Cirrus Safety: The Real Numbers

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This interesting story on the ditching of a Cirrus SR22 last weekend probably made the news for two reasons: It was a slow news day and the sinking airplane and inflated parachute made good visuals. Otherwise, it was an unremarkable event. A well-prepared pilot made good decisions, had the survival gear aboard and executed his plan. This sort of thing happens a handful of times a year in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

The main distinguisher was that it represented the 32nd time a Cirrus BRS/CAPS had been deployed intentionally or unintentionally and again focused our attention on the overall safety record of the Cirrus line. In a nutshell, despite the parachute system and stall/spin resistant wing, the Cirrus airplanes have, over a dozen years in the market, produced a middle-of-the-pack safety record compared to other GA models, but a fatal accident rate that's a little worse than average. Its percentage of accidents that are fatal is nearly 50 percent and possibly the highest in the industry. Clearly, if the BRS has helped reduce the fatal rate, it hasn't made it better than average. Why this is so is subject to speculation, but I addressed my theory on it in a previous blog.

The exact numbers sort out like this: First, the GA overall accident rate is 6.3/100,000 and the fatal rate is 1.2. The Cirrus combined overall rate is 3.2 and the fatal rate is 1.6. This data alone gives lie to the claim of some Cirrus bashers that the line has a terrible accident rate. It doesn't. Perhaps the perception that Cirrus airplanes crash more frequently results from that news story I mentioned in the lead. Cirrus accidents seem to get news coverage while Cessna crashes don't. The reality is that Cirrus airplanes are involved in accidents a little less than some models and a little more than others. But the likelihood of a Cirrus crash being fatal is higher than it is for other models, according to the accident data. (The actual numbers: 48 percent of SR22 accidents have involved fatalities; 56 percent of SR20s have.)

Comparisons with other models are useful, especially the Columbia/Corvalis. It has an overall accident rate higher than the Cirrus, at 3.9, but a fatal rate—at 1.0—that's lower. Why is this? Again, the reasons are not obvious, because the airplane compares favorably with the Cirrus models. The small-number paradox has some effect. And that's not that the Columbia/Corvalis has about 700 airframes while the Cirrus has over 5000. Rates are rates and exposure is exposure, so the measure is fair and equal. Small numbers mean a few accidents either way can swing the results noticeably. Cirrus has about 5 million fleet hours and in the scheme of things, that's not a big number.

People who insist that composite construction is the best way to build airplanes and that composites are much safer in a crash have to confront some mixed data. Controlled lab tests have shown that composites should do well in protecting occupants in crashes. The theoretical data NASA developed showed this. The field experience is quite different. Both the Jurassic metal 172 and 182 have lower fatal rates than the Cirrus or Columbia and both have much lower percentages of accidents that are fatal than do the Columbia, Cirrus or Diamond, all of which are composite. On the other hand, the Diamond line—the DA40 and DA42—have both the lowest overall and lowest fatal rates by a wide margin. The DA40 fatal rate is .42, less than a quarter of the SR20's fatal rate. Also, the DA40 has no incidence of post-crash fire, while about 16 percent of SR22 airplanes burned after crashing.

Pilot experience and skill obviously play a role here, but total hours of experience might not. Experience data for pilots involved in fatal accidents is sparse, but what data I could develop showed that Cirrus accident pilots had an average of 1454 hours total time, with 240 in type, while Columbia/Corvalis fatal accident pilots had 1631 total, with 237 in type. To my eye, there's no meaningful difference between the two.

So what accounts for this disparity in the accident rates? Could it be just a statistical anomaly that will wash out over more years of experience? That's quite possible, because between the Cirrus and Columbia, the rates aren't all that that different. But compared with the Diamonds, they're getting to the outer edge of that plausibility envelope. Yes, the DA40 is used a little differently than the SR20—more training, less long distance trips where weather is a factor. But there were plenty of SR20 training accidents, too. So I don't buy that it's all due to the way the airplanes are used.

Then what? In a previous blog, I mentioned that I thought risk homeostasis played some role here, although I don't know how much. I don't accept that it's no factor. The reason I think this is that after reading these hundreds of accident reports, I saw many examples of Cirrus pilots making what I would call edgy judgment calls. (The Norden crash I cited in a previous blogs was one of these.) I saw that in other types, too, such as the Mooney pilot who took off downwind 250 pounds over weight. It's just my impression that Cirrus accident pilots, as a group, seemed to have more than their share of what-what-was-he-thinking moments.

And this brings me back to the five- to-one sales ratio between Cirrus and the Columbia/Corvalis. These are like models, with similar performance and selling for similar prices. Virtually everyone in the industry I speak to attributes the Cirrus sales success to its marketing of BRS as an additional safety feature, the oft-mentioned "spouse factor." Five years ago, we surveyed Cirrus buyers and only a third said the parachute swayed them to buy. A third said it had no influence or they weren't sure. But I think the BRS has a much more powerful and subtle influence than that. I also think that BRS's potential was lumped into a general sentiment of Cirrus airplanes being safer, without much deep thought given to exactly what that meant. In other words, I think many buyers did not—and still don't—understand that the BRS's potential is not passive. It's not like seatbelts or airbags. It requires active intervention and possibly no small degree of skill to reach the decision to employ.

