Parachutes have been in existence since as early as the 9th century and we have been using them for our safety as well as adventure ever since. Although we have already spoken about Why Airline Passengers Are Not Provided With Parachutes in my earlier article, the newest implication of parachutes in terms of aviation safety is simply revolutionary. Till about a decade ago, the only way to save a crashing plane and its passengers was to safely land the airplane itself. However, this is not always possible because conditions are not always conducive for a successful crash landing. The plane could be over an ocean or the controls might be jammed. Progress in term of aviation safety was at a standstill till about a decade ago. Sure, we had developed new safely equipment and upgraded the old ones, but there was nothing to avoid imminent crashes. Then, in October 2002, something very interesting happened in the history of aviation safety.
In 2002, a plane plummeting towards its impending doom landed safely and its pilot escaped with nothing more than a sore neck. How? This was the very first time Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) was used successfully in the history of aviation.
A massive parachute, about 55 feet in width was deployed on the body of the aircraft, bringing the big bird down to the ground with the impact of a 10 feet fall. Once deployed, all the forward velocity of the aircraft was reduced to about 17 knots. With this event, CAPS tasted success for the first time in a real life situation. Thus, with the help of CAPS, pilots could directly deploy massive pop off parachutes in small planes in case of emergencies, saving the plane as well as the passengers. Let us have a closer look at this revolutionary modern day safety phenomenon.
Ballistics Recovery Systems (BRS) is a pioneer when it comes to the manufacturing of aircraft pop off parachute systems. Boris Popov founded the company in 1980 when he survived a partial hang glider collapse in 1975. Initially, the company exclusively produced safety parachutes for ultra-light aircrafts and hang gliders, but later ventured into type certified aircrafts in 1998 when the co founder of Cirrus, Alan Klapmeier, experience a near fatal midair collision and decided to create the ultimate last ditch safety measure for small airplanes.
The company sold its first product in 1982 and the very first save in the history of BRS happened a year later. Today, apart from hang gliders and ultra-light aircrafts, small airplanes such as the Cessna – 172, 182 and the Symphony SA-160 are certified to carry a ballistic parachute on board.
‘Cirrus Airplanes’ is the first aircraft manufacturing company in the world to install these pop off parachutes as a mandatory measure. These parachutes were made specifically for this company and its planes, the Cirrus SR20 and Cirrus SR22. Hence, the earliest pop off parachutes were named Cirrus Airframe Parachute Systems or CAPS. This massive parachute is integrated into the design of the Cirrus airplane itself so that it doesn't take up a lot of space in the aircraft and gets deployed in the estimated safety time.
A basic overhead T-handle deploys the chute within seconds and the best part is that it can be operated by the pilot as well as the passenger. Cirrus also offers standardized training to pilots on how to recognize the most favorable emergency conditions to deploy the chute. Till date, CAPS units have saved the lives of over 20 pilots and passengers, along with the airplane itself.
In case you’re wondering why this idea was not put into effect earlier, here’s the explanation. We already know that the parachutes used by skydivers are huge enough. Imagine how big the parachute would have to be if it was expected to save an entire airplane. BRS realized that making such a parachute from regular nylon was impractical as the resulting parachute would have weighed as much as the aircraft itself. Hence, they made them using a special nylon composite which is five times stronger than steel, yet a hundred times lighter. Using this composite, BRS manufactured a one thousand square feet parachute that weighed only 30 pounds. The next concern was the storage. A parachute this huge was bound to take up a lot of space and this problem needed a solution. The solution was simple; the parachute was folded using a special technique and then it was hydraulically compressed into a compact package as big as a briefcase.
Now, would the highly compressed chute unfold effectively? As it turns out, yes. BRS decided to use rockets to blow the parachute open, which turned out to be an effective
idea. These rockets fire for about 1.2 seconds and ensure successful deployment, even in unusual attitudes such as a spin. However, the rocket motors had to be assembled with utmost care, lest they did more damage than benefit. Also, care had to be taken so that the parachute did not open too fast, otherwise the massive jolt could structurally damage the airplane. To control the deployment speed of the chute, BRS thought of a simple but ingenious idea – sliders. Sliders are simple fabric rings that prevent a parachute from opening fully at first, then slide down and allow the parachute to open gradually, thus reducing impact on the airframe significantly. The parachutes are mounted inside the aircraft under a small glass panel and the nylon straps that connect the parachute to the airplane are built into the body of the airplane itself.
Believe it or not, all the safety measures in Cirrus airplanes have a huge downside. They give a false sense of security to newbie pilots. This false sense of security fatally evolves into overconfidence, resulting in a lot of crashes. While we need new safety measure to save lives, it is unwise to jeopardize it in the first place. Statistically, cirrus exceeded the aviation industry accident standard by almost 33% in the year 2003. Although new developments are here to help us, it seems that they have also given rise to complacency among lesser skilled pilots. Also, statistically speaking, the most accident prone areas of flight are the post take off phase and the pre-landing phase. The ballistics parachute cannot be used in either of the situation as the minimum deployment altitude for CAPS is 920 feet. Deployment of CAPS at an altitude lower than that may or mat not work. Another downside to buying Cirrus Aircrafts is the cost. CAPS need to be replaced every 10 years and this can be an expensive affair, costing as much as $10,000, excluding labor costs.
In the case of small planes, spins have caused a lot of crashes over the years. A spin is a situation where the plane spirals down towards the ground, out of control. To deploy CAPS, a plane needs to be in the straight and level position. If the plane is in any other position, the deployment might not work in the plane's favor. In other words, CAPS work best under optimum deployment conditions. In marginal conditions, the safety record is not very impressive. Even on ground, when an aircraft manages to land hard after successfully recovering from an emergency, ballistic parachutes present another danger. Rescue units find it risky to approach a Cirrus aircraft that had landed hard, in fear of unintended and sudden deployment of CAPS that might hurt them. Furthermore, the rockets used for deployment are regarded as explosives and might be triggered off by the impact of a hard landing. All in all, according to the accident analysis in the general aviation sector, CAPS is found to be average and not exceptional, as opposed to its expectations. In other words, it is effective, but has flaws of its own.