<Picture: [Advertisement]><Picture: The Wall Street Journal Interactive
December 8, 1998
If Only They Could Figure Out How
To Rig a Parachute to Jumbo Jets
By SUSAN CAREY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ron Kline was facing death. At 1,200 feet the rudder jammed on his ultralight
plane, sending it spiraling toward the ground at 80 miles an hour. "God, my
life is over," he thought.
But wait. His plane had a parachute. In his terror, he had almost forgotten
about it. Now he yanked a lever, heard the chute open and felt it break the
plane's dive. He woke up on the ground. "I cracked two ribs," the
Nicholasville, Ky., machine-shop owner says of the July, 1997, accident. "That
literally was it."
A parachute on a plane? The idea isn't complex. Or new. A 1947 Seagram's V.O.
advertisement shows a small plane suspended from a parachute; military fighter
pilots bail out of planes in ejection seats rigged with parachutes; and chutes
have been used to slow the descent of many a spacecraft returning to Earth.
Yet until now, only hang-gliders, experimental light aircraft and home-built
kit planes such as Mr. Kline's offered parachutes as an option.
An Unexpected Drag
But this October, a company called Cirrus Design Corp. of Duluth, Minn.,
received Federal Aviation Administration design approval for a single-engine
four-seat airplane equipped with a 55-feet-in-diameter parachute. A cockpit
lever sends the parachute shooting out the back of the plane on a solid-fuel
rocket. More than 200 people have plunked down nonrefundable deposits of
$15,000 for the $168,000 aircraft. The first deliveries are scheduled for
But here's the unexpected part: The product is controversial. Even though 600
to 800 Americans die every year in small-plane accidents, the parachute maker
has received angry letters and calls from pilots concerned that the FAA will
make parachutes mandatory on all small planes, the same way that seatbelts are
required in all cars.
Experienced pilots also worry that novices will pull the lever at the first
sign of trouble. "One of the dangers is that somebody's going to rely on that
safety feature instead of practicing and staying proficient in emergency
procedures," says Dean Ellis, owner of Windy City Flyers, a flight school and
flying club in Wheeling, Ill.
Even with a parachute, a falling plane is dangerous. Once the parachute is
deployed, the pilot can't control the plane's direction, and it still descends
at 17 miles an hour, smashing whatever it lands on. A reinforced cage around
the passengers is supposed to protect them from injury, but the plane itself
is almost always destroyed in the process. That has some insurers fretting
about liability for passengers hurt in those "soft" landings, and others
worried they will have to pay more in claims for damaged aircraft.
A No-Go for Cessna
Certainly, the GM of small-aircraft, Textron Inc.'s Cessna Aircraft Co., isn't
considering equipping its planes with parachutes. (An after-market parachute
for an older Cessna model was produced a few years ago by the maker of the
Cirrus chute, but was roundly ignored by general-aviation pilots.) "This is
not the way we will take our company," says a Cessna spokeswoman. "Airplanes
do not fall out of the sky. A well-trained pilot who manages his or her
aircraft accordingly is sufficient for safety."
But Cirrus calls such thinking idealistic. "The industry counts on well-
trained pilots and they're not always," says Alan Klapmeier, president of
Cirrus. "People run out of gas in airplanes and get killed."
Other critics simply wonder whether parachutes will work. Richard Collins,
editor at large of Flying, a popular aviation magazine, says bad-weather winds
sometimes make planes go so fast that a parachute would be torn to shreds if
deployed. He also contends that many accidents occur when planes stall out and
go into spins below 500 feet -- an altitude he says is too low for any chute
to be effective.
Cirrus doesn't claim its parachute will work in all conditions or at all
altitudes, just as seatbelt makers don't guarantee their products will ensure
survival. Moreover, the system has never been tested in a real life-and-death
situation. But to obtain FAA certification, Cirrus and parachute maker
Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc. were required to conduct numerous
demonstrations, and during those trials the chute never failed to deploy and
the airframe withstood the impact of a crash landing.
The Cirrus parachute plane is rooted in two near-death experiences. In 1977,
Boris Popov was 500 feet in the air being towed by a boat when the crossbar on
his hang-glider broke. "I was going down like a lawn dart and I was mad at
myself for not having a parachute to deploy," he recalls.
Mr. Popov didn't meet his maker that day, thanks to a helmet. But the lake
landing knocked the fillings out of his teeth and got him thinking. Before
long he founded Ballistic Recovery of South St. Paul, Minn. The company
markets rocket-fired parachute systems to users of hang-gliders, experimental
light aircraft and home-built plane kits. Among the 14,000 chutes it has sold,
BRS counts 121 known "saves," including Mr. Kline. (The parachutes have been a
tough sell, however: Mr. Kline showed a video of his accident, which somebody
happened to catch on camera, to members of his ultralight-flying club, where
three people have died in accidents in the past three years and a fourth was
left paraplegic. Only one person popped for a chute.)
The use of parachutes on factory-made general-aviation planes is coming about
because of another lucky survivor. Cirrus's Mr. Klapmeier was flying in
Wisconsin in 1984 when his plane collided in midair with another. He managed
to land but watched the other pilot, a man it turned out he knew, "go all the
way down," crash and die.
Around that time, Mr. Klapmeier and his brother Dale started a company that
produced kit planes for hobbyists. When the Klapmeiers decided to build a
production aircraft, they envisioned a chute as standard equipment. Somehow,
their paths crossed with Mr. Popov, and in 1994, the three started
experimenting with a chute large enough for a heavy plane.
Considering that this will be Cirrus's first general-aviation plane, the
parachute, which adds about $10,000 to the aircraft's price tag, is an
effective marketing tool. With it, ''we'll walk away'' from a crash, says Dave
Humphreys, head of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va.,
who is eagerly awaiting delivery of his model. ''Those other people will go
Sam Johnson Jr., a car dealer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been flying for
nearly 20 years and says his wife Pamela liked their six-seater 1973 Bonanza
"just fine." But when she learned of the parachute on the Cirrus, "she figured
she could save her own life and the kids' lives" if he had a heart attack in-
flight or was otherwise unable to keep flying. Mr. Johnson says he has
encouraged his wife to take flying lessons. "But she likes this parachute idea
better: You just hang on and float to the ground."
"I'm sure pilots with attitude would think this is wimpy," says David Katz, a
Santa Cruz, Calif., software engineer who is awaiting a Cirrus. "But I don't
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