A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 March 2012    

 To 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 successful”. 

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) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_B--xSUxBA

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