Early Reflections on CAPS Pull #32 by Dick McGlaughlin in the Bahamas

Early Reflections on CAPS Pull #32 by Dick McGlaughlin in the Bahamas

Dr. Richard “Dick” McGlaughlin and his daughter Elaine made national news after they used the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) to splash down in the azure blue waters near the Bahamas.  Their landing under that big red-and-white parachute counted as the 28th CAPS save of 53 survivors since 1999 when Cirrus Aircraft introduced this rocket-fired parachute on the SR20 and SR22 models.

(Photo: US Coast Guard.  Cirrus SR22 N732EA in the water off Andros Island, Bahamas, with two people in a life raft holding onto the risers from the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System)

Dick frequently posts on the web forum of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), where he is a respected and popular contributor, and he has already posted some details of the experience.

Does your engine sound different flying over water?

Many of us worry that our engines sound differently as soon as we embark on a long trip over water.  Most often it’s our imagination.

This time, the engine in Dick’s plane stopped!

First the oil pressure dropped slightly and within three or four minutes went to zero.  Then the engine seized and the propeller stopped. Elaine called it insane, as they were flying along at 9,500 feet but now the prop was straight up and down!

Haiti Beckons

Dick and Elaine were on their way to Haiti where Dick, a medical doctor, has regularly flown himself and supplies and volunteers to offer medical services after the earthquake and cholera epidemic.  In fact, Dick has recruited several other COPA members who purchased hard-to-find supplies and flew them to Haiti in their personal Cirrus aircraft.  A Cirrus can fly this route direct non-stop, when there is fuel available in Haiti.  The route takes you close to Andros Island, the big island in the Bahamas. 

(Dr. Dick McGlaughlin with a recovering patient, Crystal, in Haiti soon after the earthquake in June 2010.)

The Engine Stops Over Water

Cruising at 9,500 feet when the engine stops, the Cirrus will glide about 15 miles in about 10 minutes.  The advice to trim all the way back gave Dick a quick and effective way to establish best glide airspeed.

He declared an emergency with Miami air traffic controllers and headed for nearest land.  A big plus was the warm Atlantic Ocean.   On board, they had a life vests, life raft, a personal locator beacon for search and rescue, and a hammer to break the windows if the doors would not open.

Dick and Elaine got within 2 miles of Andros Island, but not close enough to land there.

Emergency Landing on Water: To Ditch or Pull CAPS Handle?

A Cirrus pilot can choose to enter the water either by flying to the surface and ditching as slow as practical, or by deploying the airframe parachute and descending under canopy to a splash down.

People survive conventional ditching over 90% of the time, although some people survive the landing only to die from exposure or drowning afterwards.  Good survival and rescue equipment helps the prepared.  COPA recommends following the advice of our aviation survival partner, the Equipped to Survive Foundation.

Five Cirrus pilots have deployed the CAPS parachute over water.  The results were generally favorable, with some concerns about back injuries, and how quickly people can get out of the plane.  One pilot died when his son pulled the handle so close to the ground in a spin that the parachute did not have much time to slow the plane.  So, COPA encourages pilots to pull early and prepare for egress, the things you need to do as you exit the plane in the water.

Dick admits to being unsure of what would happen with a CAPS splash down, but he determined that he would pull at 2,000 feet above the ocean.  Actually, he got impatient and pulled at 2,300 feet!

The Rocket Goes Off!

The parachute in the Cirrus remains hidden inside the rear of the plane until the pilot, or any other person in the plane, pulls a red handle in the cockpit roof.  That cable needs a good yank, first out of the holder and then down to activate the rocket igniter.

That rocket travels fast!

Within a couple of seconds the rocket blasts through a protective cover, pulls the heavy parachute bag out of the plane, rips the risers out of hidden channels to hold the plane at three points, two in front and one in the rear, then stretches the 90-foot risers to full length.   No more than two seconds and the plane begins to slow down immediately.  Typical deployments show that after about 8 seconds, the parachute slowed all forward momentum and the plane descends level under canopy at about 20 mph or 1700 feet per minute.