Consider this. There have been 83 fatal Cirrus accidents. If just half of those—about 42—had been BRS saves instead, the Cirrus fatal rate would be .82/100,000, substantially lower than the GA average. Acknowledging that if pigs had wings they could fly, it seems to me after all this analysis that Cirrus airplanes, for all their potential, aren't much different than other airplanes. They're only as safe as their owners make them. And thus far, with regard to fatal accidents, that's worse than average.

TSB accident report

Comments (59)

Well, I don't think it's too sporting to suggest insurance fraud on that Bahama crash. Best we take it at face value for now.

As far as R-LOCs, 27% of SR20 accidents and 26% of SR22 are due to that cause. That's about average for most models. Maybe a little below average. However, I didn't track how many of these result in hull loss. I think one or two might have.

The Cessna 182 is the R-LOC champion. It's in a league of its own, with 42%. Many of these smash the nosegear and crimp the firewall. If it weren't for those accidents, the 182 would be a lot safer than it is.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 12, 2012 10:57 AM    Report this comment

The BRS does not deploy automatically – somebody has to pull that lever. The question “Why didn’t more pilots pull the lever?” is an interesting one. I see a parallel between “reliance” upon the BRS and certitude regarding spin training. My theory (in both cases) goes like this: absent cumulo-granite or cumulo-cirrus clouds removing parts of an airplane in flight, the transition from a pleasant day to a tragedy (impact or stall/spin leading to impact) is an insidious, progressive one, the detection of which (and the interruption of which) apparently eludes hundreds of pilots each year. In the case of recovery from an “accidental” stall that results in a spin in close proximity to the ground, what would allow any rational person to believe that any pilot with his head that far up his ass would suddenly become Steve Canyon, by mere virtue of some high-altitude stall/spin training? In the case of making the decision to deploy the BRS, the pilot first has to realize that his situation is dire, and then accept that actually it’s unredeemable – that the only recourse is to “admit defeat,” accept the consequences, and hope for a better-than-fatal result of an under-canopy landing. That’s a lot to expect of somebody who just demonstrated enough bad judgment to get into that situation in the first place. In short, how can we expect the bad judgment that caused high peril to suddenly be replaced by good judgment, on the spot?

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | January 12, 2012 11:36 AM    Report this comment

"The question “Why didn’t more pilots pull the lever?” is an interesting one."

Thomas~

For the same reason military pilots sometimes delay too long using their ejection seats -- it can be a sign you have failed as a pilot.

In military squadrons at safety meetings, delayed ejection was a constant them, as in, "If you need to get out of the jet, get out. Don't stay in the jet in a futile effort trying to save it. We can always send the crash back and get a new jet."

Of course, not many GA pilots with BRS-capable airplanes get the same coaching or reinforcement at monthly squadron and wing safety meetings.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | January 12, 2012 11:58 AM    Report this comment

The airframe chute only works when the aircraft is relatively high and relatively slow and relatively under control. So how many GA accidents happen in that regime?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 12, 2012 12:49 PM    Report this comment

Paul, thanks for doing this research. It's fascinating (in a morbid way), and it's had me doing a lot of thinking about my decision making process and how I fly. I'm sure others feel the same way.

Posted by: Brian Cooper | January 12, 2012 1:49 PM    Report this comment

Brian...thanks. It's had an effect on me, too. Kind of challenged what I thought I knew.

Thomas, to your point, Russ Niles sent me a TSB accident report just released this morning. I put a link at the end of the blog: TSB accident report.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 12, 2012 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Mark says: "The airframe chute only works when the aircraft is relatively high and relatively slow and relatively under control. So how many GA accidents happen in that regime?" He may be right if he is talking only about the Cirrus. However, there are other systems out there and other aircraft that can make use of the chute fast, low, and out of control. Several LSA's have had saves in this regime. The Cirrus system should be redesigned because it gives a bad name to the "real" systems out there. If your chute doesn't work at max gross weight at max speed, something is wrong! Long ago, current thought was it was safer to be thrown clear of a car crash. In 15 years all single engine aircraft will have ballistic chutes.

Posted by: Jim Lee | January 12, 2012 9:09 PM    Report this comment

Let's add some facts to this speculation. First of all, the Cirrus CAPS Vpd is 133 knots--the demonstrated deployment speed. But it has successfully deployed at 187 knots and as low as 300 feet. It is believed to have failed at 270 knots, so the real-world number is between the two.

Speed is more critical than altitude. The higher the speed, the faster the deployment. Parachute loading and structure is a tradeoff between envelope speeds and size and weight of the canopy. BRS and Cirrus attempted to find the sweet spot to cover the largest practical envelope.

