Airport and structural firefighters working around small aircraft today have myriad hazards they must contend with. Technology is constantly evolving in the aircraft industry, and so must the knowledge base of our first responders. Maintaining a high level of training and situational awareness is critical for firefighter safety. This month we will discuss how modern technology has afforded the general aviation and ultralight aircraft occupants with the ability to survive an in-flight catastrophic failure.
What is a Ballistic Recovery Parachute?
Ballistic Recovery Parachutes are mounted on many ultralight and light general aviation aircraft. The system was developed to recover an aircraft that has suffered an in-flight catastrophic event. Imagine a large, rapidly deploying parachute that maintains the proper aircraft attitude (upright) while providing a survivable descent. These recovery systems can be found as part of some aircraft manufacturers’ factory-installed safety features like those on the Cirrus Aircraft, or they can be retrofitted into other general aviation aircraft like Cessna model aircraft.
History of the Recovery Systems
The company, BRS, was originally formed in 1980 by Boris Popov of Saint Paul, Minnesota, after he survived a 400-foot fall in a partially collapsed hang glider in 1975. As a result of his experience, Popov invented a parachute system that could lower an entire lightweight aircraft to the ground in the event of loss of control, failure of the aircraft structure, or other in-flight emergencies. Popov was granted a patent in 1986 for the invention called Ballistic Recovery System (BRS).
BRS was founded in 1980 and introduced its first parachute in 1982 with its focus on the ultra-light aircraft market. The company recorded its first successful aircraft recovery a year later in 1983.
In 1998, BRS collaborated with Cirrus Design (now called Cirrus Aircraft) to develop the very first recovery parachute system to be standard on brand new aircraft. That was the Cirrus SR-20, later followed up by the Cirrus SR-22 in 2001. They collaboratively named the design the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) and made it standard equipment on all 6,000+ Cirrus aircraft. A year later in 2002, BRS received a supplemental type certificate to install its parachute system in the Cessna 172, followed by the Cessna 182 in 2004, and the Symphony SA-160 in 2006.
Components of the Ballistic Rescue Parachute
A solid-fuel rocket is used to deploy the parachute from its storage housing and open the canopy fully within seconds. Typically on ultra-light installations, the rocket is mounted directly on the parachute container. On larger aircraft installations the rocket may be remotely mounted. The system includes a red tee handle to deploy or secure the system, and the parachute has straps that are hard mounted to the aircraft frame.
Making a Difference One Parachute at a Time
The real motivating factor of the BRS or CAPS team is the direct impact they have made with the ability to safely recover passengers in serious trouble. As of this writing the BRS Web site states that the company has saved more than 376 lives with its system, and the CAPS system installed on the Cirrus line of aircraft have saved 142 Cirrus passengers—truly an amazing safety feature that we will only see more of in the near future as people purchase new Cirrus Aircraft or decide to retrofit their current aircraft.
Development of Flying Safety
According to BRS, it has provided more than 30,000 parachutes for various light and micro light aircraft as of 2017. That is a lot of ballistic parachutes in the aviation industry. In July 2008, BRS announced that its new 5000 series canopy had completed compliance testing to ASTM International standards. This new parachute system is intended to provide recovery capability for much larger aircraft including small jets and other light pressurized aircraft. In 2008, FAA certification was being pursued to allow installation on certified aircraft.
CAPS Established for the Safer Sky
The original inspiration for the airplane parachute on the Cirrus aircraft was for midair collisions that could lead to tragedy. But, instead it led to the creation of the CAPS. The parachute system was designed to protect occupants in the event of an emergency by lowering the aircraft to the ground after deployment. CAPS revolutionized general aviation safety by providing an additional measure of safety to occupants, with their seatbelts containing built-in impact protection air bags. Similar to their role in automobiles, the design is built into the seatbelts, making them easier to install in aircraft than retrofitting an aircraft frame. No other certified general aviation aircraft manufacturer in the world provides this safety feature as standard equipment.
