I sent this to every member of the USPA Board on May 5, including Luke. (Luke was the only Board member to respond. The USPA Executive Director did respond.) The issue here is one of credibility for USPA, the Board and most importantly, the membership. The ability of the skydiving community to operate and conduct itself with little FAA involvement is key. If Luke does not resign, or the Board does not revoke or otherwise legally suspend his USPA membership, ratings and licenses, the FAA is going to assume we need more oversight. And, USPA will find it very difficult to impose enforcement action against any member without this issue rightly being used to stop that action.
"May 5, 2022
To: Board of Directors, US Parachute Association
5401 Southpoint Centre Blvd.
Fredricksburg, VA 22407
From: Ron Lee, Skydiving Innovations
USPA Member # 34394
Dear Board of Directors,
I am an active skydiver, 40-year member of USPA and CEO of Skydiving Innovations, (www.skydivinginnovations.com), a San Diego-based professional aviation entertainment and event company founded in 1986. I am writing to you regarding the recent Red Bull/Hulu “Plane Swap” stunt that took place on April 24, 2022.
I have no doubt I am not the first person to communicate with USPA and the Board of Directors regarding this event. While the event itself may not have been completely successful, it was unquestionably compelling, and no doubt was the result of endless engineering, development, and hard work. It was also, thanks to the decision by Board Member Luke Aikins to execute the stunt after receiving the FAA’s exemption denial, an undeniable middle finger to the FAA and USPA membership. (See further.)
We all know that skydiving’s ability to exist, let alone thrive and conduct itself with little government oversight is thanks to the fact that the FAA can trust USPA and its members to operate according to the FARs and USPA BSRs: that we will abide by the regulations and police ourselves accordingly. If we do not like certain rules or regulations or feel they are unnecessary or onerous, we can lobby for change. What we do not do is simply ignore them for the sake of anything other than immediate safety – not a big streaming deal with a content provider or to further our relationship with our longtime product sponsor. (This is where I insist that no-one try to assert the nonsensical idea that this was a “STEM project. You don’t tell the FAA it is a STEM project then charge six bucks and change to watch the result of your STEM project on Hulu.)
I have talked with many skydivers and pilots about this situation, and by a large majority they believe that Luke made make the decision to do the stunt without the FAA exemption knowing full well that the worst that could happen (from an FAA enforcement perspective) is that he (and fellow-stunt-pilot/cousin Andy Farrington) would lose their pilot’s certificates for a year. I do not know if that is what they were willing to accept in order to fulfill Luke’s commitments to Hulu, Red Bull and Honda. But I do know that when he published his admission of responsibility for not “sharing” the FAA’s exemption denial with his team, Luke was attempting to convince everyone that he did not share the exemption denial with even his cousin or the underwriters of his project. While I find that hard to believe, if it is true – it can only mean that he was certainly willing to risk the pilot certificate of his fellow pilot and close family member. That alone should bother everyone. If Luke did share the exemption denial with even one person involved in the project, then his mea culpa on Instagram was a blatant, very public lie. That is troubling as well.
More importantly to USPA and its membership: Luke Aikins has damaged the bond of trust that exists between USPA and the FAA. He thumbed his nose at that critical relationship for the sake of his own personal and financial interests. Luke is not just a skydiver or USPA member. He is a very recognizable forward-facing Board member and representative for the interests of the skydiving community, including commercial skydiving entities. (Personally and professionally, I deal with the FAA on a very frequent basis. After 36 years of working with and cultivating a mutually trustworthy relationship with the FAA, no-one within or outside the USPA organization has the right to arbitrarily risk that trust, especially a Board member.)
I know that many of you may be good friends with Luke Aikins, and this situation has made things difficult for everyone, especially Luke. However, you have a responsibility to the interests of the skydiving community and USPA’s efforts to protect and further enhance our sport. It is for this reason that I am calling for Luke Aikins to resign from the USPA board and vacate his position as a Regional Director. (He can run again, and will very likely be re-elected thanks to his very loyal following in his region.) If he does not resign voluntarily, he should be removed from the USPA board and his RD position at the earliest possible time. USPA (and Luke) must demonstrate to the FAA and membership that it will not allow anyone, even a highly accomplished and respected, extremely well-liked Board member to risk the critical trust USPA and its members share with the FAA. If you do not take meaningful action, or if you just give Luke Aikins a slap on the wrist you will be signaling to the FAA that further oversight or regulation may be required because even a Board member cannot be trusted to go by the rules. You will also be telling members that FAA regulations and BSRs can be ignored with little or no consequence, and that will open the door to legitimate challenges to USPA’s authority to exercise enforcement action against members when necessary. That is a can of worms no-one wants opened.