(Deployment sequence for the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.  Source: Cirrus Aircraft SR22 Pilot Operating Handbook)

The parachute slows you down from 100 mph to zero in eight seconds.  As Dick recalls, he cautioned Elaine to tighten her seatbelt low across her hips.  Yet the jerk in those first few seconds caused her to bend forward and bump her head on the dashboard.

Simulating The Cirrus Parachute

Several aircraft simulators exist where Cirrus pilots can experience what happens when the CAPS parachute deploys. Dick visited the simulator in Atlanta that moves the platform and pilot seats to create the illusion of flying.  That’s where he pulled the simulated CAPS handle.  The simulator creates the jerk and points the nose down until the parachute slows the plane when it levels the plane as if under canopy. That prepared him for the dramatic view from the front window as the nose drops and you are looking at the expanse of blue water!

(A right-seat passenger activates the red CAPS handle in the roof of the cockpit in the Simtrain full-motion simulator located at The Flight Academy at North Las Vegas Airport)

Cirrus pilots can locate simulators, especially ones with CAPS handles, across the US and the newest full-motion sim in Poland.

Water Splash Down

Cirrus designed the CAPS system with energy absorbing features to protect people when coming straight down.  The engineers equate the impact to a drop of about 13 feet.

The main landing gear legs bend to absorb energy.  The seat bottoms contain a light honeycomb structure that crushes to absorb energy.  The four-point seat belts keep your back straight against the seat.  The pilot and co-pilot control sticks, the yokes, mount off to the side to avoid impaling injuries.  The instrument panel is padded to absorb energy.

Note: while many Cirrus airplanes include airbags, they are designed for frontal impacts and do not operate in vertical impacts typical of a CAPS parachute landing.

Dick vividly describes their splash down as a hard landing, harder than he expected.  But both he and Elaine were uninjured.  The cabin quickly began to fill with water through the fresh air vents, so they felt urgency to get out of the plane.  While Elaine’s door would not open, the pilot door opened easily and both got onto the wing with their life vests and life raft.

The raft promptly overturned when inflated and Dick struggled to get it right way up.  From the pictures, this single-tube four-person life raft looks very tiny and quite modest.  Think carefully about your choice of life raft as  your survival waiting for rescue may depend upon keeping warm and out of the sun or stormy weather.

(Dick and Elaine McGlauglin in their modest four-person life raft holding onto the risers of the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System trying to stay with the plane and not drift away.  Source: US Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Rescue

Any search and rescue effort requires coordination among many agencies.  However, the sound and sight of a helicopter dropping a rescue swimmer makes the news.  The rescuers reported seeing the parachute about eight miles away.  The life raft was just a dot on the ocean.

(Rescue swimmer from the US Coast Guard prepares Elaine and Dick McGlauglin for hoisting into the helicopter.  Source: US Coast Guard)

Unfortunately, when the helicopter approached the plane, the downwash reinflated the parachute and lifted it about 30 feet in the air.  Dick and Elaine had been holding onto the risers to avoid drifting away from their most visible rescue streamer, the 50-foot diameter red-and-white parachute.   Stay with the plane until rescued!

The plane sank in about 10 feet of water, although the parachute seemed to keep it upright.

The helicopter took the McGlauglins to Nassau for an unplanned hotel stay.  They soon arranged to continue their travel to Haiti.

Lessons for Cirrus Pilots

The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System worked again over water with two survivors without injuries.  Anticipate the need to use CAPS for an emergency by practicing in a simulator with a CAPS handle.  Consider carefully your survival and rescue equipment for the conditions that you fly over, not just at your departure and destination.  Pull early over water to give yourself time to prepare for splash down and egress from the airplane.

And always fly with a personal locator beacon attached to you by a cord or lanyard.  If it isn’t with you, then it can’t save you!

Comments
  • The Doctor did it just right. Glided as far as possible towards land, deployed the chute at 2,000 to prepare and was prepared for the water landing with vest and a raft.  

    I think everyone would like to know the cause of the engine oil pressure loss which resulted in this CAPS event. Hopefully the plane will be recovered and examined.

    The bottom line is-way to go Doctor!

