Whole-airplane parachute

The small planes sold by Cirrus Aircraft are all outfitted with a whole-airplane parachute. The system demonstrated in this video was developed by Ballistic Recovery Systems' Boris Popov, who was inspired after surviving a fall from a hang glider into a lake. While this is the first commercial whole-airplane parachute, the idea has been around for more than 80 years. From Smithsonian Air & Space:
In 1929, Hollywood stunt pilot Roscoe Turner deployed a whole-airplane parachute for kicks before 15,000 spectators in Santa Ana, California, and landed softly in his 2,800-pound Lockheed Air Express. In 1948, pilot and parachutist Bob Fronius twice deployed a chute from a JR-V Robin sailplane near San Diego, and several times the following year from a J-3 Piper Cub. “He would climb, shut the engine down, open the chute, play around with it, then release the chute and dive to start the engine,” says Fronius’ son Doug. Bob Fronius never commercialized his parachute. “He was a better experimenter than a businessman,” says Doug. “He considered the job done once he accomplished the experimental part.”
"How Things Work: Whole-Airplane Parachute"


  1. Sometimes a parachute won’t save you. From the Wikipedia entry for this major league pitcher:

    On October 11, 2006, a Cirrus SR20 plane (reportedly pending registration to Cory Lidle[11]) crashed into the Belaire Apartments complex on York Ave. at E. 72nd Street on New York City’s Upper East Side, killing Cory Lidle and co-pilot/flight instructor, Tyler Stanger.[12] All Cirrus Design SR-20 planes have dual controls; therefore, it is currently unknown whether Lidle or Stanger was piloting the aircraft at the time of the crash. In addition to the deaths of the two on board the plane, 21 people were injured as a result of the accident, about half of them New York City firefighters.

    1. That’s like saying brakes in a car won’t save you from a crash. They have to be functioning and used at the right time to be effective.
      I don’t know much about these parachutes, but my first thought is that I’d feel more comfortable with one than without.

    2. The Ballistic Recovery System, which has been in use on Cirrus aircraft for years now, is not intended for use by an aircraft after it has flown into a high rise building. It is intended for use in cases of engine loss or control surface separation.

      Were this discussion about cockpit decision making or crew resource management, your comments would be valid, but I don’t really see what the Lidle accident has to do with anything at all, except that Cirrus built the aircraft he was flying. As it is, your post isn’t really germane to the article.

      1. Exactly, the parachute is a LAST DITCH option, as using it destroys the airframe; not to mention the incredibly high risk bodily injury from deploying the chute. In most cases where you would even consider using the chute, the better option would be to try and land traditionally. An engine-out, for example, would best be handled by flying “dead-stick” (i.e. continuing to glide and maximize speed/altitude ratio to stay up the long enough to find suitable landing space) and attempt an engine restart or ditch.

        The Lidel accident was an unfortunate mistake made by who-ever was in control of that aircraft at the time to attempt a U-turn in narrow space with a tail-wind (that widens the turn) while flying too fast for the maneuver. Having the chute would have been useless.

      2. I believe that the Editor gave too much effort in his reply to Kosmoid. As such, I give a hearty “well done” to the Editor.

        In addition, I thank the Evening Sun for a great article.

  2. The real takeaway from this story is that a ballistic device was developed by a guy named “Popov.”

  3. In response, citing Wikipedia entry for BRS:

    “CAPS [the BRS system for the Cirrus] deployments

    “As of September 2009, the CAPS has been activated 20 times with 37 survivors and 4 fatalities.[8] Some additional deployments have been reported by accident investigators as caused by ground impact or post-impact fires, and some accidents are still under investigation.”

    I don’t know when this system was initiated or how many planes have this installed.

    There are parachute systems for escaping high rises, too. Don’t think they’re very practical. Someone, Owen Quinn, who used to jump at my former dropzone made the first BASE jump from the World Trade Center. I bet he’s still around, the latter isn’t.

    It’s hard to predict the next sh!tstorm, is all I’m saying.

