Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Light-Sport Chronicles: Profiles In Vision: Boris Popov

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

Think about that: It’s not just 246 people affected, but thousands: loved ones, friends and colleagues whose lives would have been forever altered if Boris Popov hadn’t fallen out of the sky and taken a vow.

So when he hears from detractors of recovery systems, he does his best not to go ballistic himself: “A big factor is the ‘intermediate syndrome.’ One guy said, ‘I’ve got 186 hours and I’ve never needed a parachute, why should I buy yours?’”

Even so, initially pilots were quicker to sign on than aircraft manufacturers: “A major company once said it would never be interested in a parachute recovery system and told me never to call them again, even though I told them it’s not an insult to a customer, nor a reflection on the company’s airplane.”

He even had an ex-Air Force pilot—someone you’d expect would intuitively grok the value of a parachute—get wild-eyed and rant that ballistic systems threatened to take the “last freedom we’ve got!”

“He told me airplanes would rain down under parachute in airport traffic patterns all across the country,”says Popov.

Whether such statements come from misplaced pilot ego, denial, a choice of performance over safety or a conviction that ballistic systems encourage pilots to take more risks, Popov has heard all the arguments.

Popov responds to them, as calmly as he can, “Do you drive or fly like a maniac because you have a seat belt, an air bag or an extra magneto? It’s just a backup safety device that means you and your trusting passengers don’t have to die if everything goes to hell. We give you the option to walk away from a potential disaster over which you have no control.”

The core of his rebuttal is simple and irrefutable: “You’ve got a human operating a mechanical device. One or the other eventually will fail, sooner or later.”

He has had his share of warm fuzzies to override the inevitable frustrations: “It’s astounding, the emotions that come out from people,” he says. “I can hear the tears in their voices. They or a loved one were in trouble, the handle was pulled, and that family still has a father or son, mother or daughter, alive and breathing.”

BRS deployment statistics demonstrate there’s no common event involved in deployments: “We’ve seen structural failures, loss of control, weather, medical: a cross-section of anything that can happen in flight.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the minimal injuries of impact under canopy: “We expected 30% to 50%, because you can’t predict where you’ll land. But we’ve only had a couple people hospitalized. That tells me our engineering and estimates of survivable descent rate were dead on.”

Scene: The first-ever BRS save. Jay Tipton is flying at low altitude in an ultralight with his wife and three-year-old daughter watching. The wing fails, the ultralight dives for the ground. Tipton blows the ’chute at 200 feet, below factory-test minimums. It still opens, although just in time. His family rushes over to give him the biggest hug of his life.

Scene: A pilot is flying his grandson and a friend at night over pitch-black mountains in British Columbia. Suddenly, the autopilot malfunctions. The airplane pitches into an inverted spin or tumble—the instruments are spinning so wildly, the pilot can’t tell up from down.

He struggles to reach the BRS handle, thinking, “If this thing doesn’t work, I’ve just killed myself and my grandson.
The canopy deploys; all survive. Later, the pilot tells Popov, “You have no idea when I pulled that handle what I would have paid for it. How do you put a dollar amount on that?”

Imagine going through such a nightmare yourself. Imagine your child or wife or husband or best friend on board with you. Be honest with yourself. Envision it as vividly as you can.

Now tell me that Boris Popov’s vision of aircraft ballistic recovery systems doesn’t make sense for you and your airplane. Go ahead. Tell me.


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