COPA Safety: Pull Often!

by Rick Beach


What a difference a year makes.

In the last half of 2011, we saw 11 fatal Cirrus accidents and only one CAPS save. In the last half of 2012, we saw six fatal accidents and four CAPS saves. A year later, that's about half the number of fatal accidents and way more CAPS saves. COPA had something to do with it.

In each of the four CAPS saves, those pilots credit their training and the COPA community for preparing them to take action when they needed to.

Matt Richmond, Pickens, S.C.

I was just doing what I trained to do.

Matt flies a Cirrus SR22 as a corporate pilot and CSIP instructor. On this trip, he had three company employees returning home when at 9,000 feet the plane experienced a loss of engine power. He could see the Pickens airport directly underneath them, so he diverted.

I set up for the best deadstick landing ever, but as I lowered the flaps, the plane shook and didn't respond as I expected. I could see that I wasn't going to make the runway and in a split second, as I descended below 1,000 feet, I pulled the CAPS handle. We landed in trees, actually we were suspended in trees. My wing was touching the ground, but I knew we were okay if we stayed put. People would find us. I kept my passengers calm, which wasn't that easy, and we waited for rescue.

Matt spoke to the Cirrus Training Symposium about that decision:

Let me reiterate how happy I am to be part of a network of Cirrus folks who are so passionate about safety that they would disseminate such excellent resources. My buddy told me about the outcomes video on the COPA web site.

(Editor's note: The link to the COPA M9 safety presentation by Rick Beach is at

I sat and watched it over lunch and without it, I doubt that I would have pulled the chute. After watching all those outcomes, you can put yourself in those situations, consider your criteria, get a realistic image of do or don't. That video got the ball rolling and planted the seed. When it hit the fan, I just did what I was trained to do.

When the plane failed me, I think it was the prop governor but they haven't told me yet, you don't have time to think and stare. You need to start acting. I was doing everything I knew to get the plane on the runway, flying the posted airspeeds, but I exhausted my skill set. Rick, your video saved all of those people on that airplane!

Bill Sprague, Birmingham, Ala.

Under the circumstances, I went through the procedures; pulling the chute was the last resort. I knew I was at 1,000 feet. If I hadn't pulled the chute, I don't think either one of us would be here right now.

Bill Sprague, a COPA member, was flying home with a passenger, planning to stop at Birmingham for fuel. On the approach, in IMC, things didn't feel right. The weather had worsened and the ceiling dropped. As he crossed the outer marker and descended to 2,000 feet, he was still in the clouds.

At this point I felt uncomfortable and declared I was going missed. I was acknowledged by Tower and told to fly the runway heading. I told Tower I was not sure where that was, at this time I was no longer on the approach. Tower told me to turn to a 180-degree heading and climb to 4,000 feet.

When I turned, the plane just whipped to the side. By the time I leveled it out, it felt like it was just falling. I looked at my altimeter, showing 1,700 feet, knowing field was 700 feet, I knew I had 1,000 feet before I hit the ground, so I reached up, and as a last resort, I pulled the chute on that plane.

Cirrus N80KW landed in a vacant lot in downtown Birmingham, Ala., after a successful CAPS pull.


What makes this accident particularly significant was the similarity of disorientation on approach in IMC with one CAPS save and two fatal Cirrus accidents, all within three weeks. At Willard, Mo., while returning from a ball game late at night, the plane crossed the final approach fix, executed a missed approach, but on the second approach crashed just inside the final approach fix in a high-energy impact. At Gary, Ind., the pilot was cleared for the approach but crashed about a mile short of the airport in a high- energy impact. Fortunately, Bill Sprague's scenario had a survivable outcome.

I can [attest] to the fact that the parachute system and safety design of the Cirrus saved our lives.

I just did what I was trained to do. We're trained to pull the parachute in this plane. You just do it that way. A last resort. When you have nothing else left to do, pull the chute.

I hope this information is helpful to other Cirrus pilots.

Bob Wolff, Show Low, Ariz.

Everyone's first question to me is always how did I do in my crash landing?

Well ... I tell them I did not crash land ... I made a parachute landing.

On an early morning flight on his way to a vacation in Mexico, COPA member Bob Wolff lost oil pressure at 14,000 feet. He diverted to Show Low, Ariz.

I told Center I could see the runway, but I was not going to make it there, and I was going to turn right to get out from over the forest and pull the parachute in an open area, and for them to send help ... this was about 7:30 in the morning.

I pulled the mixture off, and pulled the chute. That's quite a ride, and a pitch up to what seems like 80 degrees to the surface - an E-Ticket ride for you old Disney fans. I was about 2,000 feet AGL and at 95 knots when I deployed. After what I estimated as the third swing, I hit the ground athwart-ships, or for you non-sailors, with the left wing leading the way.

