A Cirrus SR20 crashed near Chicago on Sunday, claiming the life of the pilot, his two daughters and their friend when the airplane went down in a soybean field under as yet unknown circumstances. The pilot, Ray Harris of Marion, is shown on the FAA airman registry database as being a private pilot. No instrument rating is shown, though the database is not always up to date. The weather at the time of the accident was listed by the FAA as 900 feet overcast, which would be below VFR minimums.
Photographs of the accident scene seem to indicate that the whole-airplane recovery parachute system was deployed, but the details of when and under what conditions it was fired remain unknown at this time and might be difficult to discover.
There have been several accidents involving Cirrus airplanes -- all of them are equipped with a recovery parachute -- in which the details behind the deployment of the chute were a mystery, at least at first. A fatal SR22 crash in the Dallas area several weeks ago was marked by what appeared to be a partial deployment; that accident remains under investigation. The Illinois accident airplane was a 2000-model-year SR20, which was outfitted with older avionics, most likely with very limited or nonexistent data logging capabilities. Current airplanes have rich recording capabilities, which typically allow investigators to quickly piece together the details of a mishap.
Strangely enough, a Cirrus SR20 that went down in Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, just north of Lakefront Airport, last week was also a 2000 model. In that case, the pilot/sole occupant, radioed ATC about engine troubles a few minutes after takeoff, before deploying the chute. According to local news reports, he survived the incident without injury.