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.”
Another argument is that pilots will be pulling the chute willy-nilly. It’s rare, but there have been cases of pilots making questionable deployments in light experimental airplanes equipped with chutes. These pulls took place in perfectly flyable airplanes when the pilot panicked, in a couple of instances because of extremely gusty conditions, fearing that he might lose control of the airplane. BRS has long argued that because pilots do sometimes die because they panic, the use of the chute in those situations, while not ideal, was appropriate.
A more reasonable argument than the “real pilot” one is that the CAPS could tempt pilots to fly into situations they’d normally avoid without the chute. Interestingly enough, Klapmeier’s view is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this choice.
That view is echoed by many Cirrus pilots, who admit that the presence of the chute influences their aeronautical decision-making, but only as much, most say, as it’s a part of the larger risk assessment picture. I would never, for instance, continue VFR into IMC just because the chute was there, but I am more likely to make certain types of flights that I would not without the chute.
To pull or not to pullWhile there are certain obvious pull-the-handle scenarios-such as those pointed out by Cirrus in the SR22’s POH: structural failure, loss-of-control at low altitude, etc.-there are many other scenarios under which the call is more difficult. When faced with a forced landing with marginal sites available and imposing terrain elsewhere, would I call on the chute? I don’t know. Would I choose to hit the silk in a high-speed dive after loss-of-control? After getting the airplane slowed down as much as possible, I probably would, even though CAPS has only been tested to 133 knots. What about after an engine failure shortly after liftoff with not enough runway and inhospitable terrain ahead? Again, I probably would, but it’s impossible to say ahead of time. It comes down to pilot judgment in the end.
In its manual, Cirrus provides scant guidance. In the Emergency Procedures section, the SR22 POH says, “The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) should be activated in the event of a life threatening emergency where CAPS deployment is determined to be safer than continued flight and landing.” (That’s not much help; you could say the same thing about offering up a quick prayer.) The manufacturer goes into a little detail on the subject of when to pull the chute, explaining the possible scenarios: mid-air collision, structural failure, certain loss-of-control scenarios, a forced landing in inhospitable terrain and pilot incapacitation. At the end of the discussion of each of these scenarios, the conclusion is a directive only that “CAPS deployment should be considered.”
On the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) website there is a surprisingly narrow range of opinion on the subject of the value and desirability of the chute. Everybody seems to like it, buttressing Klapmeier’s claim that while some pilots come to the Cirrus unconvinced about the chute, nearly every one of them comes around. Is this just the rationalization of owners who have no choice but to accept the technology, since you can’t get a Cirrus without the chute? It could be, but the fact remains, for whatever reasons, Cirrus owners are big fans of the chute, and their spouses are even more enthusiastic about it.
The subject of whole-airplane recovery parachutes is still mostly a Cirrus issue, but there’s no telling how long that will last, and it hasn’t kept pilots of non-chute-equipped airplanes from weighing in on the subject. In a non-scientific poll on our website (www.flyingmag.com), a large majority of respondents said that they’d put a whole-airplane parachute system in their airplane if they had the option.
Will it Work? One early question was, would the parachute function as advertised? The issue seems to have been answered in the affirmative. To date there have been four “saves” directly attributable to the chute, resulting very probably in saving the lives of eight people, all of whom walked away from the airplane unscathed.
In the first incident, which took place in October of 2002, a private pilot in Texas was faced with the difficult decision of whether to pull the chute or not after his SR22 experienced control difficulties shortly after takeoff. The pilot quickly identified the cause: the left aileron was attached by a single hinge and was blowing in the slipstream behind the wing. After cutting the engine, he made the pull, and the airplane came down safely into an area of mesquite trees. The pilot was unhurt.
The next two pulls (of which one was the Fort Lauderdale event discussed previously) occurred last spring within days of each other. In the first, a private pilot made the pull after his SR20 encountered a hard-to-explain loss of control over mountains at night in British Columbia. The airplane came down on a steep gravel slope, and the four occupants walked away without a scratch.
A fourth pilot, a CFI, made another deployment recently when his SR22 went out of control at 16,000 feet over central California. The airplane landed in a tree, and the pilot and his passenger, his wife, were unhurt.
