Shaking off the chill of the late February afternoon in Las Vegas, I headed toward the door of flight instructor (and Platinum CSIP) Mike Radomsky’s office in an aviation building at the North Las Vegas Airport (KVGT). I became acquainted with Mike when I attended his Partner-InCommand seminar on “Surviving Pilot Incapacitation” at the COPA Migration at Amelia Island in October 2022. At that seminar, he offered a free opportunity for partners to come to Las Vegas and experience pulling the red T-handle that activates the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) in his full motion simulator.
It was an appointment months in the making as I coordinated a trip to see my brother, who lives in Las Vegas, and Mike’s busy flight training schedule. Since my brother, Ken, is an aviation enthusiast, I asked him to join me.
As Mike ushered us into his office, he started the conversation by emphasizing how essential it was to learn how to operate CAPS long before takeoff.
“Partners need to know this information because it can be lifesaving,” he said. “I am passionate about it, and that’s why I teach it.”
“Are either of you pilots?” Mike asked.
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
“What about the Cirrus? Have either of you ever been in one or have any familiarity with the controls?”
My only experience on a Cirrus flight was a demo ride I had taken a year and a half earlier. My knowledge of the airplane’s controls was severely limited to the fullsize posters that my husband, John, had plastered to the wall of his man cave.
Ken’s story was different. He had “chairflown” an SR22 on his Microsoft Flight Simulator, so he was more familiar with the controls.
“What about a full-motion simulator? Have you ever been in one?”
I eyed my brother as we both shook our heads. We both hoped this wouldn’t be a nausea-inducing, knock-your-socks-off experience. My brother grimaced; he hated roller coasters. Mike smiled and told us not to worry. Although his FEIST simulator (Full Motion Emergency and Instruction Simulator Training) could be programmed to simulate varying weather conditions, engine issues, night flying and turbulence, he noted that the buttons on his “calamity panel” were strictly for training pilots. Of course, this wasn’t a thrill ride, but the realism was there. It was an opportunity to increase my awareness of how the parachute worked and the decision-making process that went along with it in case of a severe emergency.
I wanted to come to the meeting prepared and understand the CAPS system and what makes it safe. That meant doing some pre-simulator research. My husband had directed me to the free CAPS course available in the Learning Catalog on the “Cirrus Approach” website. The hour-and-a-half course is a must for all Partners-In-Command and consists of several short videos detailing every aspect of the CAPS system, including specifics on when to pull the red T-handle. One of the most impactful parts of the course was hearing two pilots tell their individual stories of survival after using CAPS. It was a definite call to action.
As Mike stood next to a picture of the Cirrus Avidyne display panel on his office wall, he briefed us on the transponder’s location and how to enter the emergency SQUAWK 7700. He pointed out the LVL (LEVEL), HDG (HEADING) and ALT (ALTITUDE) buttons, which he said are essential if the pilot becomes incapacitated.
“Ken will be your pilot,” he said as he outlined our roles and what to expect in the simulation. “He will be ‘flying’ out of your home airport in Crestview, Florida (KCEW). Once he reaches an altitude of 5,800 feet, he will become incapacitated. After that, you will take over.”
Mike paused and asked, “Are you ready to pull CAPS?”
I took a deep breath. Mike’s goal for this experience was to teach me to pivot and not panic, as severe stress can erode any logical progression necessary to handle the situation. That is why he gives every partner in his classes a spiral-bound booklet on Surviving Pilot Incapacitation and a lanyard with an abbreviated checklist to wear and use in an emergency.
As we headed to the simulator, Mike took us past a room with technicians learning how to repack the CAPS parachute. I peeked in and saw an actual CAPS canopy and its risers (suspension lines) draped across the room’s walls. A moment later, Mike wheeled out the aft section of a Cirrus airframe from an adjacent closet to show us where the parachute and rocket motor were embedded under the composite skin. I couldn’t help but be amazed at the technology and engineering that went into developing this parachute and rocket system. It felt good knowing that Cirrus made this a standard feature in every aircraft that left the factory.
