Florida Pilot

A compendium of random thoughts from a former Washington Beltway insider who is now having a lot more fun flying small airplanes in Central Florida.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

what is old is new

With the media-favored Kerry campaign machinery out of business, the Democratic National Committee in apparent winter hibernation and even Michael Moore's outrageous behavior becoming repetitious and boring, what is an uncreative liberal media to do until the next election cycle. The answer is simple; recycle old stories.

If you enter "Rancher Albert Kolk" into a google search, you will find 782 references, all of them (that I have looked at) refering to stories about a "new" parachute system designed to work on small airplanes. The story, attributed to Associate Press, appears to be primarily taken from press materials prepared by Ballistic Recovery Systems which has been making small aircraft parachute systems for over 20 years! and Cirrus Design, a small plane manufacturer which has been making planes that use the parachutes for the past several years.

And who is Rancher Albert Kolk to deserve such noteriety? Well, after putting his "spin-resistant" Cirrus into a spin, Albert Kolk saved the day by crashing his plane into the ground with the aid of the parachute. Stories at the time indicated that a failure to switch fuel tanks causing a weight imbalance in the wings had a lot to do with the plane getting out of control but there is no official report available online from the Canadian equivalent of the National Transportation Safely Board. Had Kolk been flying a non-Cirrus airplane, he would probably have been able to employ anti-spin procedures to get the plane back under control and avoid having a crash at all, but in the Cirrus, using the parachute to mitigate the crash is the only approved option if the plane starts to spin.

Reading these promotional stories conveniently published as "news" one would wonder why any small airplane would not be equipped with a parachute. Here are some reasons:

(1) The number of occasions in which a parachute would actually be useful to a well-trained pilot is very very small. A loss of engine power (most feared by the non-pilot) simply results in the plane becoming a somewhat heavy glider. Mid-air crashes typically occur close to the groundand under circumstances in which deployment of a parachute may not be possible. As far as spins are concerned, Cirrus is the only plane in its class to require a parachute deployment and resulting crash if a spin is entered.

(2) There is no way to test the parachute system before attempting to use it; if it doesn't work there is no second chance or backup system. In addition, there have been a couple of cases in which the parachute was deployed after the airplane was already on the ground; clearly not of much help.

(3) In the Cirrus installation, use of the parachute is required (by the Pilot's Operating Handbook) in circumstances in which normal control adjustment would be made in most airplanes. An inadvertent stall with a wing down possibly caused by turbulence would be quickly recovered in most aircraft with opposite rudder; the Cirrus owner would have to pull the chute and crash the airplane under such circumstances.

(4) The availability of the chute is likely to lead to careless piloting and a higher accident rate. One example of this is the "save" in Fort Lauderdale in which the pilot paniced and "pulled the chute" at low altitude, crashing his airplane instead of simply pulling the "alternate static source" and continuing his flight. Due to the vagaries of the winds, the plane crashed in an uninhabited part of a heavily urbanized area; had it crashed and injured or killed innocent people on the ground, the Associated Press might not be publishing such laudatory articles.

(5) Once the chute is pulled, the airplane is no longer under pilot control and is going to crash wherever the winds blow it. The resultant crash is equivalent to dropping the plane from a height of from 15 to 30 feet. The FAA-approved pilot handbook suggests deployment of the chute may cause significant injury or death and destroy the airframe.

The insurance industry considers the parachute-equipped Cirrus airplane to be a higher risk than competing aircraft of similar (or even greater) complexity, punishing its owners with higher premiums and greater training/experience requirements It is not clear to what extent this is due to the presence of the parachute but pulling the chute handle when a better option is readily available (see (4) above) will result in an unnecessary crash and a substantial insurance claim.

Listening to a Cirrus salesman, however, is a lot like hanging around a car lot on the Vegas strip and the boyz seem to be pretty successful in moving a lot of metal, er plastic to be more correct.


At 1:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the sarcastic comment about Albert Kolk's flying abilities was needed. Had Albert Kolk been flying a non-Cirrus airplane, he probably still would have gone into a spin, only without the option of a parachute saving his, my cousin's, and two other men's lives.


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