Cirrus Ditching: Promotional Gold


I’m figuring at the very least, CPO Kurt Fredrickson and PO2 Tara Molle deserve a nice fruit basket and future Christmas cards from Cirrus. In the course of their normal duties, these two Coast Guard NCOs delivered promotional gold for Cirrus when they edited a stunning video of the Cirrus SR22 ditching off Maui on Sunday on a flight from California. It was shot by an obviously able camera operator aboard a C-130 out of Barbers Point CGAS.

Tuesday morning, after the video made the rounds, I was watching CBS’s morning news when the roundtable chatter turned to the Cirrus ditching. The hosts expressed uniform amazement that there are airplanes out there with parachutes that can lower the whole thing to the surface. Imagine. As this 20-second soliloquy drew to a close, Gayle King bored into the core: “What I want to know,” she said, “is why that airplane ran out of gas.” Me too, sis. But more on that later.

This video is, as far as I know, the first complete deployment-to-surface video of an SR22 CAPs event. According to COPA’s site, this marks the 64th CAPS event and the 51st save, at least by BRS standards. And here, I’ll enter the standard disclaimer. One of the second-day stories I saw had a reporter interviewing a Cirrus owner who explained the system such that the studio talking heads concluded the pilot would have died without it. As I have pointed out, ditching is a 90 percentile survival scenario so the chances are overwhelmingly in favor of the outcome being the same, CAPS or not. It’s just that CAPS appears to give a slight survival edge. I say “appears” because there haven’t been that many CAPS ditchings from which to draw statistically significant conclusions. The Cirrus went into a moderately high sea state, so I think we can reasonably conclude the CAPS was a better option than a traditional ditching.

But this is flyspeck stuff compared the dramatic impact that video had and will have on the non-aviation knowledgeable viewer. And if Cirrus would like to take a victory lap for that, they’re entitled, just as they were entitled after the Frederick fatal mid-air last October. CAPS saved the Cirrus occupants; the helicopter occupants weren’t as fortunate. As I’ve said before, it worked just like Alan Klapmeier always said it would.

Now, the fuel exhaustion that put the airplane down in the first place. Did the pilot run out or have a ferry tank feed problem? We don’t really know. COPA’s entry says “failure to transfer fuel from ferry tank.” Interesting language. Human failure or a system failure? I tried to check this with the company that installed the ferry, Skyview Aviation in Tracy, California. No one got back to me.

What I wanted to check is if the tank they install really is a gravity feed system, with no pump. If it is, there’s not much to fail, other than the valve or plumbing porting the ferry fuel into the system. My guess is it feeds into one of the main tanks, which would be below the ferry tank far enough to allow the gravity feed. San Francisco’s ABC news outlet quoted the ferry company as saying there was sufficient fuel in the airplane but it was unable to feed for unknown reasons. We’ll see what the investigation reveals.

The rescue itself was textbook and may not even have required the Coast Guard to dispatch, although we wouldn’t have gotten the cool video if it hadn’t. As far back as 1958, a system called AMVER for Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting tracks the position of participating vessels, first in the Atlantic and now worldwide. With thousands of ship positions known almost in real time, rescue agencies know where the closest vessel is to the potential rescue. The Cirrus was advised of the position of the Holland America Veendam, an AMVER participant, and using one of its motor launches, the ship fished the Cirrus pilot out of the Pacific a few minutes after the ditching. He was in Maui by the following morning. (The whole thing was reminiscent of Captain Ogg’s famous Pan Am Flight 6 ditching in 1956.)

This wasn’t Veendam’s first rodeo, either. Since joining AMVER in 1996, she has participated in 18 rescues, according to the AMVER site.

Well done, mates.

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