I've read with great interest some assertions about Cirrus aircraft, the pilots who fly them, and whether or not the airframe parachute makes the Cirrus pilot safer or just emboldens them to take risks. By now most of you know that on Sunday, March 15, 2009, a 64-year old instrument-rated private pilot flying a new Cirrus SR22 elected to deploy his aircraft's airframe parachute shortly after takeoff from Montgomery County Airport in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He departed runway 34 and his plane came to the ground about a half mile from the airport, no injuries were reported on the ground, the pilot walked away, and the aircraft was substantially damaged. It's dangerous to generalize, but I feel compelled to make some observations about this particular accident, the pilot's decision to launch into the weather, the efficacy of Cirrus door latches, and under what conditions a Cirrus pilot should consider deploying the 'chute.
The pilot involved in this particular accident was reported to have had 320 hours total time and I'm assuming, given his age, that he came to flying later in life. None of the reports I've read give any specific numbers, but given his total time and the fact that his last certificate was issued in June of 2007, it seems reasonable to assume that he didn't have much experience with solo flying in IMC. A low time pilot with a powerful and capable aircraft can be a dangerous, sometimes even deadly combination, and this accident would seem to reinforce that belief. And let's be clear that while this accident happened to involve a Cirrus, most any brand of high-performance aircraft will do.
An important part of instrument training involves making a competent go/no-go decision. Heck, it's explicitly called out in the Instrument Rating PTS as something the candidate must demonstrate. I sat on the ground a few years back with a Cirrus owner while we waited for the weather to clear. The radiation fog was thick and the surface winds were gradually starting to increase and mix out the fog, which made waiting all the more uncomfortable. But wait we did because, parachute or not, the conditions did not meet my minima for departure.
Turn in your hymnals to 14 CFR 91.175 and you'll find specific departure weather restrictions for aircraft operating under 14 CFR 135 and 121. Taking off under conditions with zero visibility and zero ceiling is not expressly forbidden when operating under part 91, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea nor does it mean that if you do so and you run into problems that you won't be scrutinized for violating 14 CFR 91.11 (Careless or reckless operation) - endangering the life or property of another. In our Me First society, it is easy to forget that our actions may indeed have adverse effects on others. This is where an instrument instructor's job of teaching risk management begins.
The accident pilot elected to launch with a reported ceiling of 400 feet and 2 miles visibility. Shown above are the takeoff minima published for Gaithersburg, which don't specify any ceiling or visibility. That means the 14 CFR 91.175 standards of 1 mile visibility for aircraft with two engines or less apply to part 135 and 121 operators. Technically the accident pilot was not prohibited from departing since he was operating under part 91.
The absolute lowest personal departure minima for a single-engine aircraft that I recommend to pilots I train for the instrument rating are pretty simple: The surface weather observation must be equal to or better than the highest circling minima (ceiling and visibility) for the airport, just in case an emergency return is required. In a twin-engine aircraft, I'm still pretty conservative and recommend the conditions be no lower than the highest straight-in minima of all non-precision approaches available at the departure airport.
When I flew freight in the Caravan, my company's procedures allowed us to depart in some really crummy conditions. On several occasions, I departed when the greater Bay Area was blanketed fog and with low IFR conditions at all nearby major airports. And you know what? It gave me the creeps every time I did it.
I've never flown into Gaithersburg, but a quick review of the available approaches show the following circling minima.
GAI NDB RWY 14 - 1 SM vis & 1380 feet MSL, 841 feet Height Above Threshold
GAI VOR RWY 14 - 1 SM & 1200 feet MSL, 677 feet HAT
GAI RNAV (GPS) RWY 14 - 1.5 SM & 1020 feet MSL, 481 feet HAT
In case you're wondering what I'm getting at, the low-time instrument-rated accident pilot took a pretty big risk when he chose to depart with 2 miles visibility and an overcast ceiling of 400 feet at an unfamiliar airport.
I've written before about my experiences with the door latches on a Cirrus SR22 that I used to fly. Quite frankly, I found the performances of these door latches stinks. Cirrus, in an apparent quest to make the aircraft seem as much like an automobile as possible, tried to implement a slam-and-shut-style automobile door. This just in: A high-performance single-engine aircraft is not a car. My experience showed me that the latches on an SR22 G2 must kept adjusted just right by a mechanic and the pilot had best ensure the doors are secured, top and bottom, before taking off. Interesting, the door latches on an older SR20 that I used to fly had a very positive door mechanism with a latching handle.
So a door popping open on a Cirrus is not uncommon and the AFM even has a procedure for handling it - abort the takeoff if you can, otherwise reduce your speed and land as soon as practical. A door popping open can be distracting as hell, especially to a low-time pilot, but the slipstream will keep the door mostly shut. You just need to reduce the airspeed and return to land. Of course, returning to land is going to be a lot easier if you at least have circling minima.
When I flew the Cirrus regularly, I followed all the recommended Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) procedures. This included removing the safety pin from the activation handle before takeoff and installing the safety pin after landing. If you don't remove the pin, you simply can't be ready to deploy the parachute quickly in an emergency. I've read of several fatal accidents involving Cirrus where NTSB investigators, combing through the wreckage, found the CAPS safety pin firmly in place on the deployment handle.
Even though I followed the CAPS procedures and I regularly reviewed the deployment procedures, my mindset when flying the SR22 was that CAPS deployment was going to be an absolute last resort. The AFM gives some suggested situations where CAPS deployment is warranted:
- Mid-air Collision
- Structural Failure
- Loss of Control
- Landing in Inhospitable Terrain
- Pilot Incapacitation
I'm glad he's okay and that no one on the ground was hurt, but this all seems so preventable. Low time pilots in high-performance aircraft with airframe parachute systems can learn a lot from this accident. "'Chute first" is a potentially dangerous and definitely expensive procedure. The hard questions need to be asked and answered on the ground, before the clouds are approaching, the door has opened, or the engine has quit and you feel the urge to pull that T-shaped handle.