Recently, two things coincided to bracket the Cirrus safety innovations. First, Cirrus released a significant update on training resources about using the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) parachute system. Second, a COPA Pilot activated the CAPS system but the parachute failed to deploy.
Of course, this set off discussions across the aviation community about Cirrus safety innovations, often disparaging COPA Pilots and the Cirrus safety record.
The Cirrus fleet comes with many innovative safety features. Every Cirrus built has CAPS, a large multifunction display, autopilot and GPS navigator. Modern Cirrus airplanes come with integrated avionics that include protection against flying outside an envelope of safety -- not too fast, not too slow, not banked too much, etc.
So, why isn't the safety record of the Cirrus fleet much better than we hoped for?
These recent contrasting events prompted me to answer this question again.
After studying Cirrus accidents and our fleet demographics, my simple explanation is that Cirrus expanded the pilot pool.
Consequently, enough of those pilots are not as diligent or well trained as those who fly other models. Furthermore, given that 3/4 of NTSB accident causes are related to pilot causes, the airplane model doesn't matter. Except, Cirrus innovated in the market and attracted more pilots to general aviation, and hence gets most of the attention and blame.
Low time-in-type shows up as a huge factor in Cirrus fatal accidents. Over half of the accident pilots had less than 200 hours in a Cirrus. And of course, every COPA Pilots starts out a zero hours.
As for all those nifty safety features -- the chute, better avionics including envelope protection -- the technology is not yet simple enough or smart enough to avoid getting in the way.
The chute requires pilots to think through when they would use it, hence the mantra "Pull Early, Pull Often!" and the campaign to "Consider CAPS" in emergency situations and to train differently to prepare for use of this live-saving feature. We know that almost 2/3 of the Cirrus fatal accidents were good or great opportunities for using the parachute -- but pilots didn't and died.
Better avionics are cool, but also bring complexity. If you don't understand the system, then when something unusual happens how well prepared is the pilot to handle it?
It's a frustrating but well known situation -- innovation often comes with a valley of doom before things get better. Things got really worse in 2011. Now in 2013, they appear to be getting better.
So much better that the 12-month fatal accident rate (1.30) is approaching it's lowest level since 2004, while the Cirrus fleet has grown about five times larger and the flying time grown about three times larger since then.
Something is working to improve safety in the past year. "Pull Early, Pull Often!" "Consider CAPS" And "CAPS Works. Training Makes it Work For You!"
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