The pilot of a Cirrus SR22 who departed the Montgomery County Airpark (GAI) in Maryland Sunday afternoon can count himself among the 30 people "saved" by the aircraft's rocket-powered parachute system, according to my count. A photo from FlightAware.com clearly shows 55ft chute in the aftermath of Sunday's deployment.
I see from the Cirrus owners and pilots association (COPA) that as of the end of 2008, there had been 16 known Cirrus airframe parachute system (CAPS) activations which saved 29 people.
There are have been at least two this year, including Sunday's. Pilots in an SR22 that crashed in Florida on 17 February had pulled the chute, but the aircraft was low to the ground and spinning vertically at the time, according to an eyewitness. Both were killed.
In at least two cases, deployments failed due to speed or faults.
"The two deployment failures involved one activation at very high speed (likely twice the deployment speed), and the other activation where the rocket took an unusual trajectory resulting in a failure to open the canopy. The trajectory anomaly resulted in an airworthiness directive for modifying the CAPS rocket assembly," COPA says. Graphic below is from COPA website.
COPA COPA notes that descents under the fully formed canopy happen at 1,700 feet per minute, which equates to a vertical velocity of 28 feet per second or 17kt, enough to break the aircraft but save the people.
During certification Cirrus demonstrated a chute deployment at 133kt. In practice however, pilots have pulled the red handle in the aircraft's headliner....
... and successfully deployed at much higher speeds, perhaps as high as 190kt. In another case where the aircraft was traveling at speeds estimated to be more than 240 knots, the parachute did not successfully deploy, says COPA.
At GAI, the pilot had just departed on an IFR cross country flight when he encountered mechanical problems, most likely of the engine variety, and could not maintain altitude back to the airport. His speed was probably just right for popping the chute though.