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So, how’s that Cirrus parachute thing working out?

By Adam Hunt


COPA Flight 8 doesn’t usually hold a December meeting, as our usual time-slot of the fourth Wednesday of each month normally falls in the middle of Christmas holidays, but this year we made an exception. We held a meeting at the Rockcliffe Flying Club on Thursday, December 15.

The impetus for the special meeting was that Rick Beach was in town to visit family members and offered to make a presentation to Flight 8 during his time in Ottawa.

Beach is actually a displaced Canadian who grew up in Ottawa, taught computing at the University of Waterloo and then moved to California’s Silicon Valley to run a lab there for Xerox when the internet was a new phenomena.

Ten years ago he learned to fly and bought one of the first Cirrus SR22s, serial number 127. He became involved with the aircraft type club, the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, with a particular focus on safety and accident prevention. Beach is now retired from the IT world and still lives in California, flies his Cirrus and presents 12 Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Programs throughout the U.S., Europe and Australia every year. It was his Cirrus safety presentation that he brought to Ottawa.

Beach notes that the Cirrus aircraft line introduced a number of innovations that should have reduced accidents. Every Cirrus SR-series aircraft delivered has a ballistic parachute system, a GPS navigator, an autopilot and multifunction display. He notes that while these should have reduced the accident rate, the statistics show that they haven’t and the Cirrus series has accidents rates on par with other comparable aircraft.

This means that the systems are not doing what they were intended to and he indicates that, while there are some trends, there are no clear answers why not.

Certainly the GPS has made for more accurate accidents as pilots tend to hit the highest point of terrain on their routes. On board weather information has lead to continued VFR flight into IMC weather and scud-running accidents. But it is the use of the Cirrus Airframe Ballistic Parachute System (CAPS), that most concerns him, as a large number of fatal accidents could have had better outcomes, except that the parachute was not used. It was the use of the parachute that formed the main focus of Beach’s presentation.

Beach explained how the CAPS works. The unit is located aft of the cabin and is fired by a rocket up and back from the aircraft. It is activated by a handle located on the ceiling of the cabin, in a position where it can be easily reached by all four seat occupants. It is cable-activated and takes about 40 pounds of pull to fire the rocket.

Once fired, the rocket deploys the parachute to full line stretch and then a shroud line slider ensures a smooth opening of the parachute in eight seconds from firing. The Cirrus certification testing was with a nominal 133 knot activation speed. The CAPS will stabilize an aircraft under canopy with a 1,700 fpm descent rate. The loss of altitude when fired in a spin is 920 feet and in level flight 400 feet.

In service, the CAPS has been successfully used in the range from 34 to 187 knots and from 50 to 13,000 feet of altitude. This shows that it will work both well above and below the certification testing parameters. There have also been failures that show when it won’t work.

One deployment at close to 300 knots resulted in the parachute tearing off the airframe. In another case, with the aircraft in a spin, the CAPS was fired at 528 feet above ground and the pilot did not survive the impact.

There have been 103 Cirrus fatalities in scenarios similar to when other pilots had successfully used CAPS. Beach notes that there have been no fatalities when the CAPS had been used within its design parameters. His own analysis of the fatal accidents where the CAPS was not used indicate that 33 probably had little chance of survival even if the CAPS had been used, but that 26 would have had a “good chance” and 25 would have had a “great chance” if they had used it.

So why do pilots not use the CAPS when they need it? Beach theorizes that there are probably at least six reasons. Some pilots just don’t believe in parachutes, preferring to try to save the aircraft through piloting skills instead. Others don’t want to lose control and risk hitting people on the ground.

He feels that some instructors are not doing a good job teaching pilots how and when to use the parachute, probably due to their own belief in parachutes or lack of experience. There is also the primacy effect of training, in that most pilots learn to fly in nonparachute equipped aircraft and when in a difficult situation follow their early training.

A fear response might also cause some pilots to freeze up and fail to take any action in an emergency, including firing the CAPS. Finally there is the concern that some pilots will try to save the aircraft by trying to recover from a loss of control rather than firing the CAPS, because they know that a landing under CAPS most usually results in a write-off of the airframe.

Beach points out that the fear of damaging the aircraft with a parachute descent is usually misguided. He told one story of a ferry pilot who was delivering a fractional-ownership Cirrus SR22 for the fractional company and ran out of fuel over Texas.

Rather than pulling the parachute he elected to land the aircraft on a dirt road. The SR22 is a hot aircraft, lands fast and is very unlike landing a J-3 Cub or an ultralight off-airport. In this case the pilot touched down successfully on the road but rolled at high speed through a cattle gate that substantially damaged the wing and required that it be replaced. The insurance covered the damage, but the company had to wait six months for a new set of wings to be built and installed.

Beach pointed out that new Cirruses were available with a one week lead time at that point in time and so, if the parachute had been pulled and the aircraft written off, the company would have had a replacement aircraft back in the air very quickly, without the loss of revenue involved in the six month wait for new wings.

As one Flight 8 member pointed out, once you pull the handle the aircraft is the insurance company’s problem, not the pilot’s.

The philosophy Beach espouses is that the CAPS is there to be used, that it saves lives and not using it in an emergency is almost always a higher risk than using it. He sums up the teaching point as “pull early and pull often.”

His aim is to reduce the number of fatalities on Cirrus aircraft and he thinks that teaching pilots to think of the CAPS as a first resort in an emergency and not as a last resort is key to this goal.

COPA Flight 8 would like to thank Beach for taking time out from his holiday in Ottawa to speak to us and also thank the Rockcliffe Flying Club for the use of their classroom facilities.