When the Cirrus SR20 entered service as the first production airplane to have a whole airframe recovery parachute as standard equipment about 15 years ago aviation insurance underwriters didn’t know what to do.
The underwriters–and actually most of us in general aviation–expected Cirrus airplanes to be raining down under the chute but nobody knew how much damage the event would cause or how much it would cost of fix the airplane. Because of the chute underwriters just didn’t know how to price Cirrus hull coverage.
As it turned out the underwriters didn’t need to worry. Cirrus pilots did have accidents but for all of the conventional reasons but they just weren’t using the chute. Early on there was an engine failure in a Cirrus but the pilot shoehorned the airplane into a small clearing instead of pulling the chute. That surprised most of us. The chute just wasn’t much of a factor even in accidents where it seemed it could have saved the people onboard from death or serious injury, or at least greatly increased their odds of a successful outcome.
But finally that situation is changing. More than 95 people are alive because Cirrus pilots deployed the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) and the number of deployments is increasing. I give Cirrus and its new training system all of the credit for the changing attitude among pilots toward the chute.
CAPS was and still is a foreign concept for traditional GA flying and the pilot training system. The mantra in GA remains “Fly the airplane, Fly the airplane.” That is the opposite attitude needed to make full and effective use of CAPS. With a CAPS the mindset must be when in doubt deploy the chute now. No waiting allowed, or trying to continue to fly the airplane.
The military learned this decades ago when ejection seats were invented. For the seat to do any good a pilot needs to have ejection way up near the top of the memory items for most emergencies. If something goes wrong, or you’re hit, wasting time trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it can rob a pilot of any chance of a successful ejection.
In GA we have tried to instill a similar type of thinking in pilots who fly piston twins. For example, if an engine fails close to the ground on takeoff your chances are so much better if you pull back the other engine and land straight ahead instead of trying to continue the takeoff on one engine. It’s a mindset a piston twin pilot should have and needs before he starts the takeoff roll.
It’s the same with CAPS. In fact, the CAPS can do essentially what the second engine does for a piston twin pilot. CAPS can’t save you from crashing fatally in every emergency situation. But, as with the piston twin, the periods of exposure on each flight where the other engine or CAPS can’t save the occupants are brief.
For example, CAPS can deploy successfully as low as 400 agl in level flight. On takeoff a Cirrus pilot needs to constantly be thinking that when he climbs through 400 feet the chute is there and ready to go in case anything goes wrong. That’s about the altitude where a piston twin pilot is likely to have success continuing if one quits on takeoff. CAPS will not continue the takeoff, but is very, very likely to save the occupants from serious injury. The current Cirrus training program is hammering this CAPS planning home before every takeoff.
Engine failure or some other serious structural or system problem are obvious reasons to deploy the CAPS, but there is still work to do in convincing Cirrus pilots to pull the chute anytime control is in doubt. That is especially true when flying in the clouds.
If a pilot ever becomes disoriented in the clouds it is virtually impossible to regain control. The reason you have vertigo and lose control is because you can’t comprehend what you’re seeing on the instruments. Or some instruments have failed and you can’t figure out which. As the airplane deviates further from controlled flight the instrument display will become increasingly incomprehensible. The “level” button on the newest autopilots can help, but CAPS can save the confused pilot in IMC when nothing else will.
Cirrus is pounding away on these issues in its new training program in much the same way every jet pilot is trained and tested to be ready to handle an engine failure at the worst possible moment on every takeoff. It’s a big job to turn around nearly a century of instructors telling pilots “Fly the airplane, Fly the airplane” and make the decision to stop flying, pull the chute, and live to fly another day.
It’s impossible to know specific accident rates because we still don’t know how many hours are flown and under what conditions, but the Cirrus accident record is definitely improving, especially the fatal accident record. I give the company credit for fully embracing the CAPS and moving it to the top of mind for Cirrus pilots. “Fly the airplane” is still the best advice for the rest of us, but for Cirrus pilots CAPS is the best answer for most emergencies.
As for insurance costs I think underwriters have figured out a CAPS deployment is a lot better than a fatal accident. And now more pilots understand that, too.