Cirrus Chute – Come back with your shield or on it?

March 26, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

You may have read of an accident at GAI, near DC, last week involving a new Cirrus SR22. The facts are gradually coming out and I don’t pretend to have all of them but encapsulated:

Weather was IMC when the aircraft took off and a door popped open. The pilot attempted to close it and unfortunately, lost control of the aircraft. Before the inevitable happened however, he pulled the parachute and the Cirrus drifted safely down into a neighborhood. There were no injuries and only minor damage to a vehicle.

There was some email traffic that was predictably critical of the pilot letting a door get the best of him. There were also some negative comments about the need for parachutes on aircraft. It might be characterized as, “Come back with your shield or on it” as was told to ancient Greek warriors. Perhaps the idea is that “real” pilots don’t need parachutes. Follow that line of thinking – perhaps we shouldn’t be putting ejection seats into military aircraft. I would like to think that we aren’t becoming quite that judgmental.

Cirrus Aircraft should be admired for the innovation they’ve brought to the market. However, I have also reminded the company marketing and management that despite all the neat things they have built into the machine, all aircraft have to be treated like chainsaws. Not many people misunderstand a chainsaw. “The great airplane chainsaw massacre.”

Stereotyping pilots who fly a particular model as being less capable is a statistically open question. In the Technologically Advanced Aircraft report we did a few years ago there were some areas that stood out. Open doors was not one of them. Weather entanglements were and the parachute did save some lives.

One additional thought on design: Low fuel warning lights have done a remarkable job of reducing fuel mismanagement accidents. Maybe it’s time we put a door annunciator into the MFD. You can’t buy a car these days without an “open door” light and chime.

Does it work in all circumstances? No. Are pilots who fly these aircraft prone to making more mistakes than those of us flying other models? What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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26 Responses to “Cirrus Chute – Come back with your shield or on it?”

  1. John Thompson Says:

    I just went through the CSIP training in Dulth. we had a door pop open on a sr 22 on takeoff, its just like most other aircraft,fly the plane, fly the plane, fly the plane.
    Most light aircraft will fly just fine with a door open, its just a little noisier. Just come around and land and close the door. (another reason to have your terminal charts ready for the airport you are taking off from in IMC)

  2. Rick Beach Says:

    Lots of Cirrus pilots have opined that having a door pop open is a non-issue. The airflow will keep the door from opening much farther, the design will keep the door attached, and while it is noisy and breezy and likely cold, most pilots have had no trouble dealing with flying the plane and returning to land.

    One aspect of the Gaithersburg accident differs. This is the first report I’ve heard of a door popping open and having rain and clouds enter the cockpit. Now that’s a distraction that I would find startling.

    Glad the accident pilot maintained the awareness of his altitude to pull the parachute handle before he had no option.

    Cheers
    Rick

  3. Alfred ODonnell Says:

    I always love to hear the comments from the those who appear to have superior skills and intellect. I personally do not care how the pilot survived but do care that he did. I do not care to second guess his thought process but rather learn from the incident. I have had two doors open in flight in two different types of arcraft, one was a Cirrus and yes I did land safely. In my case they were merely annoying but then I can only speak for myself. The most intense training I have had in order to fly another aircraft under my rating was in the Cirrus. No doubt it made me a better pilot. The parachute is a plus but does not change my basic thoughts on safety and how to fly the plane. If your not approved to fly a Cirrus, then you have not had the training or experience to second guess the options you may have.

    Alfred ODonnell
    Cirrus Driver

  4. Bob Davidson Says:

    In Florida it gets hot and even hotter in a closed cockpit. Doors are closed just before forced air into the cockpit is available, that’s take off. No one wants to have to sit inside a hot, sweaty, cockpit for long. We are taught to make ready before takeoff via check lists and fly the airplane, fly the airplane after takeoff to the ground. Open doors are no big deal if your alive.