Bob made a quick assessment of his situation, exited the plane to get away from a potential fire, but couldn't find his phone. He was safely on the ground, knew where he was, and just needed folks to come find him. That took a while.

I slipped in and retrieved my Garmin 496 and my hand- held radio. Away from the plane I tried to raise someone on the radio, no luck, and dang, I cannot remember the last center frequency. I write down my lat/long: N34d 13.128' W109d 52.430'. I went back into the plane and realized that the ELT had not yet activated, so I switched it on manually, and grabbed more things.

I still couldn't find my cell phone. I looked and looked. Each time I extracted more and more gear from the airplane.

Cirrus N800RW landed under canopy in an open field in Arizona after a catastrophic loss of oil pressure.

Now, I was starting to look for a camping spot in the trees, and do my best Boy Scout thing. I kept a satellite phone in my emergency supplies, so I broke it out and tried dialing 911 a dozen times before someone answered. I read my lat/long to him, was cut off, called back, and read it again. At that point, I called my wife in Mexico and let her know I would be late for dinner, and that I was fine, and was cut off again.

Besides being well prepared for survival in the mountains, Bob had time and resources to think through his plans. Eventually, the 911 operator on the sat phone connected him with the USAF Rescue Coordination Center. They took his location and told him to turn off his ELT. They also called his cell phone, which rang and rang and rang, helping Bob locate it under the rudder pedals on the co-pilot side. Bob had been expecting a helicopter to fly over, but he saw nothing, so he used his paragliding skills to re-inflate the parachute as a visual marker.

Bob reinflated the parachute as a visual marker (mid-photo) to help searchers find him.

After about two hours, with me thinking someone with my coordinates could find me, I walked up a gentle slope towards the only sound I had heard, and looked at my phone - wow three bars. I called 911. I gave the dispatcher my info and she asked me if I heard the sirens... no, I said, but I thought I heard one earlier. She asked me to walk in that direction, after several hundred yards, way off in the distance, I saw a flash of white, and told her I saw a truck, it's a white propane truck. She told the searchers, and low and behold a detective sees the propane truck go by a few minutes later ... he must be that away Tonto ....

I kept walking, and then he saw the parachute above the trees. It worked.

The sheriff's detective insisted that Bob go with the paramedics and that he would take care of deflating the parachute. Unfortunately, the winds picked up and the parachute flipped the plane over onto its back. That created a lot of misinformation. Bob continued his trip to Mexico and recuperated with family over the Thanksgiving holiday.

John Nixon, Gilgandra, NSW, Australia

John Nixon's self-portrait after descending under CAPS. VH-WYH experienced a catastrophic loss of oil, the engine seized, and John followed his training from the CPPP at Wagga Wagga to pull the CAPS handle and avoid an off-airport landing.

I own a plane exactly the same as the one I was flying and knew all about the ballistic parachute safety system.

Not many people in the world have set off an aircraft emergency parachute, but I had attended a training course at Wagga about 18 months ago and knew exactly what to do.

John Nixon encountered an engine problem while flying a company plane on business. As a COPA member who attended the CPPP at Wagga Wagga, Australia in 2010, he acted on that information and training to avoid an off-airport landing in a field.

Cirrus VH-WYH on the ground after landing under CAPS. Note the airbags on both front seats have deployed, which may be the first such deployment under parachute.

A local news story captured John's superb explanation of how he handled this emergency.

We were on the ground less than a minute after the oil gauge indicated the problem. Adrenaline kicked in and I automatically did what was needed.

The chute went off like a missile out the back of the aircraft and made a hell of a noise. We came to an almighty stop and the plane went into a nose down attitude as the parachute inflated.

About six seconds later, the line cutters (small explosive devices) at the back of plane went off, leveling the aircraft. The ground was approaching pretty quickly, but I was calm and Tom was calm. He was a good passenger and did everything he was supposed to do.

The plane hit the ground on its wheels. The undercarriage  collapsed to take the impact of the crash, just as it is supposed to do. The aircraft seats are especially designed to take the force of a crash, so the occupants don't break their backs. The seats and the emergency airbag system gave us good protection. Everything worked like a charm.

For more information

Each of these successful CAPS saves prompted extensive discussions on the COPA forums. You may find valuable lessons from these discussions as COPA members explore how they might handle similar situations.

Also, you can follow COPA safety events, resources, and dialogues on Twitter .

Special Note: The cover image was taken by COPA member Bob Wolff who has an eye for photography. He took this photograph with his iPhone® 5 on the ground near Show Low, Ariz., after landing under the CAPS parachute. When we told him that we wanted to use his photograph for the cover, he responded, "I am honored, but boy it cost a lot to get 'that' shot."