Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Light-Sport Chronicles: Shroud Lines

Parsing the whys and wherefores of a successful airframe parachute deployment...over water!

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."


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