Of 32 deployments, one suffered a structural failure due to high speed and one failed to deploy properly. In fairness, I hardly think a 90 percent plus deployment rate is giving the system a bad name.

BRS systems aren't quite as reliable as personal parachutes, at least the CAPS version, but then the load factors are greater and so is the complexity.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2012 6:00 AM    Report this comment

The Cirrus parachute does NOT require that the plane be "relatively under control." At least one deployment was made while inverted. The parachute deployed properly and righted the airplane. The pound of rocket propellant in the parachute system is there to make sure that the parachute deploys correctly from any attitude.

Posted by: MICHAEL MURDOCK | January 13, 2012 7:20 AM    Report this comment

FWIW, I think it is WAY out of line to accuse someone one doesn't even know of insurance fraud, without a shred of evidence! It impressively shows the state of GA, though: We are own worst enemy! Shame!

Posted by: Thomass Borchert | January 13, 2012 7:40 AM    Report this comment

The Cirrus is a high performance aircraft. If you READ the accident reports, you see that the Cirrus accidents are more comparable to high performance Experimental accidents (and not "trainers" like C172's and Diamonds). The Canadian TSB accident report reads just like accidents that happen in Falcos and Glasairs.

Pilot training in C172's does not prepare you to be a P51 pilot. Small wings with high loadings require a lot more attention...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 13, 2012 7:51 AM    Report this comment

"Otherwise, it was an unremarkable event."

Actually, Paul, the Cirrus pilot involved, Dick McGlauglin, was extraordinary and very much remarkable. Not everything about aviation is about the plane; sometimes it's about the mission and the people. Dick has volunteered to serve humanitarian and medical missions one week a month since the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Dick has recruited several other COPA members to fly hard-to-find supplies to Haiti. He is a respected and popular member of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association who has taken up his aviation interest and helped build a Glasair on floats, gotten a bunch of ratings, and contributed to several aviation forums online.

So, the news story of an interesting person who had an unusual experience had legs. After all, not many Cessnas have a big red parachute in the azur blue waters of near the Bahamas, eh?!

For more early details of the emergency and Dick's decision to pull the CAPS parachute handle, please go to this blog: http://www.cirruspilots.org/blogs/pull_early_pull_often/archive/2012/01/09/early-reflections-on-caps-pull-32-by-dick-mcglaughlin-in-the-bahamas.aspx

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Well, first attempt to post the blog on the COPA website didn't work. For now, folks can find it prominently displayed on the COPA home page at www.cirruspilots.org

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 8:14 AM    Report this comment

As for the unfortunate speculation about insurance fraud, the details are more interesting than the speculation. Dick and his daughter Elaine had their planned trip to Haiti delayed by a couple of days as they had to overnight in Nassau, return to the US, fly commercial to Haiti and spend a few less days working in the medical centers. Also, the recovery of the plane was a bit complicated. It drifted due to the parachute having been reinflated when the Coast Guard helicopter approached. Apparently, the insurance claim adjuster had to search for it -- the plane had drifted some 25 miles when it was found. The engine manufacturer and others are quite interested in examining the loss of oil pressure before the sea water corrodes everything.

Pretty amazing how the details are different than the sweeping generalizations, eh?

Cheers Rick

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Rick, our anti-spam software strips URLs, but you can defeat it by dropping the http or www.

By no means am I meaning to take away from McGlauglin's work. i was referring to the event itself, not the people involved. Anyone who does relief work deserves recognition, such as the crew of our local Haiti relief group, Agape Flights, that ditched a Caravan on a return flight to Florida a while back.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2012 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Paul, thanks for the heads-up. Even the event was remarkable because it added data to the consideration of using CAPS over water. He and Elaine survived with no injuries. And they used the time to prepare for egress rather than having to fly into a conventional ditching.

Here's the link to the blog with early details of their accounts: www.cirruspilots.org/blogs/pull_early_pull_often/archive/2012/01/09/early-reflections-on-caps-pull-32-by-dick-mcglaughlin-in-the-bahamas.aspx

One key detail in Dick's account was his awareness of his performance, which he observed degrading as he got further into the power-off glide towards, but not far enough to reach, Andros Island. He told Miami Center that he would pull at 2000 feet and considers that statement a fixation that he would indeed pull. Wish more Cirrus pilots in bad situations had determined to pull the CAPS handle rather than persist in recovery all the way into a smoking hole.

Cheers Rick

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 8:36 AM    Report this comment

Paul, It is great that they strip spam out. What about ignorant, moronic and defaming comments? To suggest a doctor, flying (as he has done for years) to help some of the most unfortunate on earth, would TAKE HIS DAUGHTER, fly over OPEN OCEAN, and pull the chute to impact water MILES from the nearest deserted island might be "the perfect setup" to "collect hull insurance" is all of those. This is not name-calling, but a statement of fact: the inference is both illogical and appalling.

Posted by: Fabio Savoldelli | January 13, 2012 8:46 AM    Report this comment

"The Cirrus parachute does NOT require that the plane be "relatively under control."

