Those Parachutes for Small Airplanes Really Do Save Lives

A recent study confirms what advocates have been saying all along.

Whole-airplane parachutes can be lifesavers in situations ranging from engine failure to unrecovered spins to simply running out of fuel. (NASA)
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Ever since Boris Popov introduced his “ballistic recovery systems” (BRS) for small airplanes in 1980, skeptics have continued to question their value. Popov came up with the idea of a whole-airplane parachute after surviving the structural failure of his hang glider, and Cirrus Aircraft subsequently incorporated the safety feature in its SR20/SR22 models. On its website, BRS Aerospace claims 380 lives have been saved by the system, which deploys a parachute that gently returns a disabled aircraft to the ground.

Recently an independent academic study confirmed how effective the system is in saving lives. The analysis, written by researchers from Ohio’s Wright State University and published in the journal Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance, found a 13-fold decrease in the odds of a fatality when the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS, developed with Popov’s company, BRS Aerospace) was deployed in an accident, versus when it was not.

Based on National Transportation Safety Board accident data from January 1, 2001 to December 31, 2016, which included 288 Cirrus accidents and 57 deployments, the findings “suggest that [ballistic parachute recovery systems] could play a significant role in the next major advance in improving [general aviation] accident survival,” according to the authors.

Despite its import, the research has received little attention. “The last time I checked, the paper has not been cited by anybody,” said Dean Olson, lead author of the study with grad students Mustafa Alaziz and Adrienne Stolfi.

Even Cirrus and Popov were unaware of the study.

“Wow, this is pretty neat,” said Ben Kowalski, a senior vice president for sales and marketing at Cirrus Aircraft, after Air & Space sent a copy asking for comment. Popov pronounced it “factual, precise” and void of “bad assumptions” after reviewing the study. “It’s pretty dry stuff, but it’s good stuff,” he added.

Olson, who got the idea for the study while earning a pilot’s license several years ago, thinks he knows why some still question the value of a whole-airplane recovery system. “When you pull the parachute, you become a passenger, and I don’t know if certain people really want to give up control in that situation. They may be potentially overconfident in their abilities, and I think that may be a factor associated with some of that contention.”

Piloting skill isn’t required in the event of a BRS deployment (you just have to know how to pull the handle) unless the aircraft is below deployment altitude. Cirrus recommends landing straight ahead rather than deploying the system at altitudes below 500 feet above ground level, among other parameters, including model type. (Popov believes that in some situations, it can be deployed at lower altitudes.)

Since the study was published, Cirrus has introduced the CAPS-equipped Vision SF50 (aka Vision Jet), but that airplane’s 6,000-pound maximum takeoff weight (vs. about 3,600 pounds for the SR22) may represent the upper limit of current BRS applicability, Kowalski suggests.

“With today’s materials technology, as you get into larger aircraft, you start running into physics that can be very challenging,” he says, noting the 90-foot-diameter canopy of the VisionJet’s parachute is “larger than the wingspan of the Concorde.”

Looking ahead, Popov believes tomorrow’s parachute materials will allow the rescue systems to be used on heavier airplanes. “Graphene level and atomic level materials, much thinner, much lighter and much stronger than today’s,” promise “a quantum leap forward in weight and performance,” he says.

Meanwhile, BRS Aerospace continues making recovery systems for Cirrus’s piston-engine aircraft and a host of light sport, experimental and ultralight aircraft. The company also recently announced an expansion of aftermarket retrofit systems for Cessna 172s and 182s.

Popov is also in discussions with manufacturers of “some well-known larger turbine powered aircraft—six to eight seats,” he says, as well as with manufacturers of autonomous aircraft currently in development.

“Everything flying should have some sort of decelerator—I don’t call them parachutes—and I don’t care how,” says Popov. “[Otherwise], it’s like driving down the highway with a car with no brakes. This is simply a braking system.”

About James Wynbrandt

A longtime contributor to a number of aviation publications, James Wynbrandt has flown his Mooney M20K 252 on assignments throughout North and Central America.

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