June 2008 Issue

Handling Aircraft Failure

Now mainstream, airframe parachutes are in aircraft of many shapes and sizes. What it means to pull the handle and when you should do it.

Pilots often equip their aircraft with equipment they aren’t required to have in the interest of safety—standby gyros, back-up alternators and handheld coms are examples—at costs measured in dollars spent and payload lost. An extra chance in a crisis, many say, is worth having, if at all feasible. So it was no real surprise 30 years ago when airframe parachutes became not only acceptable but de facto standard gear for hang-glider pilots and, a few years later, for the ultralights that grew from that community. And, when some of those ultralights evolved into light experimental aircraft, the parachute went along for the ride. Emergency airframe parachute systems developed and evolved to handle heavier, faster aircraft. Today’s most well-known examples are standard equipment aboard every Cirrus sold. Along the way, they have established a track record measured in lives saved. It wasn’t always that way. Early in the Cirrus fleet’s development, for example, the idea of an airframe parachute was widely poo-pooed by the old sticks at airfields throughout the country. It was a gimmick that wouldn’t work, they said. Or it was added to the airplanes in a last-ditch effort to get the FAA to approve a design it otherwise wouldn’t certify. Airframe parachutes had no track record, they said, adding that only "pilots" who shouldn’t be in an airplane in the first place would pull the handle: A "real" pilot would ride it out, fighting to regain control and pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment. My, how times have changed.

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