When the CAPS system is deployed, the pilot pulls the red CAPS tee handle on the ceiling inside the cockpit. A solid-fuel rocket pushes out a hatch that covers the concealed compartment where the parachute is stored. As the rocket carries the parachute rearward from the back of the airplane, the embedded CAPS airplane harness straps release from the fuselage. Within seconds a 65-foot canopy will unfurl, controlling the aircraft’s rate of descent. The final landing is absorbed by the specialized landing gear—a built in roll cage and the Cirrus Energy Absorbing Technology (CEAT™) seats.
ARFF and Structural Firefighter Safety Concerns
Both BRS and CAPS systems afford the occupants with a greater chance of survivability. All emergency responders must be properly trained to operate at or around both deployed and undeployed ballistic parachute systems. One challenge to responders may be their inability to identify the installation of a recovery system.
With the Cirrus line of aircraft, we know the system is a factory-installed feature. But, many people have started to retrofit these systems into their Cessna aircraft. Therefore when we teach ARFF programs we preach that emergency responders must establish a “NO GO ZONE.” This would be the area aft, or behind, the cockpit and directly above the window or blast panel. Typically the parachute will deploy either out of a rear window area or through a hatch in the rear portion of the aircraft fuselage. Note that when deployed, it will come out at an extremely high rate of speed with a tremendous amount of force. You do not want to be in front of this when it is deployed. This creates a unique personal safety hazard for emergency responders operating on the scene. Therefore this area must be respected by all personnel working on scene. This area MUST remain clear until the ballistic parachute recovery system is secured to avoid an unexpected deployment of the system.
The deployment of a stored parachute is just one hazard for emergency responders. Aircraft that have landed safely with the assistance of their ballistic parachute system may have a new problem in high winds. Emergency responders may have to deal with the parachute itself if your response is during high winds. The force of the wind has the ability to move or drag the aircraft that has already landed safely on the ground. In cases like this the manufacturer recommends placing a heavy object on top of the parachute. One suggestion would be parking a vehicle on top of the deployed parachute.
If your emergency aircraft is on the ground and positioned upright (on its landing gear) the NO GO ZONE can be easily established, but if the emergency aircraft comes to rest laying on its side, then the blast path of the parachute may be in the area of responders who are working to assist the occupants. The incident commander, operations officer, and the incident safety officer must establish and maintain a safety no go zone. We recommend using safety cones or fire line tape to restrict foot traffic in the projected blast path of the parachute. Should you encounter an aircraft emergency with a nondeployed ballistic parachute, the pilot of the aircraft will be your first resource on how to normally pin or secure the deployment handle. We do not recommend that emergency responders attempt to cut (or) secure the system unless they have been factory trained by the manufacturer. Fire departments operating at an incident for which the pilot is incapacitated should contact the manufacturer immediately to request assistance. BRS and CAPS are available as a resource, and they offer a “go team” response. This is a team of certified personnel that will respond to the scene of the accident and safely disarm the solid rocket fuel system.
We can’t stress enough the importance of getting educated on BRS and CAPS systems. You must get out on the flight line to look for these systems before your next inflight emergency. A good place to start for firefighters would be the fixed based operator (FBO) that offer aircraft maintenance. Another great resource would be to contact the Airport Operations Division. These two resources will know which tenants of your airport have ballistic recovery parachute aircraft or they know which aircraft operate to and from your airport on a regular basis. Other important resources are BRS and CAPS themselves. You can find more information and training videos https://brsaerospace.com/. The FAA has also created an Advisory Circular (AC) on firefighter training on ballistic parachute recovery systems. For more information from the FAA, visit https://www.faa.gov/airports/airport_safety/certalerts/media/cert1304.pdf. These two sites offer information for firefighters to maintain FAA Part 139 compliance.
WILLIAM GREENWOOD is a 25-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently the Assistant Fire Chief of Training at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. Bill is a Senior Staff Instructor for the New Hampshire Fire Academy and owns FETC Services, which provides advanced firefighter and leadership training/consultation services. He is also a national speaker for FDIC International and has been published in Fire Engineering and FireRescue.