Cirrus Parachute System Update
Business Aircraft Center Inc.
From Business Aircraft Center of Danbury, CT
Small aircraft pilots, consider this: According to the latest Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association numbers, there have been 74 known Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) events as of January 8, 2016. Of those activations, 60 deployments are considered "saves" that involved 120 survivors (121 counting an unborn child), with two fatalities.
And while fatal accidents have been dropping, the number of CAPS deployments has been increasing. In fact, 2014 marked the first time the two curves crossed, with more CAPS events (12) than fatal accidents (3). This is significant, because while pulling the red handle may total the airplane, the pilot and passengers will almost always survive if it’s done within the limitations of the system.
Here’s an overview and update on the state of the Cirrus parachute system.
The most groundbreaking safety technology ever?
Cirrus is the only general aviation aircraft manufacturer in the world that provides a parachute safety feature as standard equipment on its aircraft. Generally known as a ballistic recovery system, CAPS uses a ballistic rocket-fired parachute that extracts a large round parachute attached to the airframe. Note the parachute must be deployed at least 500 feet above the ground.
Cirrus boldly calls the CAPS, “the most groundbreaking safety technology ever.” Its inspiration was a mid-air collision that could have led to tragedy, but instead led to the creation of the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. Without a doubt, the Cirrus parachute system has saved lives.
Recent improvements and upgrades include an increased canopy size, a new rocket extraction system that propels the parachute upon activation, an advanced technology electrical rocket igniter, and lighter and stronger construction materials. Substantial testing of the CAPS system, including a new series of CAPS parachute test drops, was conducted for validation.
The down side of onboard parachutes
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 owners/operators have them installed on existing aircraft?
The primary reason is probably the most obvious — money. Aircraft parachute systems can be very expensive, depending on the year and model of aircraft. 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.
Also, there’s the fact that having an onboard parachute won’t necessarily make you a better pilot. One owner and instructor of a flight school says that he trains his pilots to glide if the engine quits if possible, because deploying the parachute usually means the plane won’t be salvageable. "When you deploy that parachute, you buy a new airplane,” he said.
Some pilots would ask, “What is the likelihood I’ll ever need this thing?” Many airplane crashes occur during landing, take-off, and low-level flight. 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.
That said, the last 15 years have proven that CAPS is both effective and reliable technology, and with proper training it is a major safety enhancement. A cost/benefit analysis of the practicality of aircraft parachutes would be interesting. Like life insurance, a parachute is something you hope you’ll never need, but it’s good to know you have it in case you do.