CAPS: How Low Can You Go? Or How High Do You Need to Be? (COPA Pilot Jul-Aug 2015) - Pull early, pull often! - Safety and Training Programs - Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association

CAPS: How Low Can You Go? Or How High Do You Need to Be? (COPA Pilot Jul-Aug 2015)

CAPS: How Low Can You Go? Or How High Do You Need to Be? (COPA Pilot Jul-Aug 2015)

Every Cirrus aircraft built has a parachute system. Cirrus engineers designed it with “Safety is not an option.” Yet, those engineers did not provide guidance for a minimum deployment altitude. Let’s discuss that.

(This blog entry first appeared in COPA Pilot magazine, Jul/Aug 2015, pages 46-50)

by , COPA Safety Chair

A recent thread on the COPA forum posed the topic of when to deploy CAPS, the Cirrus parachute system. If you lose engine power during a departure climb, when can you pull? When should you pull?

COPA and Cirrus both advocate a callout of “CAPS and FLAPS” when the parachute system becomes viable.

How high is CAPS viable? And how low can you go before you risk serious or fatal injuries?

How Low?

Overwhelming data show that CAPS activations higher than 1,000 feet above the ground are survivable. No one has died.

Below that, the outcome becomes problematic.

How High?

A few hundred feet has proven not enough to survive. Activation low to the ground has resulted in 15 fatalities in eight accidents.

  • 528 feet in a spin at Indianapolis, Ind. in 2006 (1 fatality)
  • Less than 50 feet in a spin at Deltona, Fla. in 2009 (2 fatalities)
  • Less than 200 feet after fuel exhaustion at Carrollton, Texas in 2011 (1 fatality)
  • Low altitude pulls in the traffic pattern at Waxhaw, N.C. in 2008; Asturias, Spain in 2011; Melbourne, Fla. in 2012; Lanseria, South Africa in 2013 (8 fatalities total)

Know your Aircraft: The G5 is Different

Pilots need to know their aircraft. The oft-quoted loss of 400 feet in level flight and 920 feet in a one-and-a-half turn spin refer to the certification of the SR20 and SR22/SR22T, prior to the G5.

The SR22 G5, with the increased gross weight to 3,600 pounds, required a larger diameter parachute, heavier packed parachute, and more powerful rocket. The numbers for the loss of altitude in a G5 CAPS deployment have increased.

The G5 deployment sequence also differs because the line cutters delay longer. People noticed how long the plane was in a nose-low attitude in the Coast Guard video of Lue Morton’s CAPS deployment near Hawaii.

Plan accordingly.

Lue Morton’s CAPS deployment near Hawaii, shows a longer nose-low attitude position in a G5 SR22.

Pitch-down, Nose-low Attitude is a Design Feature

By the way, the engineers designed CAPS to induce a nose-low attitude immediately after deployment. The extra drag in that attitude helps decelerate the extra mass and speed of a Cirrus. The line cutters delay unfolding the rear riser to keep the plane in that high-drag configuration while it slows down, yet enables it to land in a level attitude.

You need to give the system time to fully operate.

What We Know from Data

Certification tests gave us data in a limited set of configurations. Investigations of Cirrus parachute deployments provide us with data from additional scenarios. Overwhelmingly, most CAPS deployments happen high enough to fully deploy, but a worrisome and recent trend shows more deployments below 500 feet with more injuries.

The lowest survivable CAPS deployment, based on released NTSB data, was at 386 feet AGL in level flight near Idabel, Okla., during a loss of engine power event. The passenger received a minor injury. Both pilot and passenger reported that the plane impacted the ground coincident with the tail dropping level.

Two other accidents still under investigation appear to have been even lower deployments and involved more serious injuries.

Investigators have told us that preliminary data showed one deployment at 325 AGL in an SR22 G3 at Texarkana, AR in 2013. From observations in Cirrus simulators, such a low-altitude pull seems way lower than a planned deployment, more consistent with a panic last-moment reaction.

Glad that it worked out and the pilot survived without injury. But without sufficient time or altitude for the CAPS system to fully deploy, hence decelerate the plane, you will hit something with more energy than need be. Pull early!

We do not need more test pilots!

Lower altitude pulls have more serious injuries and even fatalities. We have enough data on low altitude pulls. Please do not go for the record!

Your Attitude Matters

If you have an attitude that CAPS is not for you, then you can ignore this article. (I’m kidding.)

If you consider the attitude of your airplane and when to deploy, then read on!

1) