Chute or Not to Chute
One of the timeless jokes about aviation
concerns how successful our industry is. “We’ve never left one
up there yet,” goes the saying. There’s no denying, if that is
the objective, our success rate is one hundred percent.
The way we get them down is where things get
a bit cloudy. Landings are either successful or, let’s just
avoid calling them crashes, and refer to them as “less than
Ballistic Recovery Systems, Inc. or BRS
entered the aviation world around 1980, following a hang-gliding
accident. The company designed and built an emergency parachute
to lower the entire aircraft safely to the ground in the event
of a catastrophic structural or control failure.
They were initially introduced into the
ultralight market, but in 1998 the company collaborated with
Cirrus Design to develop the first recovery parachute system to
be used on a certified SR 20. Since 2000, there’s not been a
major flocking to the technology, and it’s arguable as to
whether all survivors who have used the “chute” actually owe
their lives directly to the system, or could they have
successfully landed the plane anyway.
In discussions around the hangars, I’ve
noticed two general opinions on “the chute”. Some pilots would
have no problem deploying it in an emergency, while others would
opt for every possible alternative first, and consider it
cheating to actually “pull the ripcord”. In truth, who can say
exactly what they would do in the situation? I for one,
couldn’t say whether or not I’d activate a “chute” in some
emergency. I suppose it would depend on just what went wrong.
You do what you think is right at the time.
I flew an ultralight aircraft for a company
over the course of three seasons in the 1990’s. That aircraft
was equipped with the rocket-powered “chute”. I can’t recall
feeling any higher degree of security just because that big, red
handle was always there within easy reach. It’s not that there
was never a concern of an engine failure, but it was perhaps due
to conditioning or habit, that I was always aware of the
possible landing spots within reach whenever we were airborne.
Quite honestly, I don’t think there was ever a time when I
figured I was any safer because of the “chute” being on board.
It just never seriously occurred to me.
However, another pilot in that same aircraft
owes his life to the BRS. The left wing spar failed near the
strut one day at about 5,000 feet ASL. The outboard section of
the wing was torn completely off, damaging the prop and tail as
it made its exit. The plane fell like a spinning oak tree seed,
completely out of control. The pilot pulled the big red
handle. People on the ground looked up at the sound of the tiny
rocket motor that launches the system, only to view in horror as
the “chute” tangled and failed to open completely. The
airplane continued spinning, falling straight down with the cord
and fabric helplessly being dragged down with it.
Fortunately there was a cottonwood forest
below, most of the trees about 80 feet tall. As the plane fell
through the dense branches, its descent was slowed by the mass
of fabric and cord that never blossomed into a full parachute.
To complete the miracle, the little airplane stopped within
inches of the ground when the trees finally caught and held the
wreckage and the tangled parachute. The pilot simply released
the safety harness, hopped out on the ground, removed his helmet
and walked away.
For most pilots, the decision to deploy a
“chute” never has, nor never will need to be made. One reason
is the reliability of airplanes today, at least the certified
airplanes. The other reason is there are actually very few
systems installed in aircraft apart from Cirrus, some Cessna
182’s and some aftermarket options done with an STC.
Twice in my flying career, I have faced
engine failures. And in both cases, there was not a BRS
parachute on the airplanes. It would have made no difference
anyway, as the first problem occurred while on downwind in the
circuit (I simply landed on the crosswind runway). The second
happened at only two hundred feet above the fields where there
was no time to deploy the “chute” anyway. That time, I got away
with a bit of a rough but safe emergency landing.
Someday perhaps all aircraft will be equipped
with some kind of parachute designed to lower it and everyone
aboard safely to the ground. It will remain the pilots’
decision whether or not to use it, and there will always be
those who won’t. The fatalities will continue. I think it’s a
decision that needs to be carefully thought out, before the
flight, while still on the ground. What scenario would it take
to actually pull the handle? How far should we go in attempting
to safely land a crippled airplane? What type of terrain would
we consider to be too hostile?
Definitive answers aren’t possible while just
sitting and talking about the situations. In the case of a wing
coming off, or an engine shaking loose and falling away, there’s
no question. Pull the red handle. But in severe turbulence, or
even an engine failure, it may not always be the last resort.
Keep your options open. If you have a parachute system on the
plane, it’s an option.
(This link will take you to Youtube where you can see how the
ballistic chute works. Ed)