Never Exceed Speed.
The aircraft will also fall quicker than both Luke and Andy, so Paulo was tasked with a way of slowing down the 182s and came up with the speed brake. The speed brake is a large surface area that sits under the belly of the plane and is activated before the dive. This brake produces nine times more drag than the aircraft itself produces, which is the amount of drag needed to stabilize the airplane to 125mph, which is Luke and Andy’s average speed. The speed brake solves the problem of the planes pulling away from the skydivers.
The next issue was keeping the aircraft on the correct trajectory whilst they were unmanned. The issue here is that without a pilot at the controls there is no guarantee that the aircraft will stay on the same line. The airflow around the airplane can change the direction, so an autopilot was needed to ensure both the Cessnas stayed on target. However, there is no autopilot in the world designed to keep an aircraft flying straight down towards the ground, so the team had to develop their own.
Plane Swap Drawing

Plane Swap Drawing

© Red Bull Content Pool

In the freefall the aircraft cannot produce any lift on the wing, so the pitch angle has to be slightly over 90-degrees, so the wings are lining up with the ground.
Then there is the issue of Luke and Andy being able to get in and out of the aircraft. Not only that, but they also have to get into the pilot’s seat that is at a vertical angle. On one test flight Andy found a solution. He worked out that by holding onto the strut (the metal pole that connects the wing to the body or the airplane), he could pull himself closer and closer to the cabin of the aircraft. He then placed his chest on the door frame. With one leg and arm inside the plane, he found he could deactivate the nosedive and then be able to sit back on the seat once the plane had begun to level out.
And finally, the target. Luke and Andy will be aiming for a moving target no bigger than a refrigerator door whilst diving at 130mph. That’s why 5,000-plus jumps together helps enormously!

Where and When

Luke and Andy have been training for Plane Swap in San Luis Obispo in California, but the actual challenge will take place over the Arizona desert this Sunday.
The timing of the flight will largely depend on the air temperature. This is because if the temperature is too hot, the air is less dense and the aircraft will fall quicker. With Arizona having a warmer climate than where the team has been practicing, Paulo has planned for Luke and Andy to be taking off in the late afternoon.
The entire event can be watched live and coverage begins at 4pm local time in Arizona, which is midnight (00:00GMT). For those watching in the US, Plane Swap will be streamed exclusively on Hulu.
And if you want to visualize how it’s all going to happen have a look at our interactive infographic HERE.

Part of this story

Plane Swap

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Luke Aikins

Breaking boundaries is second nature to American skydiver and pilot Luke Aikins.

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Andy Farrington

Andy Farrington is a king of the skies with more than 26,000 skydives and over 1,500 BASE jumps to his name, not to mention about 6,000 hours as a pilot.

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