ABC Investigation Prompts New Probe of Red Bull's Seaplane

Red Bull, energy, drink,
The Red Bull plane flies over thousands of college students on spring break at Lake Havasu, Arizona.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is demanding answers from the owner of a seaplane used as a flying billboard by Red Bull, following an ABC News investigation that raised questions about the aged plane's safety.

The "Albatross" seaplane serves as a popular marketing tool for the Red Bull energy drink and flies over huge crowds at sports events and air shows around the country.

A confidential report obtained by ABC News revealed that the Coast Guard had disposed of the plane in 1976 because "all available service life appears to have been expended" due to the amount of flight hours logged by the plane.

"It's terribly unsafe because the wings could fall off at any time," said Bill McNease, a former FAA safety inspector who helped launch an investigation of the plane in 2006.

The new FAA probe is looking into discrepancies concerning the documented flight hours of the plane. In 1971, Coast Guard records show the plane had logged 8,068 flight hours. Yet in 2008, the current owner who leases the Albatross to Red Bull, told the FAA the plane only had 7,100 hours – a "rollback" of 968 hours.

The FAA has now demanded that the owner, John Shoffner of Flight Management Resources, provide documentation to back up his claims regarding the plane's flight hours.

"We're asking the owner to furnish proof of the number of hours because there is considerable confusion over the flight hours as documented by several sources," said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

Dorr said the FAA plans to reconcile the Coast Guard records with representations made by Shoffner and previous owners regarding the plane's flight hours.

History of the Red Bull Albatross Plane

The FAA initially grounded the Red Bull Albatross in 2007 over concerns surrounding the plane's flight hours. However, following a protest by a Washington law and lobbying firm hired by Shoffner, the agency allowed the plane to fly under a highly restricted "experimental" airworthiness certificate. Although the Albatross is supposed to "avoid densely populated areas," it regularly flies over the heads of thousands of people at events like the festivities surrounding this year's Super Bowl in Tampa.

A Red Bull spokesperson said it receives permission from the FAA to fly over big cities and large events, and that "neither Red Bull nor any of its pilots or flight crews have or would operate an aircraft that is known to be unsafe or in an unsafe manner."

Shoffner did not return a call asking for comment on the FAA's new probe.

Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the investigative page.

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