  5. Chris O'Callaghan Says:

    Dave Hirschman has just posted an article on this incident to aopa.org. He interviewed the pilot. Here’s the url:

    http://www.aopa.org/aircraft/articles/2009/090326md.html

  6. George Horn Says:

    Bruce wrote: “…perhaps we shouldn’t be putting ejection seats into military aircraft…”

    The difference is that military aircraft with ejection seats are considered expendable equipment by nature of their mission. The obverse is “Why then don’t we put parachutes on military airplanes?” And why don’t all passenger planes have ejection seats?

    There is no corresponding analogy. But pilots who are in need a security blanket to dispatch a flight, shouldn’t consider piloting aircraft….at least not on THAT flight.

  7. Ron Stearney Says:

    You know what? Who cares why he pulled the chute. If he didnt, that plane was going into the ground and we would have more headlines about another “small plane” crash further perpetuating the sterotype that small planes go into the air just to fall out of it.

    As it stands now, at worst, we have the image that light aircraft can parachute out of the air and land safe on the ground. No flames, no 5 o’clock news showing a house on fire with a tail sticking out of it. This is a favorable view for general aviation.

    The only gripe the “be a man and ride it out” guys have is that they cant complain about the lawyers and their frivolous lawsuits after the plane killed someone. Can we get more irrational?

  8. Neal Chancellor, CFII Says:

    If you read the story, you find that this venerable sage with his 320 hrs Total Time took off into a ceiling of 400 feet with his door still open. Doors come open, big deal. My point, I have 10 times the hours and I would look forward to going into a 400 foot overcast with great trepidation. Yes, I’ve done it, but I hate it, and I am close to God the whole time.

    But, wait, if I had a magicplane, I wouldn’t have to offer up any prays. After all, magicplanes do it all for you,

  9. Bill Franklin Says:

    The pilot made the correct decision – and knew before he took off what he would do – and he did it.

    There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.

  10. Nate Says:

    The Diamond DA-20 has an annunciator for an unsecured canopy. The way it was explained to my was that if the canopy comes open in flight it would carry into the tail, causing catastrophic damage.

    How much harder could it be to put this on a door?

  11. Mark Wright Says:

    This has got to be one of the dumbest pilots I’ve read about. Flying along in a perfectly good Brand Spanking NEW $700k Aircraft and he pulls the parachute. What an IDIOT! He’s 1/2 mile from the airport with 800 feet between himself and the ground with 1/2 mile visability and a G1000 GPS display 14 inches wide with which you could fly blindfolded and still make it safely to your hanger! (I’ve got a few hours behind a G1000).

    Perfectly good example why having more money than brains in aviation is a dangerous mix.

    I just heard of the funeral for an associate of mine out in Idaho. He was a student pilot with about 50 hours and decided to to purchase and fly home on his own, a Piper Commanche 260 with no check out. Again, another idiot in a high performance and complex aircraft…. same result, destroyed airplane, only this one was worse. Dead idiot pilot leaves behind wife and 4 children, now with no father or financial support!

    These are the kind of actions that give aviation a bad rap, ruin lives and run up the cost of insurance for the rest of us! Frustrating and very sad. When will the newbies ever learn?

    As we say… There are Bold Pilots and there are Old Pilots, but there are not many OLD & BOLD PILOTS!

  12. Jim McSherry Says:

    Mr. Wright might want to be a bit more generous in his evaluations of pilots he has not met.
    Mr. Wilta, with 320 hours flight experience, had owned another Cirrus before this one, and had given advance thought to conditions for pulling the handle. These are all indications of a reasonable pilot, not an idiot. 320 hours is equal to what many young CFIs have when they start instructing; Mr Wilta had 30 hours in this airplane (about twice what I had when I finished the CSIP training), and was dealing with multiple concerns. He completed the incident with no injuries nor loss of life – though I am not sure how his insurer will greet him. I, for one, am glad to have his reporting of the incident available for the rest of us to learn from.
    I hope we can have more reports of successful outcomes from difficult situations. Some of them may involve ballistic chutes, some not. The more we learn, the better we get.