  • It looks like the plane floated long enough for the rescue.  I thought it would have sunk in a few minutes.  Bravo Dick!

  • awesome account....great lessons to learn.....have myself flown over that stretch of water

  • Makes everything about CAPS - "real" ... great account and cant wait to see this in a formal presentation someday at CPPP ... way to go Dick!

  • Well done Doc- text book...

    1) well trained/ proficient aviator

    2) calm during the emergency

    3) Executed the CAPS option

    4) Aircraft was equipped with proper survival equipment

    5) You stayed with the aircraft- but far enough away to avoid entanglement

    This should be featured in all aviation publications. Richard- you can operate on me anytime-- great to see both of you avoided injury

  • Elaine mentioned in her account that the plane was just coming out of its annual inspection.  It will be interesting to see what the investigators find out about the engine and oil lines.

  • Does anyone know how he exited the plane? Did he break a window or get the door open?

  • While Elaine's door, the passenger door would not open, Dick's door, the pilot door, easily opened and they both got out that way.  In another description, it seems that Dick pulled Elaine out of her seat and through the door as they both feared the inrush of water would lead to rapid sinking -- that did not happen.  So, no need for breaking a window.

  • Georgia:

    We landed flat, and though it felt like quite a jolt, there was no damage to the bottom of the plane when we saw it later.

    Alot of water came in through the vents- a lap full, and I mistook that for cabin flooding. Our feet were probably dry. Elaine had trouble with her seatbelt, and also with her door, but I know her seatbelt was fine, and I think her door was, too. I opened her belt, and pulled her out my door, which had opened normally. we got out on the wing, and I reached back in for the raft, and got it out and inflated it.

    We waited for the plane to sink. over the next couple minutes, it settled left wing down, but it never sank. It became apparent the water was pretty shallow.

    If the settling would have been followed by sinking in deeper water, it would have taken 2-4 minutes, I think.

    Interesting- I had my passport, cash and wallet in a moneybelt type sling over my right shoulder, and under my left arm. I managed to remove that when I ripped off the headsets and seatbelts. About the time I began to worry about that, it bubbled up out of the cockpit, and we swam over and got it.

  • Richard, I'm still in awe of this incident and really happy that it turned out so well.  If there would have been passengers in the back seats, do you feel that they would have had sufficient time to get out before the plane went under?  We are looking at doing a trip to the bahamas as well, but I would most likely have my wife and baby, if not the baby and 5yro in the back seat.  I'm just curious as to you opinion on the amount of time that might be available to get them out?

  • Great work Richard!  Would you recommend opening the doors slightly before impact or was it best to keep them latched?  

  • Just watched Dr. Richard McGlaughlin's presentation at M10 over USSTREAM.  Great presentation by a great humanitarian with a passion to help other people! Also I really liked his honest description of the event of the parachute pull and what happens to the pilot and passenger in emergency scenarios. Great lessons and a wonderful story!

    I tried to find the link for donating money to the GI lab that Dr. Richard McGlaughlin mentioned but could not find it....

    Thanks for sharing your mission and stories!

    Rik

  • Dick

    if you pulled the caps handle- dose one loose control of your glide because Caps takes two hands to deploy, or is this not relevant because the pull takes only a moment?

    Thank you

    Tom

  • @Tom Ficho: yes, the pull only takes a moment, only a second or two, certainly much faster than worrying about maintaining control!  This is something that every Cirrus pilot should find an opportunity to experience (not in your own plane!) but in a simulator or at least with the CAPS cable, for instance at a Partner in Command course or at the CPPP emergency procedures course. Does it interfere with best glide? Based on comments from Dick and a few others who have pulled the CAPS handle, once you decide to pull the handle, that's where all of your attention needs to go -- and don't just pull, yank it, and keep yanking until something seems to happen. Dick trimmed all the way back to get the plane into an attitude for best glide, so once trimmed, it would likely stay that way while you did other things -- until you decide to act and pull the red handle.

    Cheers

    Rick

  • @Rik: donate to St. Luc's Foundation in Haiti here: http://stlukehaiti.org/donate/

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