Experts Differ on Value Of Parachutes for Aircraft

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006

Among the many aircraft pieces identified and examined by crash investigators combing the floors of a New York apartment building this week, officials located the plane's parachute, which was found contained in its package, burned and melted in parts.

It had been discharged from the plane, probably in the post-crash fire.

Safety experts say the parachute probably would have made little difference Wednesday in the fate of the two men on the plane, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger. The chute is a safety feature that comes as standard equipment on Cirrus planes and whose presence on aircraft has been widely debated in the aviation community. The chutes have been deployed nine times and saved 21 lives, according to the plane's manufacturer, Cirrus Design Corp. of Duluth, Minn.

Cirrus said the parachute is one of many features that make its planes stand out from the crowded field of Pipers, Cessnas and Beeches. Since the company's first plane rolled off the line in 1998, it was clear that Cirrus aimed to be the Volvo in a sea of Toyotas, catering to wealthy owners who may be new to flying and who want a high-performance plane with safety assurances.

Instead of dozens of knobs and gauges in the cockpit, Cirrus planes feature flat-screen monitors that provide real-time weather data and information on where the plane is in relation to its surroundings. The wings' slick design is intended to help the plane's performance and speed, and the Cirrus brochure says the aircraft can fly much faster than its clunkier counterparts. The planes, which have found a following among wealthy individuals and celebrities such as actress Angelina Jolie, retail for $335,000.

"Cirrus has made an effort to say, 'We made this plane safe and we made it with a lot of computer technologies, so come give it a try. It's not as difficult to fly as some people think,' " said Pete Bunce, chief executive of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of small aircraft. The message was intended to help reverse the trend of declining or flat numbers of applicants for pilot's licenses, he said.

Several other small-aircraft manufacturers are now considering adding parachutes to their newer planes as standard or optional features.

The parachute is deployed when a lever is pulled in the cockpit. A rocket shoots the parachute overhead from the rear of the plane, and it opens into a 55-foot canopy. The pilot can maneuver the controls of the plane to keep it level while drifting to the ground.

Some aviation experts said they are unsure whether such a small plane needs a parachute, and they worry that some inexperienced pilots would be too quick to trigger the device, when in many cases they could troubleshoot in the air and safely get the plane on the ground by other means.

Charles Eastlake, who teaches aircraft design at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said he does not think putting a parachute on a plane as standard equipment is a "wise design." The chute adds a lot of weight and can be deployed unnecessarily, he said.

"You can't argue with the fact that 21 people who used the parachute are alive," Eastlake said. "The interesting and much more complex question is, how many of 21 people would still be alive if they didn't have the parachute? I'm guessing most of them would still be alive."

In most scenarios, Eastlake said, a pilot flying a single-engine plane should be able to resolve any major issue without a parachute. For example, if the engine blew out, a pilot could glide the plane to a nearby runway or road. "Major structural failures that render the airplane uncontrollable are very, very rare in airplanes of this size," he said.

For newer aircraft, Cirrus planes have had a relatively high number of accidents. Cirrus delivered its first SR20, the model involved in Wednesday's crash, in 1999 and has made 700 of the planes. They have been involved in 12 accidents, of which half were fatal. The sister aircraft, the SR22, has had 40 accidents, of which 13 involved fatalities. In one nonfatal accident, the pilot deployed the plane's parachute but it was caught in high winds, turning the plane upside down.

Bill King, a vice president at Cirrus, said the planes' accident rates have improved. The company decided to put the parachutes on board because its president and co-founder, Alan Klapmeier, survived a midair collision and concluded that parachutes should be on all small planes, King said.

"These are not unlike air bags for cars. It's a technology whose time has come," he said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company