What The Frederick Crash Reveals About Cirrus Accident Trends


Thursday’s tragic mid-air between a Cirrus SR22 and an R44 helicopter illuminated a watershed of sorts. With November near upon us, the accident marked the largest number of ballistic parachute deployments for Cirrus aircraft in a calendar year, but also the lowest rolling 12-month average of fatal accidents in the models’ history. If the two appear connected, there’s a good chance they are.

The accident occurred at Frederick, Maryland on Thursday and although the details remain unreported, the two aircraft-an SR22 with two aboard and a Robinson R44 training flight with three aboard-appear to have collided at low-altitude near or in the airport traffic pattern. All three aboard the R44 died; both occupants of the Cirrus survived with minor injuries after deploying the airplane’s CAPS parachute, the 62nd such activation, according to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, which tracks such things for obvious reasons. It was the 11th CAPS activation this year, giving the impression that parachutes are sprouting like spring flowers. But that might be a good thing, says COPA’s Rick Beach. He’s the association’s accident guru and my go-to guy for comparing my own accident research on the Cirrus against other aircraft.

Just two weeks ago at the Cirrus annual migration, Beach presented a detailed review of the year’s accidents, which you can see here. I’ve reported on Cirrus’ improving accident rate before, in this interview conducted at Aero with Travis Klumb of Cirrus.

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At that point, the Cirrus 12-month fleet fatal accident rate stood at .56/100,000 hours, about half the industry average of 1.2. As recently as 2004, it was more than twice that rate. Beach’s current numbers show a 12-month rolling average of .32/100,000 which, if it sustains, matches Diamond’s low numbers for the DA40 Star. A graph Beach showed at Migration (shown above) indicated that the fatal raw numbers have steadily diminished since 2011, a universally horrible year which saw 14 fatal Cirrus accidents that killed 31 people; three in just one 24-hour period. So far in 2014, there have been but two fatalities.

I’m professionally constrained from using the phrase game change, but unless this is just luck-doubtful-something is obviously afoot. It’s actually several somethings, in Beach’s view. He believes there were four co-incident developments in 2011 that conspired to turn things around for Cirrus.

One, in the midst of the 2011 carnage, Cirrus met with its training partners-training centers and CSIP-trained instructors-and embraced a more aggressive adoption of training resources such as simulators, review of the aircraft safety features and an understanding of accident scenarios. The latter showed that many Cirrus pilots were dying in circumstances that a timely CAPS pull would have saved them or at least improved the odds. Encouraging this was the formation of and efforts by the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) which Beach credits with changing the conversation in the Cirrus training community, tilting it toward more active emergency and task-saturation training.

Cirrus has been, for awhile now, incorporating scenario-based abnormals in its simulator training that have the trainee climb the decision tree and actually physically pull a CAPS handle in the sim, rather than just verbalizing the action. Could this distinction be important? It very well might be. In a highly adrenalized, panic situation with seconds to act, a pilot might have trouble finding the handle, much less pulling it. There’s much to be said for drilling muscle memory training.

Beach told me one aspect of this he thinks is important is a standard takeoff briefing in which the pilot reminds himself that CAPS is in its operational envelope and available at 500 feet and above. “FLAPS and CAPS” is the 500-foot call. And it’s not just takeoff. Looking over the list of deployments, you might conclude that pilots are learning to consider CAPS the first response to any abnormal.

But Beach says there’s a subtle distinction going on. They’re being taught to consider it at all times rather than relegating it to a last resort. And to substitute the notion of “not yet” in place of “no” when considering the pull decision. You can look at the 2014 list ofdeployments and second guess the pilots all day, arguing that a cooler head might have landed the airplane. Take, for instance, this icing scenario. On the other hand, all of these pilots and occupants-every one-are still alive to tell the tale and most emerged uninjured. Nothing quite trumps the argument like success. The text book case for not-yet-thinking was this one in which the instructor was handed the controls after an engine failure, set up a conventional emergency landing and didn’t like the looks of the approach so she pulled the CAPS. Hard to find fault with such decisionmaking.

One could leap to the conclusion that these developments mean that the Cirrus line has now achieved the vaunted safety record that was expected of it when it was introduced 15 years ago. It has arrived. But I think that’s premature. It’s the long-term trends that matter and Cirrus needs to sustain the gains it has demonstrated. While I’d be personally surprised to see a return to the awful spike of 2011, I was also surprised when it happened in the first place. In general aviation, because of limited flight hours and uneven training, talent and experience in the cockpit, calculating probabilistic safety is like betting on the ponies, except the nags might hit the trifecta now and then and not the kind that involves three crashes in a single day.

But Beach thinks if another rash of accidents occurs, the Cirrus community, thanks to improved training and safety situational awareness, has the means to tamp it down. “I’m optimistic that the system has the antibodies now to deal with it,” he says.

Regardless of where the global accident rate goes after the Frederick crash, I think one thing is inarguable: the efficacy of the BRS system itself. While it has been far from perfect, it has proved to be a high-probability-of-survival choice for those who have deployed it. Here’s an interesting fact. When I reviewed the Cirrus accident history exhaustively in 2012, I found it was ordinary at best, with a 1.6 fatal rate, which is above the 1.2 GA average. At the time, there had been 31 CAPS pulls in 12 years. In the three years since, there have been 31 more and the fatal rate has steadily declined.

There are probably other ineffable factors at work here, but it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the more the parachute is used, the more people walk away from crashes, just as Alan Klapmeier always said they would.

You can read the transcript and hear the tower/aircraft transmissions here.

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