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In October of 2002, an airplane which otherwise might have plunged into the ground and killed its pilot was instead gently dropped in some mesquite trees in Lewisville, Texas. The pilot, which suffered no more than a sore neck, had a Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) to thank for his safe landing, and it was the first time in aviation history that such a parachute had been successfully used in an actual emergency. These 55 foot wide parachutes attach directly to the aircraft itself, and are used as a last resort in small aircraft. To date, they have been successfully used in three such emergencies.

The founder of Cirrus, Alan Klapmeier, was on a flying lesson in 1985 when another pilot, flying with the sun in his eyes, flew into Mr. Klapmeier’s plane at 1,600 feet. He and his instructor were able to land their badly damaged aircraft, but the other plane spun into the ground, killing its pilot. This event motivated Klapmeier to develop a last-ditch safety system for small aircraft which would otherwise be doomed. His company, Cirrus Aircraft, developed the CAPS system for its small planes; and they include other state-of-the-art safety features as well, such as a a full roll cage, and a realtime digital map that shows locations of other nearby aircraft and the details of the terrain.

The parachute is deployed with a red, T-shaped CAPS handle in the cockpit, which fires a solid-fuel rocket that deploys the parachute within a few seconds. The force of landing when using this parachute is comparable to a 10-foot drop, and is absorbed by specialized shock-absorbent components.

Ironically, this plethora of safety features may be responsible for a recent increase in accidents in Cirrus aircraft. In 2003, Cirrus had 33% more accidents than the aviation industry standard, however an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that nearly all these accidents were due to pilot error, not problems with the aircraft, and that the parachute system was not deployed in these incidents. It would appear that the sophisticated safety systems in these aircraft give some less-skilled pilots a false sense of security, and with it, overconfidence.

Still, it’s pretty damn cool that a small plane can be dropped gently onto the ground in an emergency. While it’s true that in general flying is safer than driving, that statistic goes out the window when fender-benders are involved.