  13. Jim McSherry Says:

    Let me add my vote to the idea that a door latch indicator would be a good idea. Those who have flown a Cirrus (or two) will recognize that it is often difficult to verify that a door is actually secure when it appears to be closed. I have had more than one occasion when the door seemed tight, even resistant to a shove, but went ajar after takeoff. Not too distracting, as mentioned above, when that is all you are dealing with. ( Might be different in low IMC, with threatening airspace around. I might have considered climbing and calling the “e-word”, but I wasn’t there and might do differently if I were.)
    The main point is that there are numerous features on newer aircraft, including Cirrus, that add to safety. If a “door open” annunciator would add to safety, it should be considered.

  14. Michael Harrison Says:

    I’m sorry but the pilot himself in your article says “Aviate, aviate, aviate”. That to me is a bit of contrition that he has recognized that he may still have an airplane if he had followed a simple tenant.

    The parachute is a technology. I fly something close to 40 different airplanes a year as a CFI and pilot and I have not flown the Cirrus. I’ve sat on parachutes but never had one attached to the airplane. I’ve never had the option of “pulling the chute”. That leaves me with one option – fly the airplane or aviate. In 30 years of aviation, this rule has left me unscathed by many an event.

    I worry that the “parachute” and other technology get in the way of training to be better pilots. Suggestions on this thread are now asking for door lights. So we need another technology because…? PS, I have door and cabin lights on some of the jets I fly but that wiring weight can be born by those airplanes.

    I am not a luddite as some would suggest. But I worry that technology has created a moral dilemma. Why do we have to teach airmanship if the pilot can simply pull the chute? The Cirrus has a “Perspective” system that basically gives synthetic vison on a screen bigger than my home computer. The Cirrus has a “Level” button to have the autopilot level the airplane even if the pilot can not. The Cirrus has a parachute for “if all else fails”.

    I have looked at the GAI incident or accident. On the day in question, a 35 minute flight in the Cirrus would have found clear skies. So had the door popped say on a Piper Cherokee, I would have said some slight curse under my breath, entered IMC, moved my charts from the empty seat next to me to the floor under me (to keep them from getting wet) and flown past Hagerstown or some other site where I could cancel IFR land and close the door. The OVC 500 at GAI was near minimums for the thought about a FULL approach back to the airport. Better to go to Frederick (home of AOPA) and use the ILS as my door closing spot.

    The near 400 hour pilot was pretty bold launching into that clag. He had put a lot of faith in his training. But those gray clouds are pretty merciless and it took me a good couple of years of hard IFR flying to be ready to steal myself for the idea of instant gray on takeoff. Those initial forces swimming in the inner ear canal tell you that you have entered a surreal world that only about 0.5% of the population of the world can imagine. “Fly the instruments” I used to tell myself in a psyched up mantra. I smile to myself flying G-1000 equipped airplanes today and think “would I have really been a better pilot if this is what I used to start my IFR training?” I think I would have had a false sense of surety in my abilities that was dependant on technology. I do not carry that feeling with me today or any day that I fly. When one of those technologies fails, I will still fly the plane and I will continue to fly the wing until it seperates from the aircraft.

  15. Paul Kennedy Says:

    The guy certainly was not prepared to fly instruments. Where was he going and where was his flight plan? I would surmise that his training was not sufficient. I think that he made the right decision under his circumstances but why do instructors and check pilots sign off on people that do not have sufficient training?

  16. Frank LaGreca Says:

    All you high time critics. Lighten up on this guy. He didn’t panic because the door was open. It was his dis-orientation and lack of confidence in being able to allow the situation to go a bit further to “possibly” resolve it. He was fortunate to be able to pull a handle an return to earth safely. He said he’s gone over the incident and now believes he would handled the situation, differently. Well, maybe. The good thing. He’s still around to be able to think and learn from the experience. As the cover of AOPA’s Flight Training magazine says: “A Good Pilot is Always Learning.” Experience is most always expensive.