The POH says it does. It recommends Wings Level, Above 2000' and less than 135kts or all bets are off. Basically it sets forth a rigid set of deployment criteria and recommends training/planning to accomplish successful usage. That means it's designed for a non-panic deployment at sufficient altitude, not for bad piloting stall(and then spin) at near pattern altitudes.

The American Yankee had the same "worse-than-average" label too. What fixed it was UN-training the idea that the plane flies like other 2-seat trainers. If you fly a Cirrus like a C172, you will get "surprised".

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 13, 2012 8:54 AM    Report this comment

Rick, you and I have discussed this at length and it suddenly occurs to me that maybe it is remarkable after all, that a pilot did what I would expect him to do: be prepared, analyze the options and execute. A classic OODA loop.

I'm trying to keep myself from becoming so cynical that I think good performance in the cockpit is so much the exception that it becomes remarkable. I guessnthe data sort of supports this conclusion, but I am fighting being dragged there, in the futile hope that the perfectibility of human nature will magically materialize.

I didn't mention this in the blog, but for warm water ditchings like this one, the egress and survival rate is 90 percent plus, with a lot of data. For the CAPS, the overall rate is just about the same, if you don't cherry pick the perfect deployments. But it's based on much smaller numbers. Also, for CAPS in water, there is the issue of back injury due to impact. Conventional ditching injuries usually consist of head and upper body injuries.

Take your pick, the way I see it. He described the impact as pretty hard. Conventional ditching survivors say the same. Many of them turn turtle and many have the windshield cave in, but these don't seem to be survival factors.

I'm not sure what I'd do in this circumstance, but one thing that sways me toward CAPS is that it improves probability of detection by an order of magnitude. That parachute is visible for miles and will likely remain inflated.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2012 9:03 AM    Report this comment

Mark's comment: The American Yankee had the same "worse-than-average" label too. What fixed it was UN-training the idea that the plane flies like other 2-seat trainers. If you fly a Cirrus like a C172, you will get "surprised".----

Same thing with the MU-2. As a former check runner, one of the best airplanes ever built if you fly it the way it was designed to be flown.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | January 13, 2012 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Where does this misinformation come from?

"The Cirrus parachute does NOT require that the plane be "relatively under control."

The POH says it does. It recommends Wings Level, Above 2000' and less than 135kts or all bets are off. Basically it sets forth a rigid set of deployment criteria and recommends training/planning to accomplish successful usage. That means it's designed for a non-panic deployment at sufficient altitude, not for bad piloting stall(and then spin) at near pattern altitudes. "

CAPS was not designed that way. The POH doesn't say those things.

I've got the first edition SR22 POH when I bought my plane in 2001. I have reviewed updates ever since, currently rev A10. Nowhere do I recall saying the things you claim. Specifically, the POH does not provide any rigid set of criteria. Instead, from the earliest days it says this:

"The following discussion is meant to guide your thinking about CAPS activation. It is intended to be informative, not directive. It is the responsibility of you, the pilot, to determine when and how the CAPS will be used."

And then it says this:

"However, it can be assumed that to minimize the chances of parachute entanglement and reduce aircraft oscillations under the parachute, the CAPS should be activated from a wings-level, upright attitude if at all possible."

Here's a video presentation that contains an overview of the history of CAPS deployments that gives lie to Mark's interpretation: vimeo.com/27887576

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Paul, your comment about back injury in CAPS landings in water was part of our keen interest in Dick's experience -- neither he nor his daughter were injured. We are hoping to get a look at the recorded data about impact forces.

So far, 6 CAPS landings in water: 1) a back injury, 2) 1 fatality and 3 survived with serious injuries from a spin barely slowed by a partial deployed parachute low and late, 3) 1 shoulder injury due to improper brace position, and 4,5,6 with no injuries. That back injury looks more like the anomaly rather than the expectation.

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 1:34 PM    Report this comment

Frankly, I would expect the back injury to be an outlier, given the energy absorbing seats and impact forces.

Is the airplane recovered or is it going to be?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 13, 2012 1:59 PM    Report this comment

Rick, I read the POH and it did not suggest that fast, low altitude, and inverted as being a "favored" deployment scenario. The optimal position is slowed, wings level, and with sufficient altitude(like the reasoned deployment as seen in the ditching example). That minimizes stresses and gives the best chance of deployment.

Oblivious a deployment in a panic situation (mid-air collision, passenger deployment, etc) are a real crap-shoot. There are too many variables involved.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 13, 2012 2:26 PM    Report this comment

"Rick, I read the POH and it did not suggest that fast, low altitude, and inverted as being a "favored" deployment scenario. The optimal position is slowed, wings level, and with sufficient altitude(like the reasoned deployment as seen in the ditching example). That minimizes stresses and gives the best chance of deployment.

Oblivious a deployment in a panic situation (mid-air collision, passenger deployment, etc) are a real crap-shoot. There are too many variables involved. "

Well this is just pure common sense. Of course you want to be smack in the middle of the deployment envelope, IF POSSIBLE.

