Dave Hirschman

Surprising Cirrus Stats

December 10, 2009 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

By Dave Hirschman

Cirrus owner and pilot Rick Beach has compiled a storehouse of knowledge about SR20/SR22 accidents during years of thoughtful inquiry – and his conclusions about what causes the accidents, and how to avoid them, are at times surprising and of great potential value to all general aviation pilots.

In a comprehensive report published in current issue of Cirrus Pilot, the membership magazine for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), Beach debunks a few Cirrus myths and makes some compelling suggestions for improving overall flight safety in the future.

The most surprising fact that Beach’s intellectually rigorous study uncovers is that low-time pilots aren’t the problem. In fact, relatively high-time pilots with instrument, commercial, and/or instructor ratings are responsible for about 75 percent of the fatal Cirrus accidents in which pilot ratings were available.

“Only two pilots in a Cirrus fatal accident had less than 150 hours total time,” Beach said. “One of them was (the late New York Yankees pitcher) Cory Lidle, who had an instructor in the right seat during the accident.” (The other took place off the coast of France under unknown conditions.) Pilots with more than 400 hours total time accounted for 33 of 44 fatal Cirrus accidents where pilot experience was reported.

No one familiar with aviation accident history would be surprised to find that pilot error accounted for a majority of Cirrus accidents – but the percentage of fatal pilot mistakes is overwhelming in the Cirrus fleet. (Cirrus delivered the first production SR20 in 1999.)

“All but one of the 37 probable causes determined by NTSB accident investigations lists pilot causes,” Beach found. Adverse weather was a factor in most Cirrus accidents, and weather-related accidents are most common in the October-through-March time frame.

It stands to reason that pilots who seek to constantly upgrade their skills are safer – but the degree to which that’s true in the Cirrus community is astonishing. According to Beach, “Pilots who do not participate in COPA safety activities are four times more likely to have a fatal accident.”

Part of the reason active COPA members have a better record is that they are more likely to use the airframe parachutes that all Cirrus aircraft carry as standard equipment. There have been 20 parachute deployments in Cirrus aircraft in the last decade, and 17 of them were successful in saving the lives of 35 people aboard those airplanes.

During the same period, there were 55 fatal Cirrus accidents where the airframe parachute wasn’t deployed. In examining those scenarios, Beach estimates more than half (30) had “a high or good probability of success if the pilot would have pulled the (parachute) handle.”

Beach’s advice in a nutshell is to actively seek out more high-quality flight training, keep learning, and don’t hesitate to pull the parachute in an emergency (assuming the airplane you’re flying has one).

Beach’s report is available online at the following Web address: http://www.cirruspilots.org/content/FreeSafetyIssue.aspx

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29 Responses to “Surprising Cirrus Stats”

  1. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    I’m not surprised that high-time pilots contribute to most of the Cirrus accidents. This is largely true throughout general aviation. With experience comes a degree of complacency. Checklist discipline breaks down, bad habits sink in, and flights become increasingly unsafe.

  2. Richard Wegener Says:

    Is anyone surprised that:

    “Only two pilots in a Cirrus fatal accident had less than 150 hours total time,”

    The piece of information that is missing here is: Of all Cirrus pilots out there, what percentage have “less than 150 hours total time”?

    Considering that a potenial Cirrus pilot must go through a fairly rigourous training program (10 hours minium at our FBO) I wouldn’t think that there are that many low-time pilots renting/buying a Cirrus.

  3. Richard Wegener Says:

    Oh, and one more thing:

    “don’t hesitate to pull the parachute in an emergency”

    I’ll bet the insurance companies love this. Thank you, Cirrus for making all of our rates higher. We really do appreciate it.

  4. Jose Helu Says:

    From the AOPA article:
    >>
    The most surprising fact that Beach’s intellectually rigorous study uncovers is that low-time pilots aren’t the problem. In fact, relatively high-time pilots with instrument, commercial, and/or instructor ratings are responsible for about 75 percent of the fatal Cirrus accidents in which pilot ratings were available.
    <>
    Unfortunately, we do not know the proportion of Cirrus pilots with high or low experience. We only know the number of pilots in fatal accidents.Therefore,we can not determine a rate to see if pilots with low experience have a greater rate of accidents than those with high experience.
    <<

    That part is the most important part. Without a control group, what you have is merely advertising copy. It’s like saying taxi drivers have more accidents, so they must be less safe. Statements like the ones in this AOPA article are detrimental to the kind of intelligent discussion needed for flight safety.

