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  Home > Newsletter > Whole Plane Parachutes: Are They Worth It? March 2015

Whole Plane Parachutes: Are They Worth It?

On Sunday January 25, the Coast Guard received a distress call from a pilot in a Cirrus SR22 aircraft, who informed them of his plans to ditch at 12:30pm due to a lack of fuel.

The pilot traveling from Tracy, California, to Maui went into the Pacific 250 miles off Hawaii. Lady Luck was in the pilot’s favor, as the Coast Guard directed the pilot to put down near a Holland America cruise ship called the MS Veendam.

The SR22’s full aircraft parachute system deployed in order to slow the plane’s descent toward the water. Coast Guard video shows the plane releasing its parachute and briefly dropping nose-first before leveling out and plopping into the sea. The pilot escaped out the top of the aircraft and drifted away in a small raft from the plane, where the ship soon plucked the pilot to safety unhurt.

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.

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?

Pros and cons of whole plane parachutes

Small aircraft parachutes are commonly known as “whole plane parachutes.” The most common version is made by a company called Ballistic Recovery Systems, or BRS. In fact, some people refer to whole plane parachute systems as BRS systems.

When deployed, whole plane parachutes will lower the entire plane to the ground, assuming it works properly. In theory, it would make sense for most or all small aircraft to have a parachute system on board, but there are some things to consider.

Cost. The primary reason more planes don’t have parachute systems is the most obvious: money, or lack of it. They’re expensive, depending on the year and model of aircraft.

Weight. 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.

Odds. Considering that the majority of airplane crashes occur during landing, take-off, and low-level flight, many small aircraft pilots wonder, “What is the likelihood I’ll ever need or use a whole plane parachute?”

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 whole plane parachute is something you hope you’ll never need, but it’s good to know you have it in case you do.

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