Plane-to-Plane Transfer

Yep. This is the grand daddy of them all. Without a doubt the best stunt I have pulled off yet. I'm not sure I will be able to top this one, and that's alright with me. The footage we got on this one made for one of the best segments I have seen in TV history. And it didn't come without a price.

The idea for this stunt came from a conversation with Joe Jennings.  Joe and I were sitting at the airport on Catalina Island, waiting to go shoot a flying sequence for IMAX.  I was telling him about some of the ideas we had for "Senseless", including one for the Foo Fighters video, "Learning To Fly."  The plan at that point was for me to go up in a glider being towed by an airplane, climb out of the glider, climb the rope toward the airplane, then get next to the tow-pilot's window and wave to him (like in the video). Joe and I laughed about this and then started throwing around some other ideas. We then both mutually agreed the stunt would be better with an airplane that is actually in freefall. Joe assured me that it could be done and I immediately called Brad, the executive producer. We were on our way.

A lot of time and money went into preparing for the day of the stunt. Joe was a major part of this preparation. He searched around for a plane that was capable of this task, as well as a pilot who would be willing to put his life at risk in that airplane. He found both when he called Robert Scott. Robert is a very experienced banner-tow pilot who owned an airplane that seemed suitable for the job. It was already rigged to tow a line, which would be necessary for putting a small parachute on the tail. This parachute was called a "drogue" and was necessary to allow the airplane to fall straight down and not pick up so much speed as to rip the wings off. It was a system that absolutely had to work. Rigger Scott Christiansen spent endless hours constructing a number of these drogues for different freefall speeds. It was necessary to test the airplane with different drogue sizes to lock in a freefall speed around 110 miles per hour.

When I showed up on the day of the stunt, everything had been tested and was ready to go. I was briefed on the flight characteristics of the airplane in drogue-tow. Joe warned me that it fell a little slow, so I needed to avoid falling past the airplane in freefall. This was about all I knew. The producers were still discussing the idea of waving to the pilot. I decided that if I got close enough to that airplane that I could wave to the pilot, then I was getting in the damn thing. My major concern was to avoid getting too radical and hitting the airplane, which could damage it and send it out of control. That would be very bad for Robert.

As Joe and I climbed aboard our airplane, I thought about how awesome it would be to do a skydive and never open my parachute. That was my plan and I was crossing my fingers at this point. When we got to altitude (12,000'), we leveled off in formation with Robert's airplane and waited for him to activate the drogue. I felt like I was in the starting gate at the top of a ski race. I was charged. We saw the drogue line go into tow behind Robert's plane and I went for the door. But just as we were about to exit, we noticed that the drogue wasn't inflating. Robert put his plane into a dive, but without the drogue he just picked up massive amounts of airspeed and was out of our reach. I was bummed. It was such a major letdown after being that amped up. Joe and I rode the airplane down to see what had happened.

Our rigger Scott admitted that he had no idea why the drogue had failed. Everything looked fine so we just re-rigged the airplane and went up for a second try. But the same thing happened again. I was starting to get frustrated. I really wanted a chance at this thing and I knew that if we didn't do it today, budgetary reasons would keep me from getting to do it at all. Scott tweaked on the drogues for two more attempts that failed. We just couldn't figure it out. It was getting close to sunset and we knew that we had only one more attempt left. I really wasn't very optimistic at this point. Joe and I got on our plane for the last attempt, realizing that more than likely this day would end in total failure.

That last climb to altitude dragged on forever. I felt that we were just going up to watch the drogue fail one last time. Joe and I were both very quiet. When it came time  to get in formation with the other plane, I sort of lazily got in position at the door. I wasn't expecting much. We watched as the drogue line reached full extension and the drogue struggled to inflate. I started to shake my head. Then in one instant the drogue popped completely open and stayed there. I looked at Joe in surprise. The plane started its dive and our  pilot yelled, "Go, go, go!"  I was outta there. I had no idea where Joe was behind me and I didn't care at that point. I set  my sights on the diving  airplane and went into a head-down, high speed dive. I was  hauling ass and started closing the distance quick. I suddenly remembered the warnings about how slow the plane was falling, so I came out of my dive to avoid overshooting it. I slowed down a little too much and the plane started to get away from me. I tried to smoothly speed up to approach the door of the plane. I gradually moved my way in to a distance of about 20 feet behind the airplane. I started to feel some turbulence at this point and had to fight to stay stable. I realized I was running out of time and that finessing my way in wasn't going to work at this point. I had to get aggressive. I decided to dive bomb the door. I came in full-speed and hit the side of the plane. I grabbed for anything as I bounced off. I figured I was screwed at this point with no chance of hanging on. But somehow I got a hold of the doorstep and was sort of dangling on the belly of the plane. I wasn't going to let go of that hold for anything. I climbed my way up to the door and said hi to Robert. He laughed for a second but I could tell he was struggling with something. I couldn't climb in yet because the plane was still vertical and I would have fallen on the controls.

Robert eventually pulled the airplane level and I climbed in. I could tell he was still struggling. I looked back and realized the drogue was still attached to the plane. He couldn't release it. This was bad. I checked my altimeter and found that we were only at 500 feet. I felt we were a little too low for me to jump out now, so I buckled in. I was committed to landing in this airplane now and it scared the hell out of me. I had no idea I was going to be in for this. I kept quiet and let Robert do his job. I could tell he was a little stressed, but I knew he would pull it off. When we came in over the runway things got a little squirrelly. I was holding my breath. We bounced and skidded for a few seconds, then came to a very quick halt. We had made it. I jumped out and ran around on the runway. I had done a skydive and never opened my parachute! It was an awesome feeling. Robert filled me in on everything from his end. Apparently we had pulled out of the dive with only a few seconds left before we would have impacted with the ground. I hadn't really noticed any of this before because I was so stoked on getting to the plane. We had a big group hug and everybody was relieved that the day was over. This was the first stunt that turned media attention toward our show, and we now had the pressure of going bigger and better.

Swing Spitfire