Once inside the massive simulator room, Ken and I climbed about 12 steel steps and crossed a short walkway to get to the simulator cabin. As I settled into the seat, I watched Mike adjust buttons and knobs on the instrument panel, then pull on our seatbelts to ensure they were securely fastened. He then checked our seats’ adjustment, made sure that our headsets had good audio, and that our doors were closed.
Above my head and between the forward two seats was the red CAPS activation handle. Positioned just as it would be in a real airplane, Mike removed the CAPS access cover (which also has instructions on activation), took the activation safety pin out and then announced that CAPS was available.
“You’re ready to go,” he said as he headed to the instructor operating station behind us and out of view.
Within moments, Ken was advancing the throttle, and we were taking off. I watched the gauges as we simulated an ascent to 5,800 feet.
“Your pilot is now incapacitated,” Mike announced.
I went into action
“Ken,” I yelled several times, “wake up.”
When I couldn’t rouse him, I grabbed the laminated checklist from around my neck and immediately began following each step. First, I pressed the button labeled LVL, then the HDG, and finally, the ALT. I tried to move Ken’s seat further back, but my seat belt prevented it. Next, I checked to make sure his seat belt was taut and that I had secured any loose items. Had my pilot been choking, I would have attempted a modified Heimlich maneuver from my seat. Carbon monoxide poisoning could have been a factor, but if it had affected my pilot, I wouldn’t be far behind. In that scenario, I would have turned the heat off and made sure the air conditioning was on. Hypoxia wouldn’t have been a factor at 5,800 feet, but at a higher altitude, I would have checked the pilot’s oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter, checked the oxygen system and used the autopilot to descend.
I located the transponder, just as Mike had shown me and as stated on the checklist. I quickly keyed in 7700 to squawk ‘emergency’ on the transponder.
Acting as an air traffic controller, Mike calmly said, “Cirrus, what is your emergency?”
I pressed the PTT (push to talk) button on the yoke. “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. My pilot is unresponsive. I am declaring an emergency.”
How many souls are on board?
“Two,” I answered.
“Can you tell how much fuel is on board?”
“Both tanks look about half full,” I said.
“Are you able to land the plane?”
“No,” I said, trying to remain composed, “but I can fly headings. Can you direct me to the nearest airport, an open field, or an area where I can deploy the plane’s parachute?” I asked, knowing this option would be best for emergency services.
The controller gave me headings to turn the plane toward the nearest airport. I continually watched the screen in front of me while the simulator responded.
“You are overhead the airport now,” Mike said, his voice steady and direct.
I put both hands on the activation T-handle and pulled straight down as if doing a chin-up. There was a loud bang simulating the rocket igniting and breaking through the protective cover of the roof behind the baggage compartment. Almost immediately afterward, the simulator pulled us back into our seats, and we pitched down sharply, simulating the shortened rear harness strap of the parachute. This is designed to stabilize the airplane’s deceleration as the parachute opens. Then, just like it would be in an actual activation, the simulator came back to a level attitude as the rear parachute strap released to its full length. Then as Mike told us, stay calm and know that the force of the landing is equivalent to dropping from a height of 13 feet. He also mentioned that the airframe, seat belts/airbags and landing gear are all designed to absorb the force of impact. After impact, the last thing to do would be to reach down by the pilot’s right foot to ensure activation of the ELT (electronic locator transmitter). Then we quickly exited and pretended to walk upwind, away from the parachute and any potential danger of smoke or flames.
Once the simulation ended, Ken and I looked at each other without saying a word.
“Wow,” I remember finally saying. “There is no way this comes naturally.”
Even though I am not a fan of roller coasters or heavy-duty motion rides in theme parks, this experience was not nearly as frightening as I had imagined. But it was extremely powerful and necessary to learn.
As a non-pilot, I am not skilled in the nuances of aircraft control or recovery when problems occur. However, I do know that there are consequences of inaction should the unthinkable happen. For me, getting outside my comfort zone and being able to experience a simulated emergency takes my preparedness and confidence to the next level. The emergency I was training for was pilot incapacitation, but without question, it benefits all who fly – pilots and partners alike.