Ballistic Recovery System'A
Down-to-Earth Subject for Aviation
Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member
Photo courtesy of Cirrus Design
It took almost
80 years before something practical happened, but now the idea of a
parachute to safely lower an entire airplane that is in difficulty
finally is seeing results.
The concept of an
airplane-size parachute to add safety to flight was first considered
seriously in 1912. Nothing much happened with the idea until 1975 when
a hang-glider pilot found himself in trouble 400 feet above a body of
water. Boris Popov plummeted toward the water and felt self-anger for
not being able to help himself. 'I knew they (parachutes) existed,' he
recalls, 'but they were not yet introduced to the hang-gliding
community.' Popov credited many years of gymnastic training that
helped him prepare for the impact. He was able to swim to safety,
minus only several teeth and with a bruised kidney.
Early attempts at
developing a parachute for the entire vehicle relied on hand-thrown or
spring-loaded devices for release. Popov realized the limitation of
these methods and began researching other propulsion devices. He and
associates tested many different approaches, none of which would
deploy the main chute, not just the pilot chute. Knowing the military
was successful at blowing aircraft canopies with ballistics, Popov
moved his development into this field. It required many months of
testing, but as they progressed they found that a solid fuel rocket
did the trick. The engineering staff at Ballistic Recovery Systems,
Incorporated has taken the solid fuel rocket motor far beyond the
first primitive work of Popov.
At first, the
system was used on hang gliders. As these progressed into powered hang
gliders and these into untralight vehicles, so, too, the BRS
development progressed. Homebuilders of aircraft recognized the safety
value, and an increasing number joined with their fellow flyers in the
hang gliding and ultralight communities in installing the safety
devices. The first 'save' was recorded in 1983 when a Colorado
ultralight pilot deployed the BRS after his craft failed to respond to
control pressures as a thermal lifted one wing.
BRS looked to
using the same technology on certified aircraft. Developing the
strong, lightweight parachute for heavier aircraft required
substantial investment. In 1986, BRS went public and raised enough
cash to extend its research. In 1994, NASA recognized the
possibilities and awarded BRS a basic grant under its Small Business
Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Two years later, the aeronautics
and space agency awarded a phase II grant. Together, these grants
installation on a certified airplane in 1993 when the Federal Aviation
Administration approved putting the system on the Cessna 150/152
series. Later the Cessna 172 was added. Weight addition for the 150 is
45 pounds; 67 pounds for the 172. Cost of a typical system is five to
ten percent of the airplane. Cosmetically, little is noticed because
the system is mounted internally on most aircraft.
acceptance of the BRS has had many bumps along the way. A recent one
was a question of shipping the equipment because of the rocket motors.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bureau of Alcohol and
Fire Arms considered the propellant a security risk. The Department of
Homeland Security classified the rocket propellant as a prohibited
substance, significantly inhibiting its ability to be transported.
Both BRS and Cirrus Aircraft Design are located in Minnesota and
Representative James Oberstar (D) from that state stepped in to obtain
an exemption for shipping and usage of the systems.
manufacturer to include the BRS as standard equipment is Cirrus
Design. That company recently announced sale of its 1000th
plane. 'The BRS was never meant to be a marketing feature,' declares a
company official, 'but customer reaction is exceptionally favorable.'
Kate Andrews, company spokesperson, says Cirrus pilots have often
commented that they are not consciously aware of the BRS in their
aircraft but are 'uncomfortable' when flying in other airplanes. Other
customer reaction is family acceptance that often leads to more
flights with spouse and children.
Thus far, Cirrus
has one documented save. This occurred in October 2002, when the pilot
released the parachute and landed safely'unhurt'in a Texas
mesquite-tree grove. The aircraft sustained minimal damage. Although
this was the first save on a certified aircraft, BRS reports a total
of 157 saves as of July 2003. The others have been on hang-gliders,
ultralights, and homebuilts. Worldwide, more than 18,000 units are
installed on various vehicles.
announced that a second manufacturer will offer the system on its
certified aircraft as a factory-installed feature. This is OMF
aircraft. The system will be an option on the company's currently
certified two-place aircraft and will be installed as standard
equipment on a four-place model now under development. The company
also is developing a diesel version of its two-place model on which
the BRS will be an option.
To date, other
manufacturers have been slow to show interest in offering the BRS.
NASA still has confidence the system will be beneficial to aviation as
well as provide technology important in other areas. Robert Yang, head
of Langley Research Center's Small Business Partnership Team, sees all
this 'as a quality of life improvement.' He says at least one U.S.
insurance company offers a ten-percent discount on planes having the
BRS. He adds that some European aviation organizations are pursuing
mandatory requirements for systems on certain experimental aircraft.
automobile manufacturers shunned any mention of safety in their
vehicles, fearful that stressing it might detract from the performance
and attractiveness of their products. This, however, has changed in
recent years as seat belts and air bags became more accepted. Now,
manufacturers proudly tout their safety features.
Maybe the same
will happen with aircraft. William Piper, who advanced aviation
through making and marketing a low-cost airplane, commented that it
takes a long time for people to recognize the obvious. 'It took us 50
years,' he said, 'to learn that major highways should not go through
is a little slower. We've known of aircraft parachutes only a little
more than 90 years.