  17. James Sinnott Says:

    To all the nay sayers you weren’t there. I say he did all right some one once told me “any landing you can walk away from is a good one” he did both. Kudos

  18. Andrew Brown Says:

    There is a frequent but bogus argument used against various safety features known as “the promotion of a false sense of security”. Examine the words closely and notice that “sense” of security is 100% entirely a mental issue. It is also therefore 100% a training issue. People position themselves as close to the edge as they want, *regardless* of where the edge is located. Pulling the edge in may pull them in as well, but they will be no further from the edge than they were before. But it *will* reduce the maximum distance the cautious ones have available to place between themselves and the edge.

    Removing safety features is a rediculous approach to teaching responsibility and thinly veiled machismo. The same argument would justify removing seatbelts and airbags from cars so drivers would drive wiser, removing life vests from boats so sailors would sail safer, removing railings from observation decks so people wouldn’t get so close to the edge, removing safety keys from table saws so carpenters are more careful with the power switch, or better yet, raising wing stall speeds so pilots better learn to fear stalls.

    If there are limitations on the safe application of a particular safety device, then pilot training should indoctrinate the particulars and I welcome that discussion. But disparaging the device altogether is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and serves no one in GA other than those wanting to boast of their skill in surviving a dangerous avocation. The latter should feel free to prove themselves by flying fast unstable aircraft in fog with minimal instrumentation … without me.

  19. Alex Kovnat Says:

    I would like to add my perspective on the matter of ballistic recovery parachutes.

    If an airplane or helicopter is to have a ‘chute, it should be because the pilot/owner who has to pay for said aircraft and live with its limitations, wants to have it on his or her own plane.

    IMHO, aircraft should NOT be required to have parachutes because some neurotic intellectual (i.e. Ralph Nader), who most likely doesn’t like general aviation anyway, wants other people’s planes to have said device.

    We have seen how the cars we drive are being burdened with more and more safety gadgets primarily to gratify the emotional and intellectual needs of the Ralph Naders of the world, for more and more safety devices on other people’s cars.

    I would like to point out that if the FAA were to mandate parachutes regardless of whether a specific owner/pilot likes it or not, then what next? As a reader of Flying magazine for years, I recall reading in their accident column (On the Record) about a young girl who was fatally struck down by the whirling propeller on her father’s plane. Should we then require all prop-driven planes to have wire cages (like on a fan one might use in one’s home or office to keep cool in hot weather) around their propellers, regardless of the aerodynamic penalty, to gratify the emotional and ego needs of intellectuals for such things on other people’s planes?

    Some owner/pilots may want parachutes on their planes, some not. So the verdict should be: BRS systems? Yes — If a specific owner/pilot wants one!

  20. Rich Nasser Says:

    So more information has come thru regarding the Cirrus incident. I thank the pilot for being so candid in his thought process – and opening himself to critical and judgemental comments.

    It reminds me of an accident in 2003/2004 while training in the PanAm flight school in Phoenix: A student in an Archer on a solo flight (not sure if he was PP or working on another rating or certificate) had the yoke come off the stick. He panicked but then thought he could safely land the plane using rudder, elevator trim and power. Remarkably, he landed the plane without injury but one wing was destroyed. Not once, during his ordeal did he think about climbing into the right side and using that yoke which was in perfect condition!

    He recalled having one misison, and that was to get the plane on the ground (which he did). Everyone, after the fact, laughed and ridiculed him and Monday-morning-quarterbacked him but none of those folks were in his shoes – so it was not fair.

    Different pilots will react differently to the same situation – some would have climbed in the right seat, some would have done what this young man did, and some would have died.

    While you can’t mimic real-time crisis scenarios during training, the scenario-based training is still the best route and instructors and examiners must have a keen eye to seeing how someone might react certain scenarios.