    Jose

  5. Jose Helu Says:

    (reposted due to website misinterpretation of the angle brackets)

    From the AOPA article:
    [quote]
    The most surprising fact that Beach’s intellectually rigorous study uncovers is that low-time pilots aren’t the problem. In fact, relatively high-time pilots with instrument, commercial, and/or instructor ratings are responsible for about 75 percent of the fatal Cirrus accidents in which pilot ratings were available.
    [/quote]

    This statement is belied by the following from the original report, which AOPA omits:

    [quote]
    Unfortunately, we do not know the proportion of Cirrus pilots with high or low experience. We only know the number of pilots in fatal accidents.Therefore,we can not determine a rate to see if pilots with low experience have a greater rate of accidents than those with high experience.
    [/quote]

    That part is the most important part. Without a control group, what you have is merely advertising copy. It’s like saying taxi drivers have more accidents, so they must be less safe. Statements like the ones in this AOPA article are detrimental to the kind of intelligent discussion needed for flight safety.

    Jose

  6. Jeff Jorgenson Says:

    All-in-all, I think the point that COPA is a good thing is a positive point to the article. After all, many type clubs have effective training seminars related to the types of flying their aircraft and pilots do and this saves lives. Sure, there is a marketing aspect to the parachute – after all, it’s primary purpose is to sell the aircraft to people who’s spouses or partners were otherwise against flying due to safety concerns. It’s like the airag in your car – we hope we never have to use it! As far as insurance rates, there are many factors that affect rates, but I suspect that deaths from NOT using or having a parachute are more expensive than survivals. I would think that if millionaires own these aircraft outright, they likely self-insure, so that isn’t a major concern. ~RE:Jeff

  7. Richard Wegener Says:

    “It’s like the airag in your car – we hope we never have to use it!”

    Maybe so, but most people wouldn’t drive into a wall, thinking: “It’l be OK, if anything happens, the airbag will save me”

  8. ron paliughi Says:

    I do not agree at all with Beach’s conclusions. There have been a number of dubious accidents where this aircraft has departed its flight envelope and the cause was laid on the pilot where this conclusion was probably oversimplification, i.e. several years ago one of the highest time cirrus pilots and cirrus instructor was climbing through possible light icing conditions on an IFR flt. pln and did not make it out of 8000 before it departed controlled flight(this accident was written of in FLYING). Another cirrus departed controlled flight early in its operation while doing a stall series above 3000 with its new owner and his CFI. The a/c was observed to enter an uncontrollable spin by experienced pilot witnesses on the ground and never recovered. In both these accidents the ballistic parachute did not save the occupants. I believe the FAA certification of this aircraft by granting what amounts to a waiver of spin recovery requirements is at the root of the problem. The politics of this decision as well as the aviation presses reluctance to question cirrus trends-cirrus is a prolific advertiser-bears re-examination and honesty in the light of the high number of cirrus accidents-instead the convenient and classic pilot error explanation route is chosen. Ron

  9. Gaston Mendez Jr Says:

    I do not think 400 is a lot of time.

  10. Ralph Markson Says:

    No one seems to be discussing that an apparently high proportion of the accidents are due to icing. While this might be blamed on pilot experience I suspect that the surface of the aircraft skin is the problem. It is a slick plastic and the water would bead up on it and then freeze in large clumps that would cause airflow separation from the laminar flow wing. Sailplanes are made of the same sort of plastic material and when they get wet the water beads up and greatly degrades.the wing performance. This will significantly increase the stall speed. Water on a non-waxed wing blows back along the wing surface in a thin layer that has minimal effect on the boundary layer and wing lift while the pools of water that form (such as on a newly waxed car when it it washed) would greatly disrupt the airflow, particularly after they turn to ice. Liquid water drops in clouds can easily exist at temperatures well below zero C (down to -40C in very clean air) but when they contact a wing surface and pools of water they will freeze. Also, water vapor will become attached to an ice surface much more easily than to a wet surface because the partial pressure over ice is lower than over water. In a cloud with ice and water drops, the ice drops grow from water vapor migrating to the ice surface. Thus the plastic surface of a wing will be particularly suspectable to changing its lift characteristics in wet clouds with temperatures above and below zero C. I believe the report of most Cirrus accidents happening during the cold months is more likely due to icing problems rather than other aspects of “bad weather” such as bad visibility or loss of control due to inept instrument flying skills.