  4. I know a little about this due to previous careers etc.

    Ballistic parachutes have been used on ultralights for quite a while, Cirrus was just the first company to develop them for full size/weight airplanes (that’s not really “just” developing, it’s actually quite impressive).
    This system is designed for total loss of control (due to control surface separation or something nasty like that) or total loss of situational awareness (which leads to total loss of control in a few seconds, and often loss of control surfaces shortly after that).

    The system really isn’t designed for engine failure scenarios, as a successful engine out landing is generally much, much nicer than a parachute landing.
    The parachute is designed to get you to the ground alive, not necessarily undamaged. The landing gear is designed to absorb a lot of the impact and collapse, much like crumple zones on a car, and the seats and mountings are supposed to cushion the occupants from the worst of the spine-crushing impact.
    The aircraft is not expected to be usable after a parachute deployment (although at least one that I know of was in good enough shape afterwards to be fixed), but the occupants should survive.

    All-in-all this system is very much a last ditch solution. No pilot with any experience would use it unless the situation was dire indeed. But when THAT situation comes… oh yeah!
    But Cirrus are extremely clever, because they know that most buyers of their aircraft are NOT experienced pilots, and do not necessarily fly enough every year to be in good enough training to manage many emergency situations, which means that this system really is a lifesaver as well as being an extremely nice selling point.
    Another nice selling point is the quality of their airplanes. I saw all the Cirruses being moved from the US to Europe for a few years, and these planes just didn’t have any problems, even on these flights just after manufacture (apart from a couple of minor door latch issues). Apparently pretty decent quality control.

    1. Thanks for the info. I was just about to ask just how rough the landing would be in this situation.

  5. This is what I’m asking. How do you prepare for the rare event?

    We have the TSA doing all sorts of shenanigans to prevent an extremely rare event. It’s almost impossible to evaluate the effectiveness.

    We have Giffords stories all over HuffPost screaming about gun control, which ain’t gonna happen. [Appreciate the comma.]

    I’d rather be lucky than good.

  6. I own a Cirrus SR22 (same airframe, bigger engine than Liddle’s SR20). In response to arikol and Anon, a dead engine is an ideal scenario in which to use the chute. Of course, you should try to restart it first, but failing that, it is indisputably MUCH safer to use the chute than to try to land dead-stick. The minimum stall speed for a Cirrus is around 69 mph, so that’s how fast you’ll be travelling (forward) when you hit the ground. Trying that on anything other than a runway is far more dangerous than landing under the chute (at which point you’ll be descending at the rate of about 1500 feet/minute, or roughly equivalent to shoving the plane out a second-story window). As has been mentioned previously, the landing gear and seats absorb most of the impact energy. The only deployments (there have been 28 to date) from which all of the occupants have not walked away have either been landings in water (where the landing gear can absorb little of the impact) and deployments above the 155 mph maximum deployment speed (one of these high-speed deployments actually still worked, while in another (at well over 200 mph) the chute was ripped from the airframe).

    Another advantage of the chute is that it gives the passengers an option in the event the pilot dies (stroke, heart attack, etc.). Briefing the passenger in the co-pilot seat on how to deploy the chute is SOP for Cirrus pilots.

    Finally, in my opinion, the real genius of Cirrus in installing the chute (and, btw, there are many other remarkable things about Cirrus aircraft) is recognizing that plane purchase decisions are frequently made not by the pilot, but by the pilot’s wife.

    1. It is absolutely not safer to deploy the chute than to make a dead-stick landing. If you deploy the chute, you will impact the ground at 1,500 feet per minute, as you say. But if you glide down, your vertical descent is on the order of 800 to 1,000 fpm until you flare in ground effect, at which point (ideally) it slows to a negligible rate. *That’s* the speed at which you hit the earth. The stall speed you quote only means the plane is traveling at 69 mph in the forward direction. If you were to put the plane into a stall the instant before flying into a concrete wall, sure, you would hit the wall at 69 mph, but the idea is to put a little skill and judgment into choosing a spot to land. Incidentally, that’s not something you’ll be able to do with that chute deployed–you’ll land wherever physics and gravity conspire to put you. Myself, I’d rather have the choice. And if I have to hit something at even a moderate rate of speed, I’d rather do it at a shallow angle traveling forward, not vertically.

