What goes up must come down, and aircraft come down safely after Boris Popov proved that an airframe parachute works. His drive to prove it, design it and market it followed a hang-gliding accident and fall into a lake

Boris Popov switched from building ultralights to founding the Ballistic Recovery Systems company in 1977. He had previously gained an economics degree from the University of Minnesota after already spending two years studying aeronautical engineering, helping him overcome the limitations that confounded others and become the leader in a brand new field.

Today he's stepped back from daily management and splits his time between his homes in Minnesota and Alaska, where he's also a flying fishing guide.

Where do you say you're from?

German-born, Russian heritage, married to an Australian woman, living in Minnesota. That pretty much says it all. Travel with this business has let me visit all these cultures - there is a commonality and that is a passion for flying.

Did you get an early start on parachute design?

When I was nine years old my dad caught me in the backyard in my neighbour's tree with a bed sheet. I was 15ft up. My dad said: "Son, if it's going to work, you're going to have to jump from a higher branch!"

Did your rocket deployment idea solve a lot of problems?

The larger the parachute, the more energy you have to expend to deploy it. With any other propellant-type device you're going to have a lot of recoil. The recoil was getting so high that it was actually a threat to the structural integrity of the airplane. That's where we developed a mechanically activated rocket motor to deploy the parachute. We also developed what we called the Smart Chute 20 years ago, and it only deploys at what is a survivable speed.

What do you look for in new staff?

We look for new employees with a propensity to think creatively. Our company culture encourages risk-taking above and beyond what other cutting-edge tech companies may expect. "Imagineering" is the key word that defines how we support our departments, especially so in engineering matters. We have a group of the best, if not the only, parachute engineers with decades of experience in putting parachutes on aircraft.

I, as a director, still focus on strategic engineering issues. However, I also do engineering work for the company as a consultant.

Your product is certainly catching on.

The concept has been proven. We've saved 209 lives. We've made our statement and any manufacturer that has hesitated prior to this now understands this is a thing that the customer just expects. And now Cessna offers the Ballistic Recovery System on its single-engine pistons.

I cannot overstate the importance of this and I have to take my hat off to Cirrus, because it really proved to the industry that not only does a ballistic parachute work on your airplane, but they also proved that if you don't include on one your aircraft you're not going to maintain market share.

What about airliners?

There's no engineering reason we can't move into that. Already we're at 5,000lb [2,270kg] parachute-capable. We're not intimidated by moving into this next level of aircraft, it just takes engineering time and money.

In 20 to 50 years every vehicle in the air will have to have a backup safety device. Whether that's a parachute or some kind of exotic propulsion device that lets you decelerate to the ground, that's what we're looking at and that's what's exciting for me. They are pretty innovative and very far-reaching ideas.

Source: Flight International