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.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

How safe?

How safe is general aviation? If you had asked Cory Lidle last September 8 as the New York Times did, you would find that he viewed his new airplane as very safe to fly, despite his relatively little experience as a pilot.

"“The whole plane has a parachute on it,” Lidle said. “Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it. But if you’re up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly.”"

Of course, you couldn't ask him today as he died yesterday when his parachute-equipped airplane crashed into a New York highrise building. Did he experience an engine failure? That hasn't yet been determined. We do know that, if he attempted to deploy his parachute, it did not cause the "whole plane to come down slowly".

A lot of people seem to have been convinced that having an airplane parachute adds to safety as Cirrus has sold a lot of airplanes on that basis. However, this "safety" has not been reflected as crash and incident statistics contine to be collected.

Although the concept of having a parachute seems appealing, the fact is that the percentage of accidents and incidents in which having a parachute could be beneficial is very small.

Also, it turns out that the speed at which the plane "goes down slowly" is actually about 1,500 feet per minute or 25 feet per second. This is less a floating to the ground than a crash and once the parachute is deployed, the pilot really has no more control about where the plane will land. This was the case in a recent Cirrus crash in which the pilot was killed when the plane ended up ditching in a lake. A conventional airplane with an engine failure becomes a heavy glider and, if properly controlled, will descent into the ground with less than half the vertical speed of a Cirrus.

So, if the parachute is not the answer, what is? Looking at accident statistics provides the answer. Most accidents are caused by pilot error. In almost all cases, an investment in additional training will yield a much better return than purchase of a parachute.


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