The fleet of older Cirrus airframes could face further depreciation because of pricey parachute upkeep. We look at the economics and the CAPS repack process.
Cirrus owners rave about having the CAPS parachute system as the ultimate safety backup, but if you're shopping for a used Cirrus, know this: Many used airframes are coming up on the required 10-year parachute repack cycle. This work is expensive, requires considerable down time and can only be accomplished by select and highly specialized shops.
This should be taken into consideration when negotiating the sale price and if you pull the trigger on an airplane that needs the repack, you should know what you're getting into first. In this article, we'll take a look at this major service event, including the mandatory repack requirement and what you should expect for costs. During our research, we discovered that all repacks aren't created equally.
The airframe parachute that's part of every certificated Cirrus is courtesy of Cirrus Design co-founder Alan Klapmeier, who lived to tell about his own midair collision early in his flying career. He wanted the original SR20 to have a life-saving device for such an emergency or any other situation where a pilot loses control of the airplane. In a nutshell, the CAPS, made by BRS Ballistic Recovery Systems for Cirrus, consists of a 51- square-foot packed parachute that's installed mid-fuselage in a storage bay. The parachute is connected to an extraction harness that's driven by a solid propellant rocket motor that's roughly the size of an aerosal paint can.
Buying a Cirrus means accepting the 10-year and $10,000-plus parachute repack interval. Tearing off and then repairing the fiberglass parachute hatch is major work on first generation models.
As for pilot interaction, it's supposed to be a simple conceptpulling the parachute handle in the headliner deploys the solid-fuel rocket out of the hatch that covers the concealed compartment where the parachute is stored. As the rocket carries the parachute rearward from the back of the fuselage, the embedded airframe harness straps release from the fuselage. Within seconds, the parachute canopy inflates, controlling the aircraft to a safe rate of descent. To date, there have been close to 40 CAPS deployments, according to a running tally kept by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association.
The CAPS falls under the Type Certificate of every certified SR20 and SR22. Interestingly, BRS doesn't own an STC for the system they build, but we're told this could change and may simplify maintenance procedures. Cirrus owns the rocket design and rigs, packs and ships the parachutes. The 10-year repack requirement can be satisfied by installing an overhauled parachute or a new one. Owners rarely chose then latter given the approximate $15,000 cost, according to the shops we interviewed. An overhauled kit costs approximately $9000, not including labor. Further, the 10-year repack isn't the only CAPS maintenance to deal with. There's also a six-year replacement of the line cutters used in the parachute deployment. All of the shops we spoke with said they complete the repack within 20 to 30 hours for pre-2004 aircraft, which are the first-generation SR20 and SR22s. The job on second-generation aircraft are expected to be a lot easier, thanks to direct parachute access. More on that in a bit.
Many owners naturally assume the CAPS replacement can be performed by any Cirrus service center, but this isn't the case. That's because of the specialized work and certificated training that tags along with the parachute repack. Due to the propellant-powered rocket that's part of the parachute deployment, the work is partially governed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As if FAA oversight isn't enough government to answer to, the ATF performs regular inspections of the shops, who are required to have special facilities equipped with cabinets to securely store the rockets, among other requirements. Techs who handle the rocket are background checked. Further, each technician that performs a CAPS replacement is exclusively trained and licenced by Cirrus. Unlike most airframe work, the parachute repack process can't be taught from one technican to the other on the shop level. Each needs to receive specialized training at Cirrus.
The other prerequisite for a CAPS repack includes the shop's ability to perform a bonding repair to the airframe's composite structure following the CAPS replacement. This is true for first-generation aircraft only. Thanks to a redesigned parachute access panel that was designed in the baggage area bulkhead of second-generation Cirrus models, the finishing work that follows a CAPS replacement on these is greatly simplifiedalmost making the service event a while-you-wait process. In these aircraft, the parachute is accessed and fished out from a bulkhead in the baggage bay. But for G1 models, cosmetic work is a critical part of the process that often requires a minimum of five days downtime.
We surveyed several shops who've accomplished a fair number of repack jobs, and all stressed the importance of delivering an aircraft that has exceptional paint and fiberglass work. Steve Miller, Director of Maintenance at Leading Edge Aviation in Tampa, Florida, seemed meticulous when it comes to this work. His shop is a busy Cirrus certified service center and one of approximately 150 shops in the country approved for the CAPS replacement. According to him, not all repacks are performed to the same standards, at least when it comes to the airframe repair and paint work that follows a CAPS replacement. As he put it, "If an owner can see evidence of fiberglass and paint work, it means it wasn't done right." Leading Edge has certified, professional aircraft painters on staff that, unlike some other shops we spoke with, don't believe in tape masking around registration numbers when reworking the fiberglass. Instead, his shop often replaces the tail numbers as part of the refinishing work. Leading Edge currently charges around $11,500 for a G1 repack.
Luke Jean, who heads the maintenance division at Heritage Aviation in Burlington, Vermont, described the increasing costs of consumables, including paint, primer, sanding wheels and other finishing materials. He also noted the high costs of shipping the parachute kit. Owners will pay for these shop expenses, which is included in the current price of around $11,750 that Heritage currently charges.
No matter where you go for the work, the first step is a crude oneremoving the parachute rocket and related small components from the airframe. For G1 aircraft, the CAPS access cover is removed by drilling a hole into the fiberglass cover and using a slide hammer to break the bond between the fuselage and the cover. This is an ungentle process that essentially damages the surrounding fiberglass and requires subsequent structure and cosmetic repair.
Once the cover is removed and the parachute is exposed, the technician removes the line cutters and the two primary straps are disconnected from the parachute so it can be removed from the storage bay and a new parachute cover can be fitted. This is a critical step because the CAPS cover has a reinforced strike plate on its undersidethe area where the deployed rocket hits, causing it to break away from fuselage. In some earlier aircraft, the parachute straps were chafing due to undersized holes in the structure. The repack project is when most shops enlarge the access hole and provide chaff protection as necessary.
Once the new parachute, hardware and rocket are fitted into the bay, the new cover is bonded into place using a low-level adhesive so it's firmly attached but can still break away during deployment. An inexperienced technician may slop too much filler around the cover, which can induce high resistance between the cover and fuselage. From here, basic body work and painting techniques are utilized to obtain the finished product. If you are considering changing your tail number, now may be the time to do so, unless your shop masks the existing numbers.
Aside from putting money away for a parachute repack, first-generation Cirrus owners can plan for the event by keeping the composite surfaces clean and when possible, storing the aircraft out of sunlight. That's the advice we were given from two shops who are seeing some neglected aircraft. "We've had a couple of aircraft come in for the parachute repack with faded and stained paint, which made the new fiberglass and paint work stand out like a sore thumb," said Luke Jean of Heritage.
Of course, one way to avoid these hassles altogether is to buy a second generation Cirrus that won't require fiberglass and paint work. It will still require the 10-year repack, but the process will be much easier with less downtime, limited cosmetic concerns and lower labor costs.
This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine. Find out more at AviationConsumer.com