  11. John Kelling Says:

    Congratulations on a professional study. Perhaps asking the obvious: Is it fair to say that those pilots who don’t opt to attend regular training are the same pilots who are likely sloppy in their flying habits, and because of this, are more likely to have accidents? Although the continuing training is helpful, it would seem that the attitude of the pilot attending the training is a more significant factor in reduced accident occurrences than is the training itself.
    It would be interesting to conduct a study where pilots from the high risk group agree to attend training without any other mitigating factors, and then follow them to see if their accident rate drops.
    Thanks again for the good work.

    John Kelling, Pilot

  12. Ronald Bartemy Says:

    To me 44 fatal accidents in Cirrus aircraft seems high,plus the fact they have a parachute,
    plus they have only been in the air for 11years how would this compare with Beech,Piper and others,Also how many Cirrus have been sold as of to date.

  13. Fred McCoy Says:

    Some good questions have been raised here about the “science” of the study. It does seem that 44 fatal accidents in the relatively short amount of time is high. Could we compare this to other makes and models in their first decade of their production (split tail B comes to mind)? Are we all test pilots in any newly minted airplane? Is the Cirrus departure from old (and tired) design concepts too much too fast to expect training to hurdle the gap between your 172 and the SR22? It appears from the study that training works. I’ve suspected that there is a false confidence that “technology conquers nature” or “technology should be easier to fly”.
    Fred McCoy – Pilot

  14. Martin Smith Says:

    I’d hunt with Cheney long before I’d fly a Cirrus…

  15. Wallace Reid Says:

    Using hours as a main measure of appropriate experience misses an important point. What kind of conditions were encountered during those hours? Even IFR training is usually conducted in rather benign conditions. If one has flown somewhat cautiously around the country (or further) for a number of years, they will probably have started to learn quite a bit about what they and their machine can safely handle. There are hours and there are ratings, but the experience needed to recognize conditions that neither the pilot nor their machine are able to safetly handle is something needed in addition to just the hours and ratings.

    In light of the icing conditions reported in a number of these accidents, it does seem too that there are things about these “plastic” machines that need more study.

    Wallace .

  16. mike clark Says:

    i agree with ron paliughi who mentioned this airplane has its problems as it should never have been certified due to its inability to recover from a spin and so they cut a deal to bring it to market with the parachute. i believe cirrus attempted to hide this fact by using the parachute as a marketing tool for safety appealing to the pilot spouses. early on when fatals were occuring due to spins, an ntsb report indicated this very fact. the ntsb found that the airplane had major problems that should of been caught in the design phase and cirrus eventually found a reginal center that approved them after numerous failures to gain approval. once that happened and given the major money available to mass market the airplane and flood all the flying magazines with cash resulting in this airplane being on every cover for years, bought thier silence. one month later, i see the ntsb took this off the accident report and i have never read another word about what went on in the design phase.
    further, consider the difficulty in pulling the parachute during high centrifical forces in a tight or flat spin,. lastly, i noticed many accidents in imc where the instruments became unreliable and the possibility of water entering pitot/static system in error suggested yet another issue brewing. i also think ralph markson is on to yet another problem with the icing/plastic wing issue.

  17. Crosby M. Kearsley Says:

    I believe the Cirrus with it’s sophisticated Avionics and obviously needed and required Advanced Training Program tends to give some pilots confidence that is beyond their experience level. That could put some of them in situations over their heads.

  18. NEBUREX Says:

    Over the years I’ve had the opportunity and at times, the blessing, to fly with various pilots and instructors. As there are pilots and than there are PILOTS, there are instructors and than there are INSTRUCTORS. I’ve flown with some I wouldn’t trust on a simple X-country, and there some I would fly through the gates of hell. Crosby M. Kearsley, in the post above is one of those elite, a great stick in IMC. If that’s you Crosby, out of KCDW, AKA Bing, than Merry Christmas and God Bless.