    I am sure the Cirrus pilot is not happy with what happened to his plane and is having second thoughts, but he is alive to tell about it- and ask any of his family and friends and I’m sure they’ll prefer that over the alternative tragic outcome.

  21. John W Ross, PE Says:

    Ref: parachutes for airplanes and open doors.
    I was flying a Cherokee when a door popped open on take-off. I was flying VFR and alone. I couldn’t even get the door opened 2 inches in order to slam it latched. It is a great reminder of the fact that you are going very fast by most people’s guess.
    I did get it closed but If I were IFR I would definitely initiate a “go back and land” procedure. Just like any other problem in flight the pilot has to deal with it his way.
    As far as parachutes are concerned, they should be only for test pilots, maybe. What are we coming to? if we keep this up we will make flying so safe that it won’t be any fun anymore. Of course, how this comment is taken depends on whether your are a pilot or a passenger. I once gave a friend a ride and he was extremely calm. Given who he was, I would have expected him to be a little nervous, at least. When I inquired about his calm attitude he said simply, “I know you value your life more than you do mine. Signed JWR

  22. rdth Says:

    In my 40 year’s of flying, I’ve known many people with pilot’s licenses who really shouldn’t have been flying. They were never comfortable with it, and their performance was marginal. For some reason they frequently attempted something beyond their capabilities. In the old days, it resulted in one of two possible outcomes: 1) scaring themselves out of flying forever or 2) dying in a crash. Fortunately it more of the former than the latter. Now, there is a 3rd option for these types: the chute. “I’m really not comfortable with this flight, but I’ve always got the chute”. How prevalent is this attitude? I have no idea, but I’m sure it exists to some degree. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Cirrus and think the chute is a great idea but a drawback is that it encourages some people to fly who really shouldn’t be.

  23. Stephen Wilson Says:

    Dead pilots dont lie.  NTSB reports show Cirrus planes advertised with a safety parachute are three times more deadly than their aluminum rival without.

  24. Jerry Zemell Says:

    Opinions opinions opinions, without them, we’d all be the same. The fact, the gentleman survived this ordeal is a tribute to his decision(s). Let that be the lesson from which other issues, not to be discussed here, but in the correct forum, may be derived.

  25. William Dobson, CFII Says:

    As a slightly seasoned CFII (2600hrs TT, 1000hrs dual instruction given) and first and only owner of a 1st generation Cirrus SR20 (2002 year model – vacuum-driven 6-pack panel – 1350hrs TT), I have seen, heard, and debated ad nauseum the entire spectrum of opinions on this subject.

    The bottom line is that this debate is never going to be resolved one way or the other. Too many “old school” pilots and instructors who are unwilling to embrace the advantages of new technology, methods, and practices on the one hand, too many blindly optimistic pilots and instructors who uncritically embrace and tout the enhanced safety aspects of the newest and largely unproven aviation widjets on the other hand.

    However, _I_ want the ‘chute. I would love it if the flight school I work with would have all their Cessnas retrofitted with them. In my almost 9 years of flying my Cirrus, I have been in three situations where I was mere seconds from needing the parachute. Had I not had the luxury of time to think of an alternate plan in each case, I would have pulled the ‘chute and been happy. Had I been in one of our trainer planes, having the time to think would have been the ONLY option for a safe outcome.

    The first case: Left aileron pulley separated from the autopilot servo shaft while on approach in low IMC. After a few seconds of thinking I had lost all roll command control and actually starting the deployment sequence, I realized I could still control the plane although the controls were extremely sloppy, so I declared an emergency but was able to land safely.

    The second case: Unforecast icing during an IMC approach descent. The airframe accumulated 3/4 of an inch of rime ice in less than 2 minutes (Aeronewsnet used after-landing pictures of my plane for their article on icing last year) The airplane stalled at approx 100 KIAS with no buffet and no other advance warning. My up-to-then-strictly-theoretical training on how to deal with tail plane stalls and my own instructors’ warnings to land with no flaps and the power in in such situations kept me from deploying the chute.

