In an upcoming issue, you'll find my feature story about the harrowing experience of Dr. Richard McGlaughlin and his daughter Elaine as they rode a BRS airframe parachute canopy into the water near the island of Andros in the Bahamas. The good doctor had decided to buy a Cirrus with its standard-installation BRS whole-airframe parachute, because he knew his monthly volunteer work would require hundreds of miles of over-ocean flying every trip. The story you'll read will take you inside the cockpit and inside the head and heart of Dr. McLaughlin. For this column, I wanted to serve up some supplementary info I didn't have room for in that story.
We pilots can get into our heads pretty easily. We tend to micro-parse accident data, for example, to prove to ourselves that, as Tom Wolfe so vividly laid out in his book The Right Stuff, we'd have done something different than that "dumb other guy" to avoid a mishap.
The doctor's stirring story drove home for me the deepest truth: At any time, we could become that other dumb guy or gal, no matter how superb our piloting, preflight, maintenance and flight-planning skills. To walk out your front door is to put yourself at risk. To fly an airplane is to accept that there are potential hazards that might, at any time, exceed any pilot's ability, no matter the level of expertise.
Dr. McLaughlin, a highly skilled, decades-long pilot and flight instructor, had just two choices: ditch or pull the 'chute. He had pored over survival statistics about ditching. He pulled the red handle instead.
In a stirring BRS-sponsored forum at last April's Sun 'n Fun event, the good doctor generously gave a candid, self-effacing account of the incident, then answered questions from the floor. Here are some highlights.
"I'd had an alternator problem repaired in Haiti," said Dr. McLaughlin. "They flew it for an hour while Elaine went and got one of those throw-away cameras packaged in a sealed aluminum-foil bag. I took the cowling off the airplane, looked it over, and said, "Looks good, let's go."
That camera pouch floated out of the airplane. Elaine was able to take photos with it.
"I bought a Cirrus because I liked how fast it went, and it was pretty fuel efficient," the doctor said. "Now, I have a whole other reason. I really, really believe in a parachute. I could have ditched: 81% of people who do survive to be rescued. But it is very hard to figure how my daughter and I could have come out of this better than we did. There were no injuries. We weren't disoriented. Nothing bad happened. We were ready to go about our business the next day."
BRS founder Boris Popov also fielded questions:"For those naysayers who doubt the efficiency and life-saving potential of a whole-airframe parachute, all you have to do is hear from competent, experienced pilots and why they chose to deploy. That's why we'll be doing more of these forums at Oshkosh and Sun 'n Fun. There is just no better way to get the point across."
"I looked over all our statistics about a year ago," Popov continues. "One of the most startling numbers is that one out of every 125 parachutes we sell ends up being deployed.
"This is my industry, too. I certainly don't want to provoke fear by saying flying small airplanes is dangerous. But the fact remains: After 30 years and 30,000 systems, we've got almost 300 saves. Those are the facts. And we've decided to let them speak for themselves."
Popov, about a question on placarded maximum deployment speed: "I don't care how fast I'm going, I'm going to deploy that parachute. We've had deployments at over 215 mph. We've had rumors of the military testing our off-the-shelf products and getting successful deploys at over 300 mph. I can't verify any details; it was apparently a secret project. We placard the maximum speed very conservatively. There's a lot of built-in safety margin. We know the system can deploy at higher speeds. We had an actual save in Colorado in excess of 195 knots at 500 feet AGL."
The difficulty of comparing general aviation accident statistics to parachute saves is an apples-and-oranges thing. The fact that nearly one percent of BRS systems have been deployed doesn't of itself extrapolate out to the general flying population. We can't say with certainty that one in 125 small private aircraft, for example, will at some point need a parachute, or someone will get killed.
The point is, really, let's not get addicted to numbers or costs or modestly lower useful load figures as our bottom line. Let's look at the big picture. If, for whatever reason, just under one percent of 30,000 parachutes needed to be deployed over a 30-year period, well, how lucky do you feel? And how justifiable once you see that trend is your rationale for not wanting to carry one if faced with engine seizure or fuel starvation over inhospitable terrain, flight into IMC conditions, mid-air collision or bird strike or fire or...?
Question: Did Dr. McLaughlin ever think he'd be tempted to pull the 'chute when it wasn't absolutely necessary? I'd talked with many pilots who have convinced themselves that pilots would feel overconfident, and therefore shouldn't be tempted to fly with one, which regardless still doesn't answer the question of what to do when there's no other option.
McLaughlin: "I'm too ignorant to know much about it one way or the other. I liked that feature (the parachute) in a very big way, though. I've spent a lot of time flying float planes; I had an Aerostar for awhile; I've flown taildraggers and other planes. And I did notice flying other planes over the Appalachians and other remote places; I began to think about that parachute, especially at night or under instrument conditions. I thought how I was going to be in real trouble over hostile territory if something failed in a plane without a 'chute.
"Over time, I would say the parachute became more important to me. I don't like to fly at night or in IMC much, I'm not too 'brave' a pilot," McLaughlin said. "I definitely don't fly in potentially more dangerous situations because I have the 'chute...but I do fly a little happier with it. So, I would say, the concept grew on me."
McLaughlin continues: "There is a common sentiment among Cirrus pilots: that your wife might say that it's safer with a 'chute and be more willing to fly with you. I married well: My wife was willing to fly with me under almost any circumstances, so I didn't need that excuse. But I have my own excuse now."