  19. Jay Says:

    Let’s clear up a few myths here. First of all, a 10,000 hour pilot can still be very inexperienced, even if he doesn’t log schaeffer time. Secondly, it is only a matter of time before any piston engine airplane crashes if it consistently flies in icing conditions. You might get away with it a few times, and scare yourself a few more times if you have enough sense to be scared, but your day is coming. Most really high time pilots get their experience in turbine powered airplanes that can handle a considerable amount of ice before crashing. That means that while they have lots of experience in turbine powered airplanes, when they regress back to flying a cirrus they just assume that the TKS fluid will keep them out of trouble on this fancy new glass cockpit, single-engine wonderplane. Taint so. A Cirrus will ice up and come out of the sky just as quickly and maybe even more so as any other non-ice-equipped air machine. And what makes it even more interesting is that when you pull that overhead panic lever in icing conditions to save your neck, very likely you have just iced up two air foils instead of just one. And as far as I know, you can’t cut the chute loose and start over if you happen to be fortunate enough to break out in warmer air below. So now you are just along for the ride in a high dollar, iced up, single engine 6 banger with a cute little glass cockpit that will show you in living color what your final flight path looked like. Can anyone here tell me what it feels like to be hanging from an iced up parachute?

  20. Dave Says:

    The study showed a relatively high percentage of recent fatal accidents occurred during landing. However the author didn’t address how many of these might have been survivable if the planes hadn’t caught fire.

    That “elephant in the room” (Cirrus wet wing gas tanks, where the tanks are nothing more than voids between fiberglass) was ignored.

  21. Martin Smith Says:

    I’d still rather hunt with Cheney than fly a Cirrus…. I hope they go out of business, and AOPA too, for selling out, and having marginal competence…

  22. John McNerney Says:

    I always wonder when I see stats published such as “Pilots who do not participate in COPA safety activities are four times more likely to have a fatal accident”. The implication, or in some cases the outright statement, is that it is the training that accounts for this difference. While I don’t doubt there is real positive value in the training, it’s also likely that some (if not most?) of the difference is the fact that conscientious pilots are more likely to take the training, and those who have a less safety-oriented attitude are less likely to do so. That, is the training may be as much a symptom/indicator of the pilot’s approach to aviation as it is the cause of the reduced accident rate.

  23. richard mcglaughlin Says:

    This is an interesting compilation of accident stats, collected and disseminated for free by a volunteer aviation enthusiast with a careful eye. By default, it is a retrospective, uncontrolled study study, but a good look at the numbers, and, carried out over years, it is beginning to tell us something- the weight of the facts themselves becomes convincing.
    Planes: Cirrus sold over 4000 of these expensive technically advanced plastic planes, and with an extra safety feature. Yet the accident rates are sadly comparable to the ancient design spam cans, The sad litany of causes is identical to other HP planes- good machines flown into bad things- clouds, ice, granite.
    The spin and wet wing arguments are completely bogus- no difference in Cirrus spin or burn rates.
    Though plastic wings do collect ice a little faster, and shed it a little slower than Aluminum.
    The excellent piece featuring the Cirrus Norden, CA accident on the AOPA safety site may make it seem commoner by association, but this ice accretion propensity has not led to more Cirrus accidents than other HP types.
    Flying any single engine piston in ice results in death in maybe 1% of instances. Like those odds? Pick any plane, and fly it, and I’ll pick any plane and avoid the ice- see how it goes, but don’t blame the plane.
    Pilots: There is s preponderance of technically inclined wealthy people who own and fly Cirrus, and the marketing was aimed at them- opening up the planes and GA to new pilots. Despite the general derision heaped upon these pilots, they don’t crash as disproportionately as predicted- one of Mr Beach’s many interesting findings.
    COPA membership is statistically safer- the reasons for this are open to interpretation, but motivated learners probably self-select. I wonder if this is so for active AOPA members, too.
    Parachutes: Everybody blames the wives for the chute- macho boys that we are. The argument that they allow riskier flight may or may not be valid but it s irrefutable. Fools will be fools.
    But think of the normal flight regimes with some plain vanilla increased risk- in IMC, or at night, or over the mountains, and possibly over large bodies of warm water- a chute is a real benefit- the last trick in your bag of tricks. A life saver.
    And the insurance companies love it- nothing costs like dead people.
    So thank you, BRS, for lowering our rates.

  24. richard mcglaughlin Says:

    Another thought- too many Cirrus accidents occur with an instructor in the right seat. I wonder if plenty qualified and proficient CFIs are distracted by all the bells and whistles.

  25. Alex Kovnat Says:

    If drops of water freezing to ice on a plastic wing is more of a problem then one has with aluminum airplanes, i.e. Cessna 172, the next question is: Are the Cirrus wing and other outer surfaces unpainted? If so, then could one reduce the icing tendency of Cirrus wings by painting them, much like one normally has a paint finish on an aluminum aircraft?

  26. 1553 Says:

    There should really be more awareness for these tragic and unnecessary deaths.

  27. Emanuel Says:

    Emanuel…

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