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