Plane Crashes, 3 People Walk Away

By James Fallows

Thanks to many people who have written in about the small-plane crash on Tuesday night near the airport in Danbury, Connecticut (KDXR for you aviation people). This gets my attention because the plane that went down was the same Cirrus model whose design and business concepts I've often written about (book, article, different book) and that I now fly.*

It got attention in the non-flying world because the crash ended up in a "save." The most famous feature of the Cirrus line of aircraft -- which are now the most popular small propeller planes in the world**, from a company founded in Duluth, Minnesota that is now owned by the Chinese state aerospace corporation -- is the parachute for the whole plane. These are designed to save everyone on board (up to four people) when the alternative is a crash. Here is how the parachute looked in test deployments -- bringing the whole plane down more or less level to the ground.

CirrusChute1.jpg


Now, here is a post-crash picture on Tuesday night in Danbury.

danbury12213.jpg

It's not entirely clear why the plane is pointing nose-downward. Perhaps the parachute was deployed late, so that its "risers" that level out the descent did not have time to deploy fully? (Here is a diagram, from my book Free Flight, of what happens with the risers in the few seconds it takes the chute to deploy fully. Read it from right to left.) Perhaps the plane got hung up on something near the ground? Whatever the reason, the cockpit and cabin were intact, the pilot and passengers were unharmed, and all aboard walked away.
RisersJpg.jpg
Why did the plane crash at all? For one reason or another, the plane's engine apparently stopped running a few miles short of the Danbury airport. A mechanical failure of some sort? Simply running out of gas, or "fuel starvation," which is statistically the most common cause of small-plane engine failures? All this will be sorted out eventually. The Cirrus has a very sophisticated systems-monitoring device that would presumably survive this crash and that records second-by-second measurements of most flight variables.

For the moment the reaction in pilot-land is "the penalty for bad luck or mistakes should not be death." The consequences of engine failure, at night, over wooded terrain would usually be quite grim. Or, as a local fire official put it to WTNH:

A parachute safety system deployed to help bring the plane down slowly. Airport officials say the pilot reported engine problems 5 miles out and when they were 2 miles out they pulled the parachute.

"They were nervous 'cause it just happened but other than that it was just like a normal accident. They were upset that the plane had crashed but they were fine," said Asst. Chief Steve Williams. "The airplane's designed for this. The company that designs this airplane sells this parachute as a safety item and obviously it worked. 3 people are walking around with no injuries because of the parachute system."

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* The plane that crashed was a Cirrus SR-20. This was the original Cirrus model, one of which I owned and flew from its introduction in 2000 until I moved to China in 2006, when I sold it. For the past two years I've had a vintage-2006 Cirrus SR-22, a faster and more powerful version of the same basic aircraft design. 

** As several readers have pointed out, the Cirrus has in recent years been the best-selling small plane model, but there are still vastly more Cessna 172s in service around the world. Unlike cars, the "useful life" of an airplane is often measured in decades -- topic for another time.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/plane-crashes-3-people-walk-away/272487/