I perused the recent archives here at the House of Rapp and was surprised at how often I write about aircraft accidents. It may seem morbid. But ever since I started working as a CFI, I am conscious of the fact that with my own personal approval, pilots go hurling off into the clouds in new, high tech, 3/4 ton aircraft crusing at nearly 200 mph.
That’s a big responsibility, and as such it occupies a lot of my thoughts. When an incident occurs, I want to learn everything possible from it so that I — and more importantly, those I’m charged with teaching — avoid the same fate.
John’s Killing Zone article got me thinking about the recent Cirrus SR20 accident in New York City. I’m not sure what happened there. I’ll leave it to the NTSB to figure that out. As John pointed out, the weather may have been marginal, the pilots were new to the area, and the route was bounded by obstacles. And none of those things may have been factors. What got me thinking were the questions about why the parachute wasn’t used.
I spend a fair amount of time talking to my students about the CAPS system. For those of you who aren’t “in the know”, CAPS stands for Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. It’s a parachute for the whole airplane. When deployed, it lowers the whole airplane down to the ground slowly enough that the occupants can walk away without injury, although the aircraft will usually be a total loss.
Here’s an analysis of CAPS deployments to date, including a step-by-step illustration of a CAPS system in use.
When transitioning pilots into the SR20 and SR22, most initially see CAPS as a get out of jail free card, albeit a one-time use card with a high price. They don’t understand the limitations of the system. And more importantly, they haven’t researched general aviation accident statistics enough to know that in many — perhaps most — accidents, the CAPS system would be useless.
From what I can tell, most accident scenarios would still result in an accident even with the parachute: low altitude stall/spin. Controlled flight into terrain. Poor pilot judgement (aerobatics, buzzing, etc). Loss of control on takeoff or landing. Taxi and other ground accidents. The list is long, and in the end, hopefully students realize that a ballistic recovery system is no panacea.
This is true of the Cirrus’ other systems, as well. Skywatch, TAWS, GPS, autopilot, and other cockpit tools are useless in most of these scenarios.
I applaud Cirrus Design Corporation’s emphasis on quality training. The transition training is well thought out, and their materials and AFM are better written than any other comparable aircraft I’ve seen. They emphasize recurrent training, use email and web technology to keep owners abreast of the latest information, and seem dedicated to keeping the accident rate low.
Despite that, I believe the Cirrus is going to be involved in more accidents than comparable aircraft. For one thing, it’s designed and built for cross country flying. That means pilots are going to be flying long distances and encountering weather. They’ll also be flying in unfamiliar areas.
The other reason is statistical. There are just a lot of them out there. Cirrus is outselling everyone at the moment, and one of the down sides having a lot of planes in the air is that when accidents occur, they’re more likely to be in one of your planes. That doesn’t mean the Cirrus is unsafe. If I thought that, I wouldn’t fly it.
Finally — and this is really what I wanted to say — let’s look at the type of people flying these aircraft. The SR22s I instruct in are about $265/hr. A two hour flight with instructional costs will run close to $700. I have students who will make flights like that a couple of times per week. These guys are successful, fast pace, type-A personalities. They’re used to getting their way, making it work, pushing through and solving problems by either working really hard or throwing money at it.
This is not always an asset in the cockpit. In aviation, sometimes the answer is to not tackle the problem at all. Stay on the ground. Turn around. Land. Or, ask for help. Admit you’re lost. Declare an emergency. This is not an easy or natural mindset for a lot of these guys.
The Cirrus is fast becoming the modern day “Bonanza”, and the high net worth / low time individuals buying them are the 21st century “doctors”. Their bank account can easily outstrip their piloting capabilities. Putting them in a fast, slick, complex airplane with a ton of switches, knobs, buttons and systems can be risky. But that’s who Cirrus is marketing their airplanes to, and they’re the only ones who can afford to fly them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disparaging these guys. They’re smart, fun, colorful personalities with whom I enjoy flying. I’m simply analying the personality traits that don’t transition well to aviation.
When you realize that the SR22 is as high as some of these pilots can get in the food chain without running into insurance limitations which lead to professional and/or multi-pilot crews, the risk becomes clear. I believe the risk is manageable, but it has to be countered with quality instruction, recurrent training, personal minimums, and good judgement.
I spend considerable time tailoring instructional techniques to the type of person I’m flying with. It’s critical that they understand the role their own attitude plays in safety, because at some point I’m going to get out of the plane, and they’re going be out there on their own.