The Texas deployment involved a maintenance error that led to the failure of a control surface; two others, the British Columbia and California deployments, involved the loss of control of the airplane at altitude; and the Fort Lauderdale pull came after an apparent instrument failure. The chute in each case quickly put the airplane back under control (though not under the pilot’s control). If you grant that these events are accidents-the NTSB is trying to resolve this question-then each of the four deployments are clearly loss-of-control-related, which is an all-too common cause of fatal light airplane crashes. Would each of the flights, in which no one was injured, let alone killed, have turned into a fatal accident had the pilot not deployed or not have had the option to deploy the chute?
It’s hard to say. One might argue that with flawless pilot performance all three might have ended with an uneventful landing at an airport. But such a claim belies the accident statistics. A majority of fatal crashes are associated with poor pilot decision-making and/or technique. So, instead of asking the question, could the pilot have conceivably recovered the airplane from any or all of these events, it’s more germane to ask, might any or all of them have resulted in fatal crashes? The answer to the latter question is “yes,” or at least “probably.”
So it’s four-for-four for Cirrus with the chute, though there has been some luck involved. Most notably, all four airplanes came down in good landing sites-the Texas pilot was the only one of the four to specifically choose his site. While there have been a number of other Cirrus accidents, in none of them is it likely that the pilot (or other occupant) ever tried to deploy the chute, and there are indications that in a number of those accidents, including one that involved a VFR pilot flying his SR20 into low IMC, it might have saved the day.
One fatal crash took place after an SR22 entered a flat spin at approximately 5,000 feet agl. In this accident, currently in litigation, the role of the parachute is in dispute, and Cirrus believes that the attorneys representing the estate of the deceased pilots will argue that one or both of them tried in vain to deploy the chute. In its report, the NTSB simply said that they did not deploy the chute, and cited as a probable cause the failure to do so. Both Cirrus and BRS agree with the Board’s report, and they contend that they can positively determine whether an occupant has tried to deploy the chute, even when there has been a post-crash fire, as there was in this crash.
It’s also important to point out that the CAPS has only been tested to VA, which is 133 knots in the SR22. Consequently, an all-too-common accident scenario, loss of control leading to a spiral dive, might not be recoverable with the chute.
Altitude is another issue. In the POH, Cirrus points out that the airplane will lose a minimum of 920 feet of altitude following deployment at the entry to the spin. In straight-and-level flight, the POH says that altitude loss of less than 400 feet has been demonstrated. The Fort Lauderdale recovery reportedly was made at around 800 feet agl, and photographic evidence suggests that the airplane was recovered with altitude to spare.
Equipping the Fleet?How might universal parachute equipage, if that were possible, change the safety picture? As a starting point, we might look at the track record of Cirrus SR20s and SR22s. While there have been four saves, there have also been eight fatal accidents, half of which, it appears, could not have been prevented with the use of the parachute. But based on the NTSB reports, half of those fatal accidents might have been saved with a timely pull that the pilot never made. That makes four actual saves out of a possible eight.
Because the Cirrus numbers are small, I looked at how the larger fleet might fare if every production single were equipped with a chute. I studied five months’ worth of NTSB accident reports-76 in all-on fatal crashes involving single-engine airplanes.
I excluded twins, turboprop-powered airplanes and helicopters from the mix because, as it now stands, no chute option is available to any aircraft in their respective classes. I also excluded Experimentals of all types, because they are outside the target of the study: type-certified singles.
After gathering the reports, I read through them and made a determination as to whether the pilot might have been able to make a successful deployment or not. I also added a third category, for accidents about which not enough was known to reach a determination or, in a few cases, in which it was impossible for me to conclude with the information available whether the pilot could have pulled the handle in time.
In 45 percent of the accidents I studied, it was very unlikely that the pilot would have been able to make a successful pull. (For another 13 percent, there simply wasn’t enough information available to make a determination.)
The majority of those accidents that I classified as “unrecoverable” involved unsuccessful takeoff or landing attempts. Examples included several attempted go-arounds that went awry close to the ground. Several involved takeoffs in high density-altitude conditions during which the airplane never climbed very high before impacting with terrain. The common denominator is that in neither scenario would the pilot likely have had enough altitude for a successful deployment.
Neither was the chute a probable remedy for several other kinds of accidents. These included five suicides, an unusually high number. Also, I classified as “unrecoverable” botched IFR approaches during which the pilot flew the airplane into the ground, usually in weather conditions at or below minimums. Likewise, other controlled flight into terrain accidents clearly would not have benefited from the presence of a chute. These included a few night flights that ended with the pilot flying the airplane under control in cruise or descent into the side of a mountain.