Adding a BRS that only deploys correctly in a perfect glide is sort of missing the whole point, no?

Posted by: Patrick Underwood | January 13, 2012 2:47 PM    Report this comment

Paul asked "Is the airplane recovered or is it going to be?" Yes, the plane has been recovered and folks are on their way to extract key components for investigation. Apparently, it took an aerial overflight to locate the plane because they found it some 25 miles away! While the parachute is great for seeing the plane from afar, it also acted as a sail! Obviously, the engine manufacturer is interested in investigating the loss of oil pressure. Interestingly, this is the first Cirrus accident involving the Avidyne R9 avionics, that both Avidyne and the NTSB are interested in learning more. I'm hoping to get the recovered data so we can visualize the dynamics of the deployment and water impact, since Dick admits to having forgotten to turn off the masters, so the PFD would be recording through impact.

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 13, 2012 3:35 PM    Report this comment

"Adding a BRS that only deploys correctly in a perfect glide is sort of missing the whole point, no?"

I think Paul Bertorelli was making the point that the chute has NOT decreased fatalities. My point was you don't NEED the chute if you stay ahead of the plane in the first place. Reality is that CAPS/BRS is no guaranty of anything.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 13, 2012 5:20 PM    Report this comment

Rick, throughout my extensive research on this subject, I found a great divide between Cirrus owners and admirers who like CAPS/BRS and skeptics who think the whole idea is bogus or at least overblown.

The distorted conclusion from the POH, above, is an example of that bias. POHs have all kinds of statements and warnings that describe the ideal without acknowledging the limits of actual reality or the way owners use their airplanes.

Even a casual, intellectually honest reading of the Cirrus and BRS record would reveal that it has, on several occasions, functioned outside what is imagined to be its actual ideal operating limitations.

I don't see any way for Cirrus or BRS to address this. Ultimately, I think it resides between the ears of Cirrus owners to know the practical limitations of the system and to remain mentally in the game to capitalize on it. That second aspect, I think, is the real challenge and it is daunting.

As I read over this accident reports for Cirrus and others, I had that uneasy feeling that I could imagine myself in the seat and being unable to execute on the right decision quickly enough to matter.

It's sobering.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 14, 2012 6:04 AM    Report this comment

"The distorted conclusion from the POH, above, is an example of that bias."

Wrong. It's no different than padding takeoff distances 25% or rounding up fuel consumption rates when planning. It's not bias against the aircraft, it's called SAFETY.

The unsafe aspect is (and has been) the notion that the CAPS is a cure-all. Safe people instinctively know better. Unsafe people assume the best in their POH. Choose wisely.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 14, 2012 8:05 AM    Report this comment

"My point was you don't NEED the chute if you stay ahead of the plane in the first place. "

Ah, yes. And that's why we have so few accidents involving common senses, obvious scenarios, right? What you are saying is basically: If humans weren't fallible, they wouldn't fall. Well, duh! What you are also implicitly saying is: If humans do fall, they deserve to be punished by death. Well, Cirrus Aircraft and Cirrus pilots beg to differ. I, for one, am glad they do.

Posted by: Thomass Borchert | January 14, 2012 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Paul, IMHO, your work actually contributes to addressing and diminishing the bias against the parachute system. Mark's posts in this thread are examples of that bias, an overstatement for effect of the role of CAPS -- he calls it a cure-all and denigrates people who assume the best in the POH. Not much that I care to do about that bias. What I do care about is providing others with factual information about what we know has happened. 1) deployments were survivable from 34 to 187 KIAS airspeed, 2) deployments were survivable from 300 feet to 13,000 feet, 3) one deployment above 300 KIAS ripped the parachute off the airplane and the pilot died, 4) deployments in descents below 500 feet have killed people but not everyone, 5) about 105 people in 60% of Cirrus fatal accidents died in scenarios where other pilots pulled the red handle and survived, 6) twice the system didn't function that resulted in airworthiness directives to address design issues, 7) in all deployments within design parameters 100% of the people aboard survived.

And for sure, your unease at your ability, or inability, to execute the right decision is my hypothesis as to why those 105 people died. Look for Cirrus and COPA collaboration to continue to address that unease for Cirrus pilots. Those with bias, ...

Cheers Rick

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 14, 2012 11:35 AM    Report this comment

When I was writing these articles and others, I went back and researched what Cirrus and BRS said and promised. BRS has claimed a lot of "saves" which may or may not have been fatals without the system. But if the survivors survived, who cares?

Cirrus never advanced the notion that, as Mark claims, CAPS would be a cure-all. It was always enhanced safety or a second chance kind of sentiment. I can't fault them for overselling the system.

I haven't heard Cirrus owners describe CAPS as a cure-all, either. If anything, some of them have expressed doubts to me and asked what I thought of its efficacy. I've tried to remain objective in assessing this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 14, 2012 12:12 PM    Report this comment

This may be a bit off topic (Cirrus), but in contrast to this discussion of what might be 'wrong' with the Cirrus safety record, does anybody have any opinions about Diamond Aircraft's safety record, and what they may be doing 'right' that others don't?

