A Considered Decision

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A Cirrus pilot had thought through how and when he would deploy the airframe parachute. When he lost control in severe turbulence he pulled the handle. Everyone survived.

Aren’t we pilots a confident crowd? We are so certain of our flying skills that it’s always the other pilot, the below average mope, that people should be worried about. Because, in a time of need, we truly know we will rise to the challenge and our innate aeronautical skills will be there to save ourselves and the airplane.

Well, yeah, kind of, sort of; but sorry to say. . . probably not true. Yes, reality has that special way of being just slightly different.

As General Aviation pilots, we have a history of doing a pretty lousy job when trying to save both ourselves and the airplane when things go wrong. The problem is that we improvise by reacting to a situation we have never thought about or been in before.

Improvise? Not So Successful

In many cases, such as a landing gear that won’t extend, we try to minimize damage to the airplane and try something we have never thought out carefully or practiced, such as shutting down the engine(s). The history of the results of such improvisation is not pretty.

The military learned this long ago when parachutes were first introduced.

Highly trained and extremely confident pilots were killing themselves trying to save the airplane. There was a mindset, a deep-seated resistance to bailing out and saving oneself, but losing the airplane.

These military pilots just knew they could save themselves and the aircraft. Sadly, most of the time, it just wasn’t so. Military equipment is expendable, however, military pilots are not. Training in the military had to change. It did. Now if certain events occur during a flight, the military pilot gets out. No debate.

That sort of mature, considered, training and risk management process has worked well for the military. It is coming to General Aviation.

Businessman Pilot

The 61-year old private pilot with an instrument rating was instrument current, had a recent flight review and instrument proficiency check. More importantly, he went through a thorough make and model specific training course when he purchased a new Cirrus SR22 13 months earlier. He wasn’t high time, having only 711 hours, but he did have 82 hours of actual IMC and 99 hours of simulated instrument time.

With the above facts noted, a review of the NTSB report and other accident documents, highlight a pilot whose accumulated aeronautical judgment skills were well beyond his logbook hours.

This pilot did not seem to be a risk taker, but rather an aviator who thoughtfully considered risks. He used his aircraft for business purposes and in doing so he accumulated 600 hours in Cirrus series airplanes.

As the owner of a construction company, the pilot needed to attend a pre-construction meeting at a location two hundred nautical miles distant. The planned flight in his 310-horsepower turbonormalized SR22 would take him and another company employee from Washington Courthouse, Ohio to Grant County Airport in the hills of West Virginia.


Non-instrument rated pilots may dream of the day an instrument rating will make their weather decisions easier, but once that day arrives, they learn an instrument rating only makes the weather decision all the more complex.

The Cirrus pilot began checking weather the afternoon before the flight. He obtained an Internet briefing the night before the flight. The TAFs were indicating what the pilot described as “pretty negative” weather conditions. Rain and wind were being forecast for his destination. In the morning the pilot awoke at 05:30 local and performed two more Internet briefings.

A TAF for an airport close tohis destination had improved, but theMETARs for Grant County showedconditions that were, as the pilot described, “terrible”. It was a toss-up whether or not the flight would or could be accomplished.

The Cirrus would be flying between two opposing fronts, a cold front to the west of the departure point advancing to the east, and a warm front, above a deepening low to the east. This warm front was being spun to the west towards the destination airport.

Visual conditions existed at Washington Courthouse, but the forecast weather for the destination area was calling for overcast ceilings at 3000 feet MSL, and four miles in rain. AIRMETs for moderate turbulence and IMC along with forecasts for embedded storms were in effect. Later in the morning conditions for marginal VMC to IMC were expected, and further to the east AIRMETs for low level wind shear and strong surface winds existed.

Upper Air Sounding

About the time of departure, an upper air sounding 70 miles to the east of the accident site recorded a defined frontal inversion. Light surface winds existed to 1,300 feet MSL, but at higher altitudes there was a rapid veering of the wind to the south with increased velocity. Winds at the Cirrus’ cruise altitude were out of the south southeast at 50 to 60 knots indicating a high probability of turbulence.

The pilot met his employee at 08:00 local. It would be a rough ride and the flight would require an instrument approach. The weather was below minimums, but plenty of smart outs existed. First the aircraft was fueled with 93 gallons of fuel, enough for the flight to arrive at the destination, hold for a while and then either return to Washington Courthouse, or divert to better weather which existed to the south and still have a two-hour reserve. Second, although it would be an undesirable situation, the meeting could be postponed or cancelled. All parties seemed aware of that fact.

With the above knowledge the flight departed at 08:21 local in VMC. Throughout the trip the pilot was monitoring the weather at his destination. It was not improving as he thought it would, but at 9000 feet the pilot was experiencing virtually no turbulence so he elected to continue.

PIREP of Severe Turbulence

Things were going just fine when a Cirrus in the area called in an urgent PIREP, reporting severe turbulence at 8000 feet. Other pilots began reporting bumpy rides. As the pilot approached Grant County Airport the weather was still below approach minimums. Making a good judgment call, the pilot elected to slow down and hold at the Kessel VOR.

After a turn in the hold, the controller cleared the Cirrus to descend to 5500 feet and to hold at OGMEY, the initial approach fix for the GPSRunway 31 approach into Grant County Airport. During the descent the ride became rough. The autopilot was engaged. It did an admirable job of handling things, but according to the pilot, it was working “really hard.”

ATC was also helping the pilot. The controller advised that the Grant County Airport had finally improved; the ceiling was up to 800 feet the winds were calm. The pilot elected to fly the approach. As the aircraft crossed OGMEY at 5500 feet the pilot noted that the winds were shifting from the southeast to the northeast and back to the southeast at 40 knots.

At the final approach fix the aircraft began to rock violently. The stall warning horn activated, which automatically disconnected the autopilot. The pilot noted the speed sliding back to 80 knots and he pushed the nose over and added power and rudder, but he believed the aircraft might be entering a spin in IMC.

He reacted as he had been trained and had considered for the circumstances, he activated the aircraft’s ballistic parachute. The Cirrus was wrecked in the ensuing touchdown, but the BRS worked as it should and the pilot and passenger survived.

Monday Morning QB

Over a cold one or two, you could get two pilots to give you seven differing opinions as to what this Cirrus pilot did wrong, and the two pilots would then continue opining that if the Cirrus pilot had only been more experienced he could have leveled the wings and landed the aircraft.

I have only one word for that type of Monday morning rehash: Bunk (well, it's really stronger, but this is a family publication). This pilot had been trained to have a strategy for deploying his chute and he had thought about the conditions under which he would act. It doesn’t get any better. Successful control of the aircraft was in question—he made the right call.

Personal Strategies

We may not be flying an aircraft with a ballistic parachute system, but we can create our own strategies for what we will do in specific situations. History shows that thinking about what to do when things go wrong moves the odds into our corner should one of those events occur.

During our next flight review, we can run through our scenarios and strategies. Then, if we are ever in a real pinch, we can accept the fact that it is our duty as a pilot to allow for the aircraft to get damaged if it will reduce the risk to our passengers and us.

Armand Vilches is a commercial pilot, instructor and FAASTeam member who lives in Brentwood, Tennessee. He brings an extensive background in risk management and insurance to aviation to aviation and flight instruction.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.