Last April, an instrument-rated private pilot took off from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in his SR22 bound for Palm Beach International. It was solid IFR, 400 overcast. The pilot was experienced in Cirrus airplanes-he was a founder of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association-he regularly flew such IFR flights, and he knew his airplane well. As he rotated and began to climb, all systems looked good.
Then, just after he had entered the soup at right around the advertised 400 feet things started to go wrong. The altimeter began to fluctuate wildly, and the pilot called ATC to report the problem and to request a return to the airport. He got a vector, but things soon got worse, and he came to believe that the attitude indicator and turn coordinator were indicating differently. As he desperately tried to sort things out, he realized that he had no idea how high or where exactly he was.
In years past, the NTSB's report on this event very likely would have read something like this: "Witnesses reported seeing the airplane emerge from the clouds in a high-speed dive (or a spin; take your pick). The airplane impacted near vertically and the private pilot/sole occupant was fatally injured."
But that's not how this report read. Instead of struggling to regain his bearings at low altitude in the clouds, the pilot notified ATC that he was deploying the whole-airplane parachute system in the Cirrus. He killed the engine, pulled the big red handle overhead, and within a couple of seconds, the airplane began to descend under a 55-foot orange-and-white canopy. After what he remarked was a strangely quiet descent-despite the pilot's side door coming off when the chute deployed-the airplane came to rest in a tree. The pilot, who said that he didn't even feel the "landing," was unhurt.
In its preliminary report on the event, the National Transportation Safety Board pointed out that the pilot never switched to the alternate static source, and when inspectors looked at the airplane, they found water in the static lines. Might the pilot have been able to continue the flight and land without incident had he activated the alternate static? Maybe, but in the past a lot of other pilots in similar circumstances have proven not to be up to the task and paid the ultimate price for it. Unlike them, the Fort Lauderdale pilot is happily flying again.
I've been flying an SR22 for about 18 months now and, like a couple of thousand other Cirrus pilots out there, I've never had to do what that pilot felt as though he had to do that day. But it hasn't stopped me, or anybody else who climbs into one of these new airplanes, from asking the big question: Am I safer in this airplane than I am in others?
A chute is born: A near-death inspiration
The idea of a parachute that in case of dire emergency would lower the whole airplane, occupants and all, safely to the ground isn't a new one. Back in the 1940s, Flying featured stories and illustrations of several similar concepts, including ones for airliners and others where the wings were shed at deployment. None came to pass.
Then, in 1975 Boris Popov came up with an idea as he was falling 400 feet to what would surely be his death after his ultralight came apart in mid-flight. Popov didn't think he'd live to work on the idea-a rocket-enabled parachute that would rescue not just the pilot but the entire airplane-but, improbably, he survived the fall. Within a few years he had developed a simple, light rocket-propelled parachute system that would go into thousands of ultralight and light experimental airplanes.
By the 1990s parachutes manufactured by the company Popov had founded, Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS), had proven their value in very light and ultralight airplanes with more than 150 documented lives saved.
But general aviation types didn't pay much attention, not even when, in the 1990s, BRS got a system certified for retrofit into Cessna 150s. It wasn't until Cirrus Design, a new company looking to certify a composite four-seater, announced that it would put a chute in the airplane, that people started paying much attention.
Cirrus co-founder Alan Klapmeier, who years earlier had survived a midair collision, knew from firsthand experience that there were certain circumstances under which there was nothing further the pilot could do. The chute, Klapmeier claimed, would allow pilots that last ditch chance to save the lives of the airplane's occupants, and Cirrus committed to it from the get-go. Today there are around 1,500 BRS systems flying in Cirrus SR20 and SR22 single-engine airplanes and many more in ultralight and experimental light airplanes.
Even before the SR20 was certified, it became apparent that a parachute in a certified airplane would polarize pilots, and it has. While anti-chute pilots take issue on several grounds, the most common complaint remains that the system takes control away from the pilot. And there's no denying that once the red handle is pulled, everybody onboard is along for the ride. Some pilots feel as though, and they put it in these words, "real pilots don't need chutes."