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Last Resort: The Ballistic Parachuting SystemJoshua Gilberts

The perceived dangers in a General Aviation aircraft take roots in nothing but its size: it’s too small. To non-professionals this perception translates into firm beliefs that these little planes simply fall apart midair and smash into the ground. However, for those who have such an inherent phobia for flying in small planes, there is a cure, at least a peace of mind it is: the Ballistic Recovery System (BRS).

Let’s forget about that fancy term for now. It’s just as simple as a parachute mounted on the back of a small plane. Once activated, a well-packed parachute is pulled out from its housing by several solid rockets in a matter of seconds. Subsequently, the canopy is deployed to stop the damaged airplane and its scared passengers from falling like a heavy rock. The idea behind this is that when an airplane encounters certain extreme conditions, such as structural failures after a midair collision or a sudden complete loss of flight controls, no matter how well trained and experienced the pilot is, the outcome would be the same: an uncontrolled crash. On October 28, 2014, a Robinson 44 helicopter collided with a Cirrus SR-22 at low altitude in Frederick, Maryland. The helicopter promptly lost all of its flying capabilities and rammed into the ground in mere seconds, killing all of its three occupants. The Cirrus, however, despite suffering from damages at very low altitude (roughly 1000 feet, or less than 300 meters, above ground level), deployed a whole-plane parachute and landed with the airplane still intact, both walked away with

minor or no injuries. Upon collision, the Cirrus pilot pulled a red handle up on the plane’s roof to activate his parachute mounted in the back of the plane as he realized the airplane becomes too structurally deformed to remain controllable. Had the helicopter been equipped with such a parachute, all those three fallen souls could very possibly have been saved. Unfortunately no technology can yet put a whole-plane parachute into a helicopter and make it work due to some limitations in its design and other characteristics.

We won’t go into that here, but may discuss it in later articles should such an interest from our readers arise. Instead, we will focus on how this technology came into being and its evolution over the years.

The history of this technology can be traced back to as early as the 1920s when a stunt pilot named Roscoe Turner ended a failed record-setting attempt with a whole-plane parachute that not only successfully saved his life but also recovered his airplane. However, the aviation industry failed to follow through with this idea and it went dead and silent for half a century until it was adopted and made standard equipment by Cirrus Aircraft on its best-selling single engine SR-20s and SR-22s. No other aircraft of comparable size and performance had flown with a parachute on its back at the time when the Cirrus founders envisioned the potentials of such a lifesaver of last resort. Shortly after the loss of a SR-20 prototype and its pilot during a chute-less test flight accident, Cirrus Aircraft moved on and further developed their own parachute recovery product and trademarked it as the Cirrus Airframe Parachuting System (CAPS). The Cirrus’s high-profile debut and its tremendous market success attracted substantial attention not only for the airplane itself but also for the parachute system. To some degree, it has also set a trend of equipping whole-plane parachute as a standard for many newly designed aircrafts.

So the next time your pilot friend offers you a ride in such an airplane, you know that there is a lifesaver of last resort overhanging there, ready to safely guard you all the way onto the ground when something goes horribly wrong.

About the author: Josh Gilberts worked for Cirrus Aircraft as an industrial engineer. He’s been closely involved in the production process of both SR-20s and SR-22s and is a Cirrus fan himself. As a private pilot, Josh started flying and won his certificate while still in high school and continues to remain an avid flyer and an airplane enthusiast.