How a Small Plane Crash Looks When Passengers Are About to Survive Rather Than About to Die

Seventeen seconds of video that explain why one brand of small aircraft has become the most popular in the world.

Let me explain the background of the amazing video below, shot two days ago in Australia.

It's been 15 years since the Cirrus SR20 made its debut as "the plane with the parachute." At the time of its introduction, and in some grizzled-aviator circles even now, the idea of a parachute for the entire airplane met hoots of derision. After all, "real" pilots should always be ready to glide an airplane to a landing if its engine failed or something else went wrong. Handling a "power-off approach" is part of regular pilot training. So isn't a parachute like a crutch, or training wheels, for flyers who really need to up their game?* 

But people other than those grizzled aviators generally had an "Are you crazy???? Of course you'd want a parachute!" reaction. What if the pilot passed out? Or it was nighttime and you couldn't see where you were going? Or you were over mountains or forests will no smooth landing site? Or the pilot hadn't practiced power-off landings for a while? Or any of a dozen other concerns.

Because of questions like these, the original SR20 and later, higher-powered SR22 have become the best-selling aircraft of their type worldwide. My book Free Flight, and this Atlantic article taken from it, describe the modern-day-Wright-brothers saga of the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, who created Cirrus and made it a very successful business in Duluth, Minnesota. The cover, at right, showed a Cirrus under parachute during one of its pre-certification tests. My book China Airborne describes, inter alia, how and why the Cirrus plant, still in Duluth, is now owned by the Chinese government via one of its aerospace ministries. 

The first Cirrus parachute-pull came nearly 12 years ago, under circumstances in which Charles Lindbergh, Patty Wagstaff, and Bob Hoover together would have had trouble gliding the plane safely down. (Because of a maintenance error, one aileron came loose, making the plane essentially uncontrollable.) Since then the ~6000 Cirrus planes around the world have been involved in about 50+ parachute descents. You can see the full list here, at a site  maintained by Rick Beach for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, COPA. After nearly all the episodes, the pilot and passengers have walked away unhurt.

The latest parachute pull happened this past weekend, in Australia, over a suburb west of Sydney. Someone was on hand to capture its descent for an enlightening YouTube video, as shown below. 

This video is only 32 seconds long, and if you watch the section starting at time 0:15 you will have a dramatically clearer idea of the difference these parachutes can make. As a story in the Australian paper The Age put it, 

The Cirrus planes are the only light planes in the world to come with their own parachute system, something that has helped it become the most popular piston engine plane in the world.

“If they [the passengers] had been in any other aircraft they wouldn’t be going home tonight to their families,“ said a staff member at Regal Air, which sells and does maintenance on the aircraft from its headquarters at Bankstown Airport.


For more details of the episode and pictures of the plane and passengers on the ground see reports from Australian Broadcasting, Sky News Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, plus The Age

The YouTube video also dramatizes why, during the ~1200 flying hours I have spent in Cirruses since buying a very early-model SR20 in 2000, it has been a back-of-the-mind reassurance to know the parachute is there, even though I've never come remotely close to circumstances where I felt I should consider using it. Also you will see why for non-pilot passengers, starting with my wife, its presence makes such a difference in peace of mind. In many small airplanes, there really is no reassuring answer to the question: OK, what if the pilot passes out? I've never come remotely close to passing out, either, but that's not a fully convincing answer. The parachute creates a very important Plan B option.


For the record: I have no relationship with the Cirrus company other than as a two-time customer and a journalistic chronicler. I'm on friendly terms with many of the company's current and previous officials. I bought an early SR20 in 2000 and flew it for six years until we moved to China, at which point I sold it. On return four years ago I bought a new-to-me 2006-model SR22. We're traveling in that for our American Futures journeys.


* Reader A.H. in Texas writes about this attitude:

That sounds very much like British RAF in the last months of World War I, when German pilots began using the first early parachutes. The British supposedly refused to adopt them because they were convinced that pilots in a crippled machine would "lose their nerve" and jump, rather remain fully committed to saving the aircraft. Appalling, in retrospect.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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