Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Light-Sport Chronicles: Shroud Lines

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

"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."


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