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Cirrus saving lives with parachute system

A parachute helped slow the descent of the Cirrus SR22T that crash-landed on Lake Lakota in west-central Minnesota on March 29. Photo by Al Edenloff / Alexandria Echo Press

DULUTH — Pilot Jeff Ippoliti suspects April 10, 2004, would have been his final day on the planet if it weren’t for CAPS, the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System that returned him to the ground unscathed after a frightful flight.

He’s one of 69 people saved, to date, by the unique whole-plane parachute system that comes standard on every airplane that rolls off Cirrus Aircraft’s production line in Duluth.

Another 188 people have perished in fatal Cirrus crashes, however. And the vast majority of those deaths probably could have been avoided with a simple pull of the handle that triggers the emergency chute, according to Bill King, the company’s vice president of business administration.

Cirrus carefully reviews all fatal accidents, and King said it appears that in about two-thirds there are nearly identical corollaries where a pilot pulled the handle, brought a plane safely to Earth and walked away from the scene.

“I can’t begin to describe the absolute frustration we feel, realizing that the outcome of an incident should have been a cellphone call home saying, ‘Honey, I’m going to be late for dinner,’ instead of a sheriff knocking at the door,” King said. “It’s extremely frustrating to see families in absolute agony and crisis for no good reason.”

But the winds appear to be shifting.

Cirrus chalked up a record-breaking six parachute saves in 2012 and already has put two more in the books this year.

With each successful deployment, King said, user confidence in the system is growing.

Rick Beach, safety liaison for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association -- COPA -- pointed to the growing number of CAPS deployments in recent months and said: “I think it really is a trend.”

He traces the start of that trend to a high-profile parachute save that occurred in the Bahamas in January 2012, attracting international news coverage.

Dr. Richard McGlauphlin, a doctor from Birmingham, Ala., was flying his Cirrus to Haiti to volunteer his medical services when the airplane developed engine trouble. Unable to make it to a landing strip on Andros Island, he pulled the chute and descended into the sea below. McGlauphlin and his 25-year-old daughter, who had accompanied him, climbed into a life raft that had been stowed onboard the airplane for just such an emergency, and within about an hour, the U.S. Coast Guard arrived to carry them to safety.

“COPA has had a longstanding belief that the parachute is a safety feature that more people should use,” said Beach, who serves as co-chair of the organization’s pilot proficiency program.

As a result of outreach and education efforts, Beach believes most COPA members already understood the value and importance of making timely use of the parachute system.

“But I think that message is getting out to more people now, whether they’re COPA members or not,” he said.

“This is a system that can protect you and your family,” Beach said. “As the understanding of that fact becomes more widespread, I think we’ll see more people using the parachute.”

An overlooked option

King noted that the vast majority of pilots who are active today learned to fly in airplanes that lacked parachute systems, and they have not been trained to consider deployment an option.

“People don’t think of it,” he said. “They were trained to fly an airplane until it is in the dirt and the dust has settled.”

When things start to go wrong in the air, it’s easy to become deeply absorbed in trying to overcome the situation, Beach explained.

He described putting Cirrus pilots into flight simulators and presenting them with a cascade of in-flight difficulties.

“Many of them get so focused on dealing with the problems at hand that they say afterwards they were not even aware of the fact that they had a chute,” Beach said.

King said it is only after a simulated crash has occurred that many pilots finally remember in embarrassment the parachute system they didn’t use.

“People tend not to become great thinkers in moments of crisis,” King observed.

COPA and Cirrus have teamed up in a training effort designed to make pilots think ahead about when and how to use the parachute. King said his employer has budgeted $1 million to improve pilot safety in 2013.

When to pull

Beach said the success of the parachute system depends on pilots taking decisive action at the right moment.

“CAPS is designed to operate quickly, but it still takes eight seconds or more to fully deploy,” Beach said of the rocket-launched parachute.

So far, CAPS has had a 100 percent success rate when deployed within its design parameters, King said. It has brought the occupants of 33 Cirrus airplanes safely to the ground.

To successfully use the system, Cirrus recommends that airplanes be flying at a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet and a maximum speed of 133 knots.

But Cirrus reports that its parachute system has proven even more robust, logging saves of airplanes traveling as fast as 187 knots and at altitudes as low as 441 feet.

The system has its limits, however. Beach said there have been at least six accidents where a pilot tried unsuccessfully to deploy the chute at altitudes of 100 feet or less.

“The challenge is getting pilots to realize that with the parachute, you need to pull early or you could die,” said Beach, noting that the window of opportunity can close quickly in an emergency situation.

King said there also have been pilots who tried to pull the chute at high speeds that caused it to separate and fail.

In a training video, Patrick Waddick, Cirrus’ president and chief operating officer, stressed the need for pilots to think through different scenarios in which they would use the parachute. He encouraged aviators to rehearse what they would do, so that should circumstances ever warrant a parachute deployment, pulling the handle would be almost instinctive.

Ippoliti had come to the same conclusion well before his own scare.

Tragic lesson

The Syracuse, N.Y., attorney took delivery of his Cirrus SR22 in 2001. In Syracuse, Ippoliti met another new Cirrus owner. This man and a partner were killed in a crash shortly afterward when they went into a spin, were unable to recover control and hit the ground without ever attempting to deploy the airplane’s parachute.

The event made quite an impression on Ippoliti.

“I remember thinking back then: That will never be me,” he said. “If I’m ever in a bad situation, I’m going to deploy CAPS.”

A few years later, Ippoliti’s resolution would be put to the test.

On an overcast day in 2004, Ippoliti arrived in Fort Lauderdale to pick up his airplane, which had been in for service on its electronics system.

After a successful preflight check, Ippoliti took off.

“I got into the clouds at about 380 feet. I was in a climbing turn, and I started to lose my instruments in rapid succession. The last altitude I saw was 680 feet before I lost my altimeter,” he said.

Without instruments and unable to safely descend due to the low cloud ceiling, Ippoliti was in a pickle. Climbing out of the 12,000-foot-tall cloud cover wasn’t a feasible option, either.

“I knew I was in trouble,” Ippoliti said.

He continued to climb until he figured he must have reached at least 800 feet, then Ippoliti reached up and pulled the handle.

“It was an instant decision for me,” he said.

“It worked perfectly,” Ippoliti said, recalling his descent under the parachute’s canopy.

The plane came to rest in a park, and Ippoliti described the touchdown as fairly gentle.

“I was very thankful that day that I had bought a Cirrus,” he said.

Ippoliti’s SR22 is still in service, although today it has a new owner.

While Cirrus originally designed the parachute system to save only the occupants of an airplane, not the craft itself, King said about half the airplanes that have logged CAPS saves have been returned to service.

Article written by Peter Passi of the Forum News Service

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