Cirrus Parachute: A Successful Failure?
My blog last week on an imaginary trip in a single-engine airplane across California's Sierra west of Reno was a little experiment that seems to have failed miserably. Or at least I think it did. I was trying to tease out of the audience a little rumination over whether having a BRS-equipped airplane like a Cirrus would fundamentally affect risk judgment. Most readers, if they addressed it all, shrugged off the parachute as having no effect on the go/no-go decision.
The scenario I posited wasn't actually imaginary, but was based on this accident which occurred February 6, 2005 in Norden, California. The pilot departed Reno/Tahoe Airport for an IFR flight at night to Oakland, California across the Sierra in IMC, but with no ice in the forecast. What I didn't mention was that the airplane was equipped with the "no hazard" version of TKS. That system's not approved for flight in known icing but is, nonetheless, an effective measure against icing and is intended to provide a means of escape. Whether it was used in this accident is unknown. The pilot, by the way, had about 473 hours total time, with 69 hours in type. To my mind, that's relatively low time to tackle night IMC over high terrain, icing or not.
Most who commented on the blog said they would not have made the flight under these circumstances, a few said they would. Personally, I would not have. The deal breaker is the high terrain. I have just enough mountain experience to know that mountains make their own weather, it can change fast and there's no necessity to fly anywhere that would make me tackle this at night and I don't scare that easily. Also, I occasionally cancel a flight when I think I could do it simply to demonstrate to myself that I'm not susceptible to gethomeitis. I ended up agreeing with reader John Wilson, who said he wouldn't do it either, but it's not unthinkable. For those nonplussed by the mountains, I wouldn't try to talk you out of it. Have at it.
Still, the nagging question remains for me. Why would a sub-500-hour pilot charge into these conditions? Did the TKS system provide a false sense of security? Did the BRS? Or the two together? The icing seemed to put the airplane into an uncontrolled descent within two minutes. Really? Or could this simply be a case of an inexperienced pilot who had never seen much ice simply panicking and diving for the deck trying to escape it? We'll probably never know.
I spent two weeks in December researching the Cirrus accident record and comparing it to other like aircraft. The type of scenario described above was hardly isolated. I frequently asked myself…why did this pilot do this? Take on this weather or this terrain? And having gotten into the jam by his own hand, why didn't he extract himself the same way by using the BRS? Easily more than half of the 83 fatal Cirrus crashes could have been survival stories, yet they were not? Why not? No one knows.
Having pored over these reports, my opinion is that there's definitely more risk homeostasis going on than many will admit to. Risk homeostasis is the phenomenon whereby someone will assume more risk if he or she is aware of some sort of magic bullet as the ultimate backstop. In this case, that would be the Cirrus' BRS. This theory is nothing new and has been debated.
But what hasn't been discussed much outside the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (and Cirrus itself) is why these pilots in extremis aren't resorting to the parachute. Its deployment record and survival rate is good and although it alone hasn't made the Cirrus accident rate better than average, pilots who deploy the parachute within its envelope have survived to fly another day. A dozen of the airplanes have been repaired and flown again. Not bad.
I think what's going on is this: For a pilot of less than exceptional talent and competence, flying a TAA like the Cirrus doesn't leave much headroom when things aren't going just as expected. When things really go south, you fall back on your lowest level of training and externalities get dumped from the thought stream sooner rather than later. My guess is that BRS isn't well trained enough, isn't well understood enough and isn't well-enough incorporated into the OODA loop to survive the tunnel vision that any about-to-have-an-accident pilot is going to suffer. In other words, they don't pull the handle because they can't pull the handle.
The overarching question is can they be trained to? Maybe. COPA is noodling some ideas to do this very thing. Not to be too cynical about it, but I don't think it's going to have much effect on the overall accident pattern. Unless someone comes up with an exceptionally clever way of training up for this problem, I think many GA pilots just don't have the analytical capability to make these decisions under duress.
It does, after all, get complicated. If you're thinking about deploying the parachute, you need to do it within the system's envelope. So as your mind starts to turn to mush, you have to be aware of that. Yet another thing to parse as you try to sort out whatever problem is making you think about the parachute in the first place. In the Norden accident, it's thought that the pilot deployed beyond the system's maximum speed. Was he aware of speed? Or just task-focused on a hell-for-leather descent? Who knows? Perhaps the fact that most readers blew off even discussing the parachute is telling. Maybe we don't think about it enough.
By the way, the forgoing is not to suggest I don't approve of BRS. I think the system is a good idea, I don't think it has been oversold and I'd want it in any airplane I could afford, especially an LSA. But thinking something is a good idea and having that idea have a meaningful impact on accident rates are two different things.
Later in the week, I'll have another commentary on the actual numbers my research yielded.
For a research paper on risk homeostasis, click this link.