Cirrus Owners Focus on Learning

Knowing what you don’t know is critically important.

jerry seckler copa university
Jerry Seckler is Dean of the COPA University.Rob Mark

When Cirrus aircraft began entering the market around the turn of this century, some pundits were certain the new-age, glass-cockpit airplane was just what the industry needed to improve the single-engine safety record. As it turned out, the first decade or so of Cirrus operations were marred by more than a few fatal accidents, despite the Cirrus aircraft ballistic parachute system.

Author Richard Collins said, "Fatal accidents outnumbered chute saves through 2013 when the most dramatic change I have ever seen came to the Cirrus fleet. Chute saves soared and fatal accidents dropped. The fatal accident rate had been above the average for all of private aviation, but starting in 2014 it appears to be among the best." The question for many pilots to this day wonders how that turnaround happened. It actually took the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association working in conjunction with Cirrus Aircraft to begin changing those numbers. COPA president Roger Whittier said, "From my perspective the big deal to be proud of is the reduction in the fatal rate that coincided with an increase in CAPS usage. Incidences remained fairly constant, but we traded fatal events for CAPS saves. Said crassly, people still messed up at close to the same rate, but they survived it due to CAPS."

Wittier believes COPA’s Safety Director Rick Beach had a hand in the turnaround too. Beach’s strategy was simple, convince Cirrus pilots to use the chute and to never put an airplane down in an emergency with an unused chute still attached to the airframe. Beach is credited with the phrase, “Pull Early, Pull Often,” designed to focus pilots on the chute’s availability.

Trip Taylor, slated as COPA’s next president, said there have been a number of shared interventions that resulted in the reduction in fatal accidents. “COPA and Cirrus issued a joint letter in 2009 after a rash of fatal landing/go around accidents. The outgrowth of that was the Cirrus Landing and Standardization course. COPA advocated for CAPS education prior to Cirrus, but Cirrus had the ability to reach customers beyond the COPA organization's reach.” COPA Presidents Andy Neimeyer and Roger Whitter also worked with Cirrus leadership on outbound communications to all Cirrus pilots when the need appeared.

Rick Beach remembered that the reduction in fatal Cirrus accidents reached a local peak in 2011, “then showed significant improvements from 2013, with a worrying uptick in the past few years.” Beach said explaining the change involves numerous factors that coincided to reinforce improvements in the Cirrus Culture of Safety. In addition to “Pull Early, Pull Often,” Beach said they added “Consider CAPS,” in 2005 followed by the company’s introduction of the Flight Operations Manual of standardized procedures in 2007. “Consider CAPS,” was officially added to instructor interactions in 2011 giving Cirrus Standardized Instructor Program pilots leverage with new operators. CSIPs were able to explain the data that showed how many people lost their lives when they failed to pull the shoot against CAPS pulls in similar situations where everyone lived.

Beach said, in 2013, Cirrus published new training materials as guidance on the use of CAPS. “Things were getting better until a cluster of fatal accidents occurred in which low time-of-ownership was a factor and where transition training was conducted by instructors not in the Cirrus network. In a 2016 response, Cirrus Aircraft launched the Embark transition training initiative, making it possible for most buyers of used Cirrus aircraft to receive as many as three days of training from a CSIP. COPA continued on with dedicated safety editions of the COPA Pilot Magazine while improving the Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Program materials and the instructor staff.

On the Ground

A few Saturdays ago I spent the day sitting in a conference room at Chicago Executive Airport (KPWK) with 35 other Cirrus pilots for my first Mini-CPPP, shorthand for a one-day pilot training event created by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association’s and the COPA Training Foundation. I wanted a closer look at some of the training that helps keep those Cirrus accident numbers down. A number of the 35 pilots attending this day, flew in from surrounding communities and states. As an instructor who’d completed the Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilot training years ago, I’d never experienced one of these classroom sessions taught around the country, like this particular Mini-CPPP.

The CPPP stands for the COPA Pilot Proficiency Program series, training events normally presented over the course of an entire weekend. Mini meant it was a special one-day training event focused on a single topic. This Saturday it was weather.

I learned the CPPP programs represent more than simply recurrent training. Their goal is to push the discussion toward the mastery level on a topic for each participant, similar to what professional pilots might learn at recurrent training on topics like aeronautical decision making, how to best fly the airplanes and even when not to fly the airplane. The goal is to better understand the why behind a task such as when pulling the parachute is the best solution to a problem.

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Thirty five people spent the day at the Mini-CPPP to learn more about weather.Rob Mark

Jerry Seckler, dean of COPA University’s college of flight operations, taught the first session of the day about the physics of thunderstorm creation and of course storm avoidance. His second block looked at the whys of aircraft icing.

What I thought made the icing session impressive was Seckler’s focus on not just the physics, but the tools that create a workable winter flying plan and the elements necessary to create or build on the pilot’s decision making skills related to flying in clouds that might have freezing precipitation hiding inside. Seckler was clear from the beginning that a quick weather briefing and then hoping for the best when flying in potential icing conditions is not a workable strategy for any pilot. He began with simple tips, like fueling the airplane the night before, even if you store it in a hangar because, “Pumping ice cold fuel into a warm airplane can turn your wings to frost.”

He spoke to the specifics of why ice is hazardous. “Ice increases weight, so the wing must compensate with more lift by increasing angle of attack,” he said. “That kills airspeed. Ice on the wing also changes the airfoil’s shape and reduces the wing’s ability to create lift, an issue that demands an even larger angle of attack.” Interactively with the group, the room was reminded that antennas and wheel pants ice up too and that also increases drag. Then there’s ice on the propeller that reduces thrust, not to mention that with ice on the airfoil, that increases the aircraft’s stall speed. He asked the room to offer up a minimum airspeed for a Cirrus in icing conditions that pilots should know about, before the increasing stall speed crosses the line with the decreasing airspeed number. Few had a really good idea.

During the rest of the morning, Seckler detailed a number of useful icing forecast tools like Aviation Weather.gov, as well as a few that might not be quite as effective. He spoke to topics often unknown to many pilots attempting to navigate icing conditions like soundings and satellite pictures. He showed us how to calculate bases and cloud tops for flight in icing conditions and went on to prove his calculations were more than his own theory.

The Mini-CPPP’s morning session ended with a discussion focused around pilot judgment, a great esoteric topic many people believe simply can’t be taught. The logic Seckler used was similar to the thought process many pilots use when it comes to flying in areas of thunderstorms. Making a risky flight in questionable weather, or one in which the pilot may have used some shaky briefings and then successfully navigating areas of storms or ice proves nothing. Even worse, it breeds a cavalier attitude that somehow makes a pilot think that success was based on their brilliant thinking, when in actuality it was nothing more than plain dumb luck. Areas of thunderstorms or ice successfully avoided today have a shelf life that ends when the airplane is pushed back into the hangar. When you’ve seen one thunderstorms or ice-laden cloud, you’ve seen one thunderstorm or ice cloud. They continue to change by the hour and often by the minute.

When things don’t feel right Seckler said, “Better to head for a known safe haven than to keep pressing on in questionable weather. Don’t forget, you can always turn around,” although he acknowledged GA pilots really hate that option.

While he wasn’t in attendance at this day’s Mini-CPPP, Rick Beach said something later that would have summed up the day’s training pretty accurately. “Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan — until some advocates take on that challenge to bring about change”