However, for 42 percent of the accident flights I surveyed, the parachute very possibly could have prevented tragedy. Many of these flights involved a loss of engine power at a recoverable altitude, often shortly after takeoff but at a height of several hundred feet or higher. Also, there were several harrying accounts of the last desperate minutes of communications between ATC and VFR-only pilots who had flown their airplanes into IMC. The outcome was predictably tragic. Fuel exhaustion was another common scenario, as was inadvertent flight into too-rapidly rising terrain and a couple of midair collisions. All of these fatal accidents might have turned out differently had the airplanes involved been chute equipped.
But by far the most common fatal accident cause in the sample was the pilot losing control of the airplane. I classified some of these accidents as “unrecoverable” because the airplane was too close to the ground, in my estimation, to give the pilot enough time to make a successful pull. But many loss-of-control accidents involved pilots losing control at pattern altitude or higher with the airplane subsequently spinning in, again, with fatal results. A timely pull on a handle might have prevented many of these fatalities.
With a chute in every airplane, how many lives might be saved in a typical year when there are around 300 fatalities in type-certified single-engine airplanes?
In my five-month study, the death toll in the potentially recoverable category was 59 people. (It was much higher with Experimentals in the mix.) A total of 72 people perished in crashes that I deemed unrecoverable or about which I couldn’t make a determination. I then subtracted a percentage on the assumption that my “recoverability” determinations were optimistic, that a percentage of “saves” would go awry and that people would perish despite the deployment of the chute. On top of that, I factored in a small number of deployments that might result in fatalities instead of preventing them. Working in these factors, I came up with an intermediate figure of 50 lives saved in the five-month period, which comes to 120 lives saved when extended to cover a year’s time.
Finally, since pilot error led to many of the accidents outlined above, it’s only fair to assume that a number of pilots, perhaps as many as half, would fail to deploy the chute in a timely manner. So, factoring in pilot error in deploying the chute, a final estimate for lives saved per year (were the entire fleet equipped) is around 60, which represents 20 percent of all fatalities in certified single-engine airplanes.
While intriguing, I admit that the exercise is speculative. Retrofit whole-airplane parachute systems are available for just three airplanes, the Cessnas 150/152, 172 and 182, and only a handful of those airplanes are chute equipped.
The Future of the ChuteSo far, only one new-airplane maker, Cirrus, has committed to the chute. Other major manufacturers have admitted only to considering the technology, and there are no signs that any of them will adopt chutes any time soon. Mark Thomas, president of BRS, says that there are economic factors working against the chute. For starters, it is expensive to engineer and certify a whole-airplane parachute recovery system. Also, the airplanes in which they’re installed gain weight. (The chute in the Cirrus weighs around 65 pounds, including all of the system components, and more weight, 15 pounds or more, is lost in adding reinforcements to the airframe where the harness attaches to it.) There are also added, recurring costs. Rockets have to be replaced periodically-10 years for the Cirrus-and other system components need occasional inspection and/or replacement.
But even without other major airplane makers adopting the technology, chutes will become more common, thanks to the recent adoption of the Light Sport Aircraft rule, under which potentially dozens of new small airplanes will earn certification, many of them with whole-airplane parachute recovery systems as standard or optional equipment.
For now the real question is, how many lives will be saved by the whole-airplane parachute systems that are already on Cirrus, and a few other airplanes? In 10 years’ time, assuming that Cirrus continues to build a thousand airplanes a year or more, it will likely be around a dozen or more people subtracted from the fatality column every year, which, even the skeptics would have to agree, would be a substantial improvement in safety.
Somewhat surprisingly, the market response to the products has been cool, though BRS says that the problem is at least in part a marketing issue. The company has been more involved in research and development than it has been in selling the product. So retrofit sales might pick up. The costs are reasonable enough. Thomas says that the system can be installed in one of the Cessnas for around $20,000, a figure dwarfed by the amount many owners spend on avionics upgrades. One hopeful indicator for BRS is that after 20 years in the market their chutes are a virtual staple in small experimental and ultralight airplanes.
It’s hard to say how much of Cirrus sales success is a result of the chute and how much is in spite of it. Either way, today there is a growing number of production airplanes flying with whole-airplane recovery chutes as standard, factory-installed equipment. Klapmeier says that more pilots are coming to Cirrus expressly because it has the chute.
The ranks might some day grow to include pilots of larger and faster airplanes. NASA recently awarded BRS a Small Business Innovation Research grant to study the possibility of installing whole-airplane parachute recovery systems in airplanes weighing as much as 5,000 pounds and traveling at up to 350 knots.