Posted by: Brian Cooper | January 14, 2012 8:50 PM    Report this comment

"I went back and researched what Cirrus and BRS said and promised."

What is obvious (with no bias) is that CAPS, Airbags, 26G seats, cuffed wings, etc etc DON'T WORK if the Pilot can't handle a high performance aircraft. The Cirrus line is getting a bad name because of it's PILOTS. It does not fly like their trainers did and selling "safety" can mask the requirement for the need for better pilot skills.

That's why Diamond is working out to be safer; it's a low performance aircraft and therefore "easier" for pilots to transition to without too much difference.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 15, 2012 8:25 AM    Report this comment

Mark is right -- it's not the plane, it's us, the pilots. On that I whole heartedly agree.

As for Diamond, they indeed have an enviable safety record, for which I give them great credit. Well done.

Now, if they had sold a few more airplanes than the 1300 or so in the air with fewer accidents, then we could realize some improvements in accident rates.

Posted by: Rick Beach | January 15, 2012 12:30 PM    Report this comment

I agree with many here... let's face it, it has to be used to work. How many, honestly now, actually practice the "motions" (procedures) of an emergency scenario(s) while on a cross country leg? I ask this because I do it and continue to do it. Do yourself a favor if you are not already, run through the emergency checklists and go through the motions. You do that and that action will be in your mind...waiting to be launched just as the chute is, if needed. In closing, the numbers?... more plane than pilot skill... low, slow and dirty and no procedure training and the false belief of "I can get her down and not pop the chute".

Posted by: Dane Knowlton | January 16, 2012 1:52 AM    Report this comment

I can tell you a lot of things Diamonds does right. I can also tell you why they don't sell as many airplanes.

Diamond uses a much higher quality composite and better design of their crash cage. Columbia used a similar set up. Cirrus has reportedly improved over the years, but their original planes were made much more like an experimental.

Diamond also uses braided stainless fuel lines to prevent fires. Lastly, Diamond builds around a much broader concept of performance than any other manufacturer. Diamond emphasised many items which buyers are less concerned with than cruise speed and load. (especially the totally phony full fuel range stat).

I can tell you when selling Diamonds and Mooneys that we lost sales to Cirrus because we never talked to their customers. We rarely lost a competitive sale. They spent much more money on demo days and other marketing than anyone else.

Cirrus was getting people into their planes who never comparison shopped. Also, COPA members have a lower accident rate than non members. Take those two factors into consideration and you might find something different about those pilots.

Paul, you keep talking about composites versus other. I keep saying not all composites are the same. Not all other is the same either - Mooney versus aluminum for instance. If you have done any number crunching in a way that would isolate the safety cage performance I think you will find differences.

Posted by: Eric Warren | January 16, 2012 3:13 AM    Report this comment

"If you have done any number crunching in a way that would isolate the safety cage performance I think you will find differences."

To accurately isolate this effect, you'd need a lot more data than is available in NTSB accident reports. You'd need to measure cabin damage and deflection uniformly, you'd need good impact force data and information on injuries. As far as know, this data isn't available uniformly for all models, if it's available at all.

But it is possible to make some general observations. Incidence of injury is one. In the Cirrus, it's 15 percent, but half that in the Cessna 182 and only 4 percent in the Columbia. On the other hand, the Diamonds have a 26 percent incidence of injury. Because of the small numbers effect, this data isn't all that useful but it does prove this: Absent better information, field experience doesn't show that composites are as crash resistant as some have claimed.

Post-crash fire is another data point. In the SR22, post-crash fire has a 16 percent incidence. It's 14 percent in the Columbia and 11 percent in the Cessna 182. It's zero percent for the DA40. One reason for this is the braided fuel lines you mentioned, but the bigger reason is that Diamond puts aluminum fuel cells between two heavy spars, providing the best fuel protection of any light GA aircraft.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2012 6:21 AM    Report this comment

Having flown all these models and having crunched all this data, I don't accept the notion that all of the differences are due to pilot skill, or lack thereof. There is simply no reason to believe that pilots of Diamond airplanes are more skilled and make fewer mistakes than those flying Cirrus airplanes. If anything, the reverse may be true.

Just consider handling. The DA40 is extremely tolerant of abusive control input at high angles of attack. It therefore has a near zero incidence of stall/spin-related accidents, compared to 16 percent for the SR22 and 7 percent for the SR20. Diamond critics say, "well, it's a low-performance airplane." But its performance is similar to the SR20. The Cessna 150, which is lower performance by far, has a much higher incidence of stall/spin than the DA40.

