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Ballistic Parachute systems – Are they worth the expense

A ballistic parachute is a parachute ejected from its casing by a small explosion, much like that used in an ejection seat. The advantage of the ballistic parachute over a conventional parachute is that it “ejects” the parachute canopy, causing it to open rapidly, this makes it ideal for attaching to light aircraft, hang gliders and microlights, where an emergency situation may occur in close proximity to the ground. In such a situation, a conventional parachute would not open quickly enough.

BRS Aerospace Founder, Boris Popov, came up with the ground-breaking idea when he survived a motorboat-towed hang-gliding incident over Lake Minnesota. The boat driver misread his hand signal to slow down as "go faster." The sudden acceleration caused the glider to pitch up violently which resulted in the wing collapsing and a fall of several hundred feet, unable to disengage or move due to the G-forces. Popov could only think how stupid it was that no one had invented a parachute for this kind of situation. A fast-deploying, ballistic chute might be able to stabilize the fall and decelerate to a survivable speed. Popov survived the fall and immediately went to work to develop the system that he thought up on death's door.

Eight years later a young Alan was making a climbing, departure turn to the southeast from Runway 36 at an airport in Prairie du Sac, when he heard the crunch of a Piper Vagabond smashing into his plane, tearing away 3 feet of the left-wing and much of the retractable Cessna 182's right aileron. Klapmeier had been wearing an instrument hood, and his instructor didn't see the other plane in the late afternoon sun. Klapmeier and his instructor managed to make a successful emergency landing the Piper pilot however wasn’t that fortunate and was killed as his plane lost control and crashed.

Klapmeier decided he had to adapt Popov's new ultralight parachute for the certified aircraft that he and his brother hoped to develop from their fledgling kit-plane company.

Whatever camp you find yourself in, for or against, one thing that can’t be disputed is their success. The system that emerged from Popov's and Klapmeier's incidents has undoubtedly transformed general aviation safety. A parachute has become standard equipment in one of the world's best-selling certified aircraft, The Cirrus SR20 and SR22 as well as on the best-selling light-sport plane, Flight Design's CTLS. The Aircraft Factory have had BRS systems in the Sling 4’s since they went into production over 10 years ago. Retrofit systems have been developed for Cessna’s, Van's RV 10, 9 and 7’s, Lancairs, Kitfoxes and many other experimental aircraft. Cirrus has also incorporated them in their new Vision Jet.

If you equate every deployment with saved lives, BRS claims 408 pilots and passengers survived by using their system. In fact, there has never been a deployment within demonstrated parameters that resulted in a fatality. That's a great success rate that compares favourably with outcomes for skilled pilots in loss of control, disorientation and systems failure emergencies. So, why does each new report of a parachute deployment result in questions being asked, like “Could the pilot have made a forced landing or regained control of the aircraft?” or “The aircraft is a total write-off wouldn’t a forced lob have saved the aircraft?”

Given the success why hasn't WARPS equipment caught on more in general aviation? As with so many flying decisions, the key factors seem to be size, weight and mostly cost.

Consider the weight of an airframe chute system, installation on a Cessna 172 adds 39kg. On a brand-new Skyhawk lifesaving safety feature, the baggage compartment reduces the carrying capacity to just three adults and 9 kg of baggage. This is just as well since the installation takes up about half of the baggage compartment.

In a Cessna 172, a BRS system costs just shy of R250000 plus the cost of installation. Then, every 10 it has to be inspected and the chute repacked which will put you back close to R70000. That’s a lot of money for something you may never ever need, but the question remains if it comes down to the crunch would you want one?



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