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Ballistic Recovery System'A Down-to-Earth Subject for Aviation

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Airplane-size parachute
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 totaled $600.000.

BRS achieved 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.

Development and 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.

The first 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.

BRS recently 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.

For decades 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 cities.'

Maybe aviation is a little slower. We've known of aircraft parachutes only a little more than 90 years.