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Getting Cirrus about Aircraft Parachutes
Last January 2, when a single-engine Cirrus SR-20 traveling from Groton to Danbury, CT had to land suddenly due to an unspecified mechanical problem, the pilot employed an onboard Cirrus parachute system, which softened the landing and saved the lives of the three people aboard. Are these men three more reasons to seriously consider installing an onboard parachute, or upgrading to a plane that has one? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of aircraft parachutes.
Details of the Danbury accident
The pilot of the aircraft is a licensed instructor who was giving a lesson to a student. The third man was the student’s friend. The plane was two miles from the Danbury Municipal Airport when the pilot alerted authorities he planned to deploy the parachute. The plane went down near South Street and Wixted Avenue at about 7:30 p.m. The parachute caught in power lines, and the power was temporarily cut to remove it. The men were taken to Danbury Hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
Mike Safranek, assistant airport administrator of Danbury Municipal Airport, said the pilot deployed the Cirrus aircraft’s chute two miles from the airport. Safranek also said the plane touched down majestically right in the middle of a parking lot," and that "It clearly saved their lives."
“The most Cirrus ever parachutes”
The Cirrus parachute system, which can only be deployed once the plane has reached a certain speed and altitude, uses a rocket-fired parachute to slow a fall and safely lower the plane to the ground. Cirrus is the only general aviation aircraft manufacturer in the world that provides a parachute safety feature as standard equipment on its aircraft.
According to the Cirrus Aircraft website, Cirrus has made significant changes to its redesigned 2013 SR22/SR22T, including the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System™ (CAPS). Cirrus’ SR22/SR22T has been the best selling general aviation aircraft for more than a decade, and the 2013 models — the fifth generation of Cirrus aircraft—are being called, “The Most Cirrus Ever.”
They’re also calling the new CAPS system “the most groundbreaking safety technology ever.” Improvements and upgrades include an increased canopy size, a new rocket extraction system that propels the parachute upon activation, an advanced technology electrical rocket igniter, and lighter and stronger construction materials. Substantial testing of the CAPS system, including a new series of CAPS parachute test drops, was conducted for validation.
Even more impressive is the success rate of Cirrus parachute deployment numbers. According to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, the Cirrus parachute system was activated 39 times between 2002 and mid-December 2012. Of those parachute deployments, Cirrus claims that 31 of those 39 deployments are considered successful, and involved 62 survivors.
So what are the down sides to parachutes?
With Cirrus’ history of success with parachutes, why don’t more aircraft manufacturers make them standard equipment on new planes? And why don’t more owner/operators have them installed on existing aircraft?
The primary reason is probably the most obvious — money. Aircraft parachute systems can be very expensive, depending on the year and model of aircraft. They also add weight to the plane, increasing fuel use and cost. Added weight can also affect flight handling, and some pilots feel that onboard parachutes are difficult to install and attach, and may even compromise hull integrity.
Some pilots would ask, “What is the likelihood I’ll ever need this thing?” Many airplane crashes occur during landing, take-off, and low-level flight. Onboard parachute systems are designed to be deployed for a higher-altitude engine loss/loss of control, and/or a flat spin that is unrecoverable. A cost/benefit analysis of the practicality of aircraft parachutes would be interesting. That said, like life insurance, a parachute is something you hope you’ll never need, but it’s good to know you have it in case you do.