CIRRUS Co-Founder

Cirrus Design Corporation has come a long way since its founders, brothers Alan and Dale Klapmeier, first conceived of revolutionizing the General Aviation industry by producing new kinds of single-engine aircraft that would be easy to fly, technologically advanced, and most importantly safe to operate.

Dale Klapmeier, Cirrus Executive Vice President, answers questions about the planning and logic that went into the Cirrus wing design, the importance of stall handing characteristics, and the history of the aircraft's most famous safety device the parachute.

Q: CIRRUS is well-known for CAPS, the whole-airplane parachute recovery system. What was the logic behind your company’s commitment to installing a parachute in every plane it produces?

A: In 1985 my brother Alan had a mid-air collision. The other airplane’s wing was severed from the fuselage and the pilot tragically died in the crash. Alan’s airplane lost a big chunk of its wing, including half of the aileron, making it almost impossible to control. He was able to get it back to the airport by keeping the speed very high – about 140 KIAS – and using full aileron deflection, but even with that configuration he was still in a turn at touchdown.

From that moment on, Alan decided there had to be another way – a safer way. His was a completely freak accident, on a beautiful day with unlimited visibility. It was nobody’s fault and could have happened to anybody, yet one person lost his life. Why? Because whatever endeavor humans are involved in creates the chance for accidents to occur. It was immediately after the mid-air that Alan began his search – and what ultimately became his quest – to find a way to make flying safer.

Q: That’s interesting, because there is a misconception that the parachute’s development and standard installation on CIRRUS aircraft came about as a spin recovery device.

A: Safety is a huge priority at CIRRUS. It’s been that way from the beginning and it’s the one thing that will never change. The force behind the parachute and every other device in our planes from the PFD (Primary Flight Display) to the MFD (Multi-Function Display) is, ‘how can we make the flying experience safer and easier?’

The answer is technology. For over four decades pilots accepted little or no improvement in airplanes. Can you imagine that happening with the automotive industry? Do you think people would just keep buying and driving cars that were nearly identical in design, safety, comfort, and efficiency to what was available in the 1950’s?

From the time we first conceived of the SR20, we knew that it was going to have a parachute. After the mid-air collision accident, that was the one absolute we worked with: that the airplane would have a recovery chute system. Initially we did about 40 parachute drops with BRS out in the desert near Kingman, Arizona, working to develop the right system for our airplane. We needed it to open quickly at low airspeeds, but also be able to open safely as the speed increases. Methods to minimize the loads on the chute and on the airframe needed to be created.

It was during that phase of development we realized that the chute could bring even greater safety advantages to the industry beyond just the relatively rare mid-air or mechanical problem accidents – it could actually change the way people fly airplanes. That realization was a driver behind the revolutionary design of our wing.

Q: Where does the wing design fit in as it pertains to the airplane’s parachute?

A: In the beginning, the airplane was designed with a standard straight wing. I want to be very clear on this. If you look at the photos from all of our initial flight tests and parachute drops, you’ll clearly see that the first wings did not incorporate our present design with the leading edge cuffs.

Q: Why did Cirrus decide to switch from a standard wing design to one with a segmented or ‘leading edge cuff’?

A: Back in the mid-1980’s, the first test pilot on our kit plane was a man by the name of Jim Patton who had been the Director of Flight Test at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Patton’s NASA Langley team developed the concept of the leading edge wing cuff and he firmly believed that General Aviation flying could be made safer through new wing designs.

We wanted to take the next step and build an airplane that was much more difficult to get into a spin. With the cuffs, we have improved slow flight and stall handling characteristics. We’ve made an airplane that’s much more difficult to get into a spin than a typical straight wing plane.

We created a plane that is docile during a stall so that pilots can avoid entering an inadvertent spin. A stall is similar to the edge an enormous canyon. With a canyon you can safely creep toward the edge and peer over the cliff – yet, there is a cliff. One inch too far, and you’re over the edge of it. CIRRUS wanted to put a fence between the pilot and the cliff, so to speak, a barrier between the stall and that abrupt entry into a spin.

