The first deployment by a certificated aircraft of the Ballistic Recovery System parachute may be a milestone in aircraft safety

It works for Volvo, but in aviation making a selling point of safety is a risky strategy. Aircraft are complex machines operating in a complex environment, and one failure in the system can undo the work of many marketing campaigns. Aviation is already safe - safer than driving, statistically - and the industry is cautious in making, and accepting, claims of greater safety unless they are thoroughly demonstrated. The traffic alert and collision avoidance system was once viewed with suspicion, but is now an essential tool for the pilot's situational awareness. The enhanced ground proximity warning system, with its digital terrain database, has proved to be an equally powerful aid to safer flying.

When the pilot of a Cirrus SR22 encountered control difficulties and deployed the light aircraft's airframe parachute, landing safely in woods and walking away uninjured, he entered the history books. But was the incident, near Dallas, Texas, a milestone in general aviation safety? The manufacturers of the aircraft and its parachute system believe so.

Thousands of ultralights and kitplanes are equipped with recovery parachutes, and there have been more than 150 documented "saves", but the Texas incident marks the first time a certificated aircraft has successfully landed under the canopy of an airframe parachute. Able to be activated anywhere in the flight envelope, even a spin, the rocket-deployed parachute is designed to bring the aircraft down to a heavy but survivable landing. The aircraft will be damaged, but its occupants should escape injury.

For Cirrus Design, the first new manufacturer to emerge to challenge Cessna's dominance of the piston-single market for decades, the successful save is a vindication of an expensive decision to equip its aircraft as standard with an airframe parachute system. Alan and Dale Klapmeier founded Cirrus in 1984 with the goal of developing the safest general aviation aircraft possible. It was a sound business decision that has proved instrumental in the company's success, as safety has played a key role in selling the aircraft. There have been nine accidents to date involving Cirrus aircraft, making the one confirmed successful deployment of the airframe parachute more emotionally than statistically significant. But with more than 350 SR20s and SR22s flying, and two more rolling off the Duluth, Minnesota, assembly line every day, the parachute is likely to be used in anger more than once. The Texas incident could indeed come to be regarded as a milestone in GA safety.

Today, with only Cirrus installing the systems, airframe parachutes are regarded in the same way that the seatbelt and airbag were in their infancy. There are still those who claim they would have been worse off had they been wearing a seatbelt when their car crashed, and the widespread acceptance of airbags has faced its challenges. But the statistics are firmly in favour of both safety systems. In the case of the airframe parachute, statistics that could confound the sceptics are not yet available, and will not be for several years. And there is some evidence among the Cirrus accident descriptions to suggest there is room for improvement in how the system is designed and used. When one pilot said he was unable to exert enough force to trigger the rocket-deployed parachute, Cirrus began retrofitting the fleet with an improved activation mechanism which provides consistency in the force required.

In other accidents where the parachute might have saved lives, there is no conclusive evidence in the reports to suggest the system was ever activated. The parachute's manufacturer, Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS), believes there may be training issues to be tackled. If the system is to make a significant difference to GA safety, pilots must have the confidence to abandon attempts to land a crippled aircraft and instead reach for the parachute activation handle. And insurers must accept there will be times that the parachute is deployed and an aircraft damaged when it could have been landed safely.

Cirrus stands alone in providing an airframe parachute as standard in a new production light aircraft. BRS, meanwhile, has certificated retrofit systems for the Cessna 150 and 172, with the 182 next in line, and the company has a NASA contract to develop a parachute suitable for the emerging class of personal jets. As with every innovation, someone has to be the pioneer. Perhaps, now the system has been shown to work when used for real, the rest of the GA industry will look seriously at airframe parachutes. It may take more testing, it may need more saves, but flying will get safer.

Source: Flight International