      But more importantly, the entire discussion is misguided. The chute isn’t intended to be used in the event of an engine failure at all. The only reason it was put on the plane in the first place was to fulfill the FAA’s requirement that the plane be able to recover from a spin, which it can’t. So Cirrus engineers made the plane as resistant to spinning as possible and then added a recovery chute that could be used to arrest a spin. Good enough for certification. Meant for spin recovery (in fact I recall reading that the chute was designed to stop a spin and then be jettisoned), not engine failures, which are perfectly survivable in the majority of cases. No need to risk serious injury/possible death and trash your plane… just do what you were trained to do and put it in a field. On a frozen lake. On a highway. On top of a forest canopy if need be, for that matter.

      As a side note, the vast majority of spin accidents happen in the traffic pattern, within 1,000 feet of the ground. Ballistic parachutes are useless at that altitude. I don’t mean that as a critique of the system–I’d certainly have one if all else were equal–but the intended use and limitations of the device bear serious consideration. Pulling that handle is an option of last resort and should be understood as such.

      Safe flying, brother.

      1. You are mistaken on several accounts. First, while your descent rate in a dead-stick landing is much less than under the chute, your horizontal speed will be much greater (under the chute it will be just the wind speed). Driving the plane at 70+ mph across anything softer or bumpier than a grass landing field will tear the wheels off and result in unpredictable further damage to the plane which wasn’t designed to absorb that kind of abuse (whereas it *was* designed to absorb the abuse typical of landing under the chute). While there are many accounts of people walking away from dead-stick landings, there are many more where they didn’t. I didn’t mean to present the chute as a guaranteed safe-landing device; it isn’t. But “skill and judgment” can’t make a landable field suddenly appear where there is none. If you’re certain there’s a landable field within gliding distance, by all means use it. Just keep in mind that what appears landable (or glidable) from 1000 feet often isn’t.

        Regarding Cirrus spin recovery, the plane has been demonstrated to be spin-recoverable on many occasions (literally scores during European certification testing). Cirrus chose to install the chute in lieu of demonstrating spin recovery *per FAA regulations*, a process involving hundreds of tests and adding significantly to development costs. Since the company was already contemplating installing the chute for reasons mentioned previously, it thought it could kill two birds with one stone. The plane may not, in fact, be able to satisfy the FAA’s spin requirement, but saying it can’t recover from a spin is false.

        As for concern about trashing a plane in a life-threatening emergency (I realize I’d consider it life-threatening, even if you wouldn’t), even if I didn’t have plane insurance (and especially since I do), my life is worth more to me than the plane. I’d hope the plane’s value would not even be a consideration to me in such a situation; only the actions that would yield the highest probability of survival.

        1. I think there is a bit of glider pilot vs powered pilot in this debate Gliders land dead stick all the time and its not considered an emergency. Powered pilots don’t develop the skill and would benefit more from a ballistic parachute. Likewise demonstrating stall and spin recovery is a Good Thing, except for the notable cases of experienced pilots who pull up in a stall and don’t seem to have been exposed enough to emergencies to develop the right reflexes.

          Personally I would like to be the pilot who knows how to find a good place to land, and doesn’t consider an engine failure to be something which will write off the airframe, but I accept that not everybody will be the same.

  7. Didn’t the kids in Lord of the Flies bail out of their aircraft at the start of the story in one of these things?

  8. On the dead-stick vs chute debate: In the event of an engine failure, the better option depends on the circumstances. Over the desert, a golf course, wide open fields, no powerlines? Land it! At night, over mountains, forest? The chute is a safer option. The point for me (I owned an SR22 for 3 years) is that the Cirrus gives you options that other similar planes usually don’t.

    And others have noted the option for passengers if the pilot is incapacitated.

  9. The Lidle crash was the result of a defect in the flight ocntrol system that lead ot a recall months later. It was not pilot error. A search of the FAA Air Worthiness Directives issued a year later is proof

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