Further supporting the argument that design contributes to crash outcomes is the Cessna 182. Fully 58 percent of 182 accidents are R-LOCs, the absolute highest in the industry by far. And most of these are the same. Because of its nose heaviness, the airplane lands nose first and/or gets into a crow hop that tanks the nosegear and bends the firewall.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2012 6:53 AM    Report this comment

I suppose you could argue that all of these pilots are idiots, but the fact is, with a pattern like that, there are design implications, too. Design can have the effect of making it a little harder--or a little easier--for the pilot to prang the airplane. When you look at Diamond's design philosophy and the crash outcomes, you can see at least faint outlines of what appears to be just a safer airplane than older designs.

The coarse numbers, which is all we have, seem to support this. Composite is part of it, but my opinion is the overall design is more important than what you make the airplane out of so I remain skeptical of the claim that composite airplanes have or should have better crash survival qualities. They well may be. It just that the field data doesn't show that.

As for the Cirrus airplanes, if there is something fundamentally flawed about them that keeps them from having a better safety record, I can't see what that is. They're not quite as benign in high alpha as the Diamonds, but they're not awful, either. The split leading edge wing seems to perform as claimed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2012 6:54 AM    Report this comment

"When you look at Diamond's design philosophy and the crash outcomes, you can see at least faint outlines of what appears to be just a safer airplane than older designs."

You might just be imagining that advantage. Read up on NTSB CEN12CA085 where an old design hit a tree on landing, cartwheeled into another tree at 75kts, totally destroying the aircraft in a ravine (and the pilot walked away basically unhurt).

Compare that outcome to a new design on CEN12FA037 with a rather classic CAPS situation. Reading that accident would give me pause for ever pulling that handle.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 16, 2012 10:14 AM    Report this comment

It's possible I have some bias, which is why I said faint outlines. But I've done what you haven't: I've read *all* the accident reports and run all the numbers.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2012 10:45 AM    Report this comment

It's kinda hard to draw "outlines" when a large number of minor accidents never even make it to the NTSB. It gets even harder to make "outlines" when the accident reports are what I would call outrageously incomplete(like CEN12CA085).

Reading the reports is OK; what's interesting is what's not reported. Just "reading" the reports gives a better correlation for the need for filing a flight plan than it does for divining type safety.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 16, 2012 11:17 AM    Report this comment

That may be true. But it's the best data available and we work with what we've got. It is possible to draw conclusions from this data, as long one observes the caveats related lack of detail.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 16, 2012 11:32 AM    Report this comment

I was sort of hoping you could figure out some sort of searchable thing that would eliminate impacts that would never be survivable and compare, but I guess that's not conclusive anyway. I think it was the second DA20 fatality where the pilot died with the cage in great shape. IIRC, his son had a broken leg. That just sucked.

That reminds me of one of diamonds "cheats" - the fixed seats. They may save lives but some margin of customers don't like them, including me. I am tall. 2 hours in the DA40 is about as bad as 4 in the Ovation. Ergonomics is totally individual though. My build makes me uncomfortable in the Cirrus and many pipers as well. The Diamonds and Cessnas are just okay.

The side stick hasn't been brought up here. It usually gets a binary response.

Posted by: Eric Warren | January 16, 2012 1:30 PM    Report this comment

"It is possible to draw conclusions from this data"

I agree, but they are very course inferences. That's what I was alluding to when I said that Cirrus accidents had an eery similarity to Falco and Glasair accidents in the database. High performance demands higher skills and attention. It's not that theses planes are dangerous in any way, it's just that they need to be flown correctly from start-up to shutdown.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 16, 2012 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Impact safety is as much about a person's ability to withstand high Gs as the airplane's ability to keep high Gs out of the cabin. Old, heavy, and out-of-shape people aren't anywhere near as resilient as young, thin, and fit people, I’m personally sorry to say. The sparse accident statistics don't include anything but age in this regard, which further muddies the usefulness of the injury and death information.

Also adding to the difficulty is that if a seat is designed to limit a 170 lb person to 26 Gs, it will subject a 85 lb person to roughly 52 Gs. Crash safety design can’t yet cover every eventuality.

It was mentioned above that little or no information is available in the crash reports on the overall airframe deformations of the crash airplanes. Oddly, that turns out to not be very useful information. Composite structures tend to spring back, and show little obvious damage, unless they are completely torn apart. What is genuinely surprising, though, is that metal airplanes also tend to spring back to their general, pre-impact shape, with only a bit of wrinkling and lots of moderately bent parts, even though the aircraft nose and engine had been shoved back to (and even partly into) the cabin during the impact event. NASA crash test films that show this effect are amazing. Of course, these tests were for typical landing and moderate CFIT accidents -- not the smoking hole type, where only the biggest chunks are recognizable.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 17, 2012 1:42 AM    Report this comment

Despite the unknowns and random exceptions in crash dynamics, there are lots of little design details that would make all crashes more survivable. There would be a weight penalty for each detail, though, and buyers are thought to prefer payload to non-productive weight that only an engineer understands. On the other hand, an (also heavy) aircraft parachute is relatively new, technically interesting, and seductively reassuring; i.e., more marketable.