    The third and most recent case: Day VFR ;4500ft MSL; BANG, the engine starts losing oil pressure. Make precautionary landing. Find crankcase cracked fore-to-aft along the upper right cylinder deck, almost 18 inches long (from just aft the prop shaft seal to past the data plate). Had I not made the precautionary landing, the engine likely would have failed catastrophically in flight. As I’m waiting the several weeks for a new engine to be installed, I discuss with my IFR students what they would do if that scenario occurred in IMC and thus an immediate return to the airport was not an option. The only “win” scenario we could come up with was a ‘chute pull.

    The “old schoolers” argue that I obviously have the “right stuff” because I used my “superior knowledge and skills” to avoid needing the ‘chute in all three cases. The “new tech” pilots argue that I was an idiot in all three cases for waiting to pull the ‘chute because I had no way of knowing at the time that the situation was salvageable. Both groups are wrong. In each case I just decided to try something else FIRST, BEFORE pulling the parachute, and that decision turned out to be an O.K. one. MY opinion is that I’m glad the ‘chute was there as a “plan B” — in each case I flew the plane all the way to a safe landing with my left hand but my right hand was firmly wrapped around the big red handle just in case my decision to fly instead of pull turned out to be the wrong choice.

    The parachutes will continue to save lives, but only if the pilots decide to use them. Some pilots will use the presence of the parachute to justify a risky decision to fly or continue a flight. Some pilots flying planes with parachutes won’t use it even if the situation plainly calls for it for fear of being called a wimp by the hangar rats. Some pilots will pull the ‘chute even though another acceptable resolution to an in-light hazard exists. Unless it is you in the seat staring at the instruments, the ground going ’round and ’round, and the big red parachute handle (or lack thereof) , DO NOT second-guess the pilot’s decisions, lest we talk bad about you later too!

    Regardless of your opinion, airplanes are THINGS – easily replaced. pilots, crews, and pax are PEOPLE – not replaceable at all. I opt for replacing the plane and so I am glad I and others have a parachute available. I only wish that more of the planes I fly on a daily basis had them.

  26. Derek Schwalenberg Says:

    I am a fairly new CFI and a senior at UVU. My undergraduate research project is on the CAPS system. (Mainly on how to train pilots on how to use it properly)I haven’t written it yet, but its not due till April. So far the conclusions I have come to are…
    – It has saved lives and it is probably better to have it than not.
    – Still many pilots have pulled it at the wrong time
    – You cannot be too fast
    – You cannot be too low
    – You must not be on fire
    – It must be done at the first sign of a spin
    – It will total the aircraft
    Also after some digging, it seems that the parachute is the only way to recover from a spin according to test pilots… So although Cirrus will claim that it is purely an innovative safety device [which it is in most respects] it was not necessarily something they could have gone without either. The only solution I can seem to find to the most lively debate I have heard in recent years around the field is know when its ok to pull the red lever. Its not going to be an easy project. It involves some serious ADM at an obviously critical time. There are also many hazardous attitudes to deal with on both ends of the spectrum. Complacent pilots who will chute at any slight sign of distress and macho pilots who will not pull the red total-me lever until its too late to do so. I find myself wondering about how I would make myself pull the switch at 5,000ft within’ the first rotation of a spin… (because after the first 900ft or so it will just rip-off) I know it is a hazardous attitude and I have identified it, but it is still there none-the-less.
    Long story short I think the only way forward is to develop a training program on “To deploy or not to deploy” [part of my thesis statement] Although on the Cirrus it may have been implemented at least in part [to be fair] because its the only demonstrated spin recovery procedure, it seems that it has saved at least some lives and therefore will become more and more popular. In fact I believe you can now order BRSystems for other small singles as well. My point is we should focus the debate on how to train to use these properly rather then whether or not they should be there because in the long run there may be more and more aircraft with that option.

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