Of course, extreme abuse of controls can still result in spin entry. That is where the parachute comes in.

Q: But as long as pilots flew the airplane in the approved manner, it could be safe enough, so why not just spin certify it?

A: This just did not seem safe enough to us. It would be going down the same old road General Aviation had been following for decades which was to produce planes that are spin recoverable in some circumstances – but – were also very easy to get into a spin in the first place. We also learned from accident statistics that the majority of spin accidents occur at altitudes where there is insufficient time for spin recovery, even by a highly trained test pilot.

We felt strongly that avoiding a spin in the first place was the key to reducing stall/spin fatalities. We wanted to design an airplane that had better stall characteristics, and not just design one to recover from a spin with a test pilot onboard with lots of altitude – that would not make flying safer.


Q: How do the leading edge cuffs help the pilot near a stall?

A: Traditionally, most pilots have been taught to control roll with aileron until they’re near a stall. At that point they’re supposed to use only the rudder, but that’s not intuitive so it causes problems. Also, if they use too little or too much control input, they can have a rapid break into an inadvertent spin which may not be recoverable, especially if it happens anywhere near the ground.

With the CIRRUS it will shake, the controls will get mushy, and the stall warning horn will be blowing but the outboard section of the wing is still flying. The segmented leading edge creates a natural stall fence which helps to keep the ailerons effective. One of the deadliest stall/spin events in aviation is the ‘base to turn’ final with a trailing wind. In that scenario, the plane is low and slow and even the best spin recovery technique in the world will not save you.

Q: What about the unlikely – but still not impossible – scenario of a pilot getting the airplane into a spin?

A: This is where the parachute – the CAPS – comes into the picture. Our feeling is if a pilot loses situational awareness so badly that he ends up in a spin, it means one thing: he has lost control of his airplane. In that situation, to expect that somebody out of control would suddenly be able to use the correct control inputs to recover and have enough altitude is just not going to happen in the majority of circumstances. Throughout aviation history we have seen that recovery from a loss of control is unlikely. Hoping pilots will instantly figure out how to recover from an extreme emergency they’ve entered only after doing multiple things wrong is clearly not the solution.

The parachute, which had already been designed into the CIRRUS from day one, allows the airplane to be stable and recovered from a spin in less altitude than it takes many other airplanes using their published spin recovery technique. There’s a reason that even the world’s finest airshow performers still wear parachutes as a back-up. Pilots make mistakes – sometimes really big mistakes. The parachute is their ‘out’ if they have lost control, or if a life-threatening event beyond their control like a midair occurs.

Q: So the CAPS is the spin recovery procedure?

A: The CAPS is the only recommended and approved spin recovery method for CIRRUS aircraft. There are different methods a manufacturer can employ to meet FAA spin requirements; we chose a parachute and believe the parachute is the best method. Again – if you’ve lost control of your airplane, you’re probably not in a state of mind to effectively recover before impact. Accident statistics have proven this for decades and the past record is just not good enough anymore.

The future will bring new airfoil designs, more planes with parachutes, and whatever else some brilliant young engineer can come up with to make flying safer. It always comes down to safety. Always. It’s the continual quest to make airplanes that are safer and easier to fly that will remain the driving force behind CIRRUS.

Q: Last question: how do you respond to critics that say, “Who needs a parachute if I can hold my airplane at a descent path of 700fpm in an emergency– which is lower than the descent rate with a parachute?”

A: The answer is obvious: what is your forward speed? Given a choice, wouldn’t you logically always rather hit the ground in an emergency at a zero forward speed than say, for example, 90 KIAS? But really, how many pilots in an emergency will not panic, will remain in control, do the correct procedures and be lucky enough to find a suitable landing spot – perhaps at night, maybe IFR – and magically make an off-airport landing, and not flip the plane? Heck, if everything is this good, you’re not in a life-threatening emergency – you don’t need to use the parachute! But, if the outlook isn’t quite so rosy, CAPS gives you another option.

To read the next article in our stall/spin awareness series, please click here for: ‘Interview with a Cirrus Design Engineer'

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