Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Light-Sport Chronicles: Profiles In Vision: Boris Popov

One disaster avoided, one vow made–many lives saved thereafter

A few weeks ago, I came within a second or two of a head-on mid-air collision.

Our closing speed was, no doubt, more than 160 knots. I looked up from my camera to see the other airplane flash by in a hard left bank even as my demo pilot juked us hard left. We missed by 30 to 40 feet.

It happened too quickly for an adrenaline boost. But I thought soon after, “If we had survived the hit, a ballistic parachute system could have saved us.”

Boris Popov pretty much kicked off the ballistic ’chute industry when he founded Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS). His vision came after a harrowing epiphany of his own.

Scene: 1977. Popov is flying a hang glider, under tow by a boat below. He signals by hand to slow down. The boat driver, confused, accelerates instead. Unable to release, Popov watches in horror as the airframe disintegrates around him into a mass of broken tubing and sailcloth.

Spinning and tumbling out of the sky with incredible violence, utterly disoriented, arms pinned to his sides by the extreme and complex G-forces, he’s got maybe 15 seconds to live.

It’s a long, long 15 seconds.“And I remember being extremely angry,” Popov says, telling the story he has recounted many times, “that I didn’t have a parachute on board.”

Falling, he makes a fervid vow: “If I survive this, I’ll develop something that fires out a parachute.” Because, he realized, due to the wild gyrations of the glider’s wreckage he would not have been able to hand-deploy a parachute anyway.

Miraculously, he survives the crash. “It happened over water. And I had been a gymnast and pole vaulter in college, so I knew how to take a fall,” recounts Popov.

Soon after, sitting in cafes with friends and drawing on napkins, he sketches out various ideas for mechanical or explosive deployment devices. After some early failures, he develops a drogue gun system that becomes BRS-1—his first success.

“That was our infancy,” he says. “Then we designed a system for ultralights. Larry Newman of Electra Flyer and Lyle Byrum of Quicksilver really understood what I was trying to do and aggressively promoted it in their product lines. In fact, without the support of those two industry leaders, the acceptance curve would have been much steeper indeed.”

Before long, ballistic ’chutes showed up on experimental aircraft. I installed one in a Kitfox I built. To this day, I don’t feel completely comfortable flying without a recovery system.

Fueled by Popov’s passionate vision for the ubiquity of airframe recovery systems, BRS rigs soon appeared on conventional GA airplanes. Cirrus Aircraft, leading maker of single-engine GA aircraft, rocketed the company’s fortunes skyward by making BRS standard equipment on every aircraft it sold—and it sold thousands. In addition to Cirrus, light sport’s top seller Flight Design and Piper Aircraft now include BRS systems as standard equipment.

Over the years, BRS has diversified to survive aviation’s economic roller-coaster ride. The company produces parachute systems for the military and also makes personal safety apparel. To date, BRS parachutes have saved 246 lives.


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