Personally, I wish the aircraft with parachutes had better records. But, as Paul says, the homeostasis implications are strong. Another sticking point is that the chute usually has to be deployed before it is undeniable that it had been the only survivable option; and this arguably makes many pilots unwilling or unprepared to deploy the chute in time.

That's a terrible Catch-22, and it argues for using the design safety weight budget to improve crash survivability rather than adding a parachute. Of course, a designer can do both, but it would require a still larger airplane to carry the added weight and preserve payload.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 17, 2012 1:54 AM    Report this comment

"To accurately isolate this effect, you'd need a lot more data than is available in NTSB accident reports. You'd need to measure cabin damage and deflection uniformly, you'd need good impact force data and information on injuries. As far as know, this data isn't available uniformly for all models, if it's available at all."

Paul the ntsb did a study to gather that data in the 80's, that's where the new higher g, dynamic, and warped floor seat requirements came from - because they found seats came adrift in accidents that would have been survivable.

To Mr. Lanchesters point the problem is imho the faa is focused on system safety because that's what works for military and commercial. But for small ga I think the time/money would be better spent in crashworthiness. And human factors.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | January 17, 2012 6:34 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Noel, I agree with your conclusion for small ga. Crash safety design is easy to do and not expensive to manufacture, but it adds a bit of weight, so it doesn't get done as much as it could be.

Cirrus is to be commended for committing a non-trivial amount of weight to its pioneering parachute method for improving safety. It is unfortunate that the top-level safety numbers don't strongly support their decision to incorporate a parachute yet, but the numbers problem may be due mostly to the very limited crash data.

I also agree with your comment about human factors, and I find today's digital/integrated displays and flight management systems to be a human factors travesty, in practice. They seem to have provided no overall safety improvement, and have been implicated in the deteriorating situational awareness and airmanship of pilots. Also, the lack of standardization in these ad hoc, digital systems is proliferating many different, platform-dependent, nested menu schemes, along with arcane sequences of button pushing/turning protocols. The classic, standardized T arrangement of instruments is "dead," and nothing so reassuringly uniform has replaced it. But, these are new subjects.

Posted by: S. Lanchester | January 18, 2012 1:45 AM    Report this comment

"Paul the ntsb did a study to gather that data in the 80's,"

I'm aware of this and also the NASA research done on crash forces in composite hulls. But none of this helps us with how the actual modern airplanes are performing in real crashes.

What S. Lanchester says is true. Cirrus made serious and robust efforts, but the top line numbers don't support much, if any effect. At least given the limitations of the minimal data we can develop.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 18, 2012 5:44 AM    Report this comment

"the top line numbers don't support much, if any effect."

Which is a ringing enforcement that PREVENTION is far more important (in Aviation) than crash worthiness numbers. Anyone who ever assumes that planes are inherently safe should not be a PIC; that leads to complacency.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2012 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Sorry, that's "ringing endorsement". I was complacent with my spell checker and it lead to an accident...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2012 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Mark, That's a common point you made, but one I really never get. "Prevention", as you mean it, is by far the number one place where effort and resources are spent already. In fact, it's to the point that it crowds out almost everything else to the point of counter productivity.

Our grand fathers did ninety percent of the innovation in aviation while our fathers did very little. Presently, a lot of innovation from other industries is finally being applied to aviation.

I have to ask, do you think too much effort is presently spent on crash worthiness?

Posted by: Eric Warren | January 18, 2012 12:52 PM    Report this comment

"it lead to an accident..."

You seem to be accident prone! That's "led" not "lead," an all too common mistake.

Posted by: R Boswell | January 18, 2012 1:11 PM    Report this comment

Well spotted, R Boswell. I missed that one too. I'll 7600 for a while and find my dictionary...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 18, 2012 3:04 PM    Report this comment

Ah, while we're having fun...

Another all-too-common mistake is to fail to hyphenate the phrase "all too common" when used adjectively before a noun. Do not hyphenate when used after a noun. The mistake of using lead in place of led is all to common. (I've made it enough myself to know.)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 19, 2012 7:36 PM    Report this comment

In round numbers, the cost of ownership of the Cirrus BRS is $100 a month, about what I pay for liability and hull insurance for my '68 Bonanza V35A.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | January 21, 2012 2:13 AM    Report this comment

You wrote: "Of 32 deployments, one suffered a structural failure due to high speed and one failed to deploy properly. In fairness, I hardly think a 90 percent plus deployment rate is giving the system a bad name.

BRS systems aren't quite as reliable as personal parachutes, at least the CAPS version, but then the load factors are greater and so is the complexity."

Aren't quite as reliable as personal parachutes?...how about not even in the same universe. I can just imagine how many jumpers would accept a 1:32 failure rate, or double or even quadruple that; no happening.

The data suggests that BRS technology just does not work very dependably at the weights and speeds of a Cirrus. It would be interesting to see what would happen to the accident rate if Cirrus ditched the BRS and returned all of that useful load, and a little more forward CG, to the aircraft.

Posted by: Bob Newman | January 21, 2012 10:18 PM    Report this comment

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