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Going Ballistic!

Updated: May 4, 2020

In 1975, Boris Popov, a hang glider pilot from Minnesota, suffered every pilot’s worst nightmare. At 400ft his aircraft broke up in mid-air. As it tumbled out of the sky, he remembers the wings wrapping around him and feeling petrified. That fear soon turned into anger. “As I fell, I became most angry at my inability to do anything,” Popov explained. He promised himself “If I survive this, I’ll develop something that fires out a parachute.”

Miraculously he survived the fall after landing in Lake Owasso with only a few missing fillings and a bruised kidney. True to his promise, he invented the whole-aircraft parachute system and founded Ballistic Recovery Systems in 1980.

Since then, aircraft parachutes of all brands have become incredibly successful and are now standard equipment on many aircraft.

Unlike normal parachutes, ballistic parachutes are deployed using a small explosive device (generally a rocket) which fires the canopy out of a canister, or in some models, drags it out. This enables a quicker deployment time and allows it to be used at relatively low altitudes. Once the rocket is deployed, the canopy will be fully inflated in just a few seconds. The aircraft will stabilise into a shallow nose down attitude (depending on how the system has been installed) and it will descend to the ground at a survivable descent rate.

In most successful deployments, the occupants have walked away with minor injuries or none at all. BRS state that their parachutes alone have saved 282 lives and incredibly, one in 125 parachutes is deployed.

So why don’t we all have them? There’s no question that a ballistic recovery system can offer a last line of defence in certain situations, and their record clearly indicates that they can save lives.

But they are not a "get out of jail free card". They have limitations. All of the parachutes have maximum speeds at which they can be used, and minimum altitudes. Whilst there are some documented saves below 300ft, most designers state a minimum of 600-800ft for a successful deployment, depending on the aircraft attitude and speed.

Furthermore, they are not guaranteed to deploy correctly. There is a chance that they could actually leave the airframe in a worse position than it was beforehand, especially if they are deployed outside of their limitations. And in the case of a successful deployment, it should be considered that all control will be taken away from the pilot. The aircraft will land where the parachute and prevailing wind dictate. There is no option to cut loose after deployment.

One thing they do provide is the comfort factor. The fact that you have a final life line in a serious situation is certainly attractive to pilots and their families. Although there is nothing wrong with this, it is easy to imagine that the system may start to affect pilot decision making. Perhaps they would be tempted into continuing in conditions which they would not otherwise, or pushing the aircraft beyond its limits.

In fact, some Cirrus owners admit that the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS), which is standard equipment in their aircraft, influences their decision making, at least as part of a larger risk assessment. Whether or not this is justified is debatable, but I’m sure that this was not the designers intention.

Cirrus CAPS

And when to use them? When they were first introduced, a lot of sceptics were concerned that they would be used unnecessarily when pilots panicked. For example, in the case of engine failures where suitable landing sites were available and a successful forced landing could have been carried out. Indeed, there have been some questionable deployments, but these have been rare and certainly not as many as initially feared. Some argue that if the pilot is panicking, a deployment might be appropriate, even if not ideal. Taking control away from such a pilot may result in a better outcome.

You’ll find that the manuals rarely offer guidance as to when to deploy, other than in a situation where their use is considered by the pilot to be safer than continued flight.

My opinion is that it is down to the pilot to decide in which situations he would think about using the system. I have had to consider this myself. I’ve decided that structural failure resulting in loss of control, pilot incapacitation, forced landings over water or hostile terrain, are some of the situations where I would consider pulling the little red handle.

Their effect on payload can be positive or negative depending on the aircraft and system installed. The UK microlight definition in the ANO contains a 5% increase in Maximum Total Weight Authorised (MTWA) for a landplane fitted with an AMTRPS (Airframe Mounted Total Recovery Parachute System). If it can be proved that the aircraft is safe to lift this extra weight, your maximum take-off weight could be increased. For 450kg microlights, this would bring it up to 472.5kg. Considering most recovery system installations weigh 10-12kg, you would benefit from an extra 10kg of available payload.

Ikarus C42 parachute installation
Ikarus C42 parachute installation

However, if your aircraft is not capable of lifting the extra weight, the system weight would have to be deducted from your available payload. It may be that they cannot be installed into your aircraft at all.

Although still relatively uncommon, their installation in microlights is increasing. They are now standard equipment on most high-end fixed-wing aircraft and optional on others. The most common installations on UK microlights are on the Flight Design CT and the Ikarus C42.

They are expensive. Prices have fallen in real terms over the last 15 years, but typically they will cost £5,000.00 plus installation costs. In addition, they will need to be serviced and repacked at specified intervals by the manufacturer, typically every 5-10 years. But, if you feel that it could save your life, then the price may mean less to you.

Like many things in aviation, they are trade off. Unquestionably, they have saved lives and thus they deserve merit and consideration.

What do you think? Should the parachute rescue system be mandatory for all new fixed-wing microlights like it is in Germany? Or do you think that the parachute system poses more problems than it solves?


Are you a student pilot?

Take a look at our online ground school, video courses and practice exams. We have tailor-made products for the NPPL microlights and those studying for the EASA PPL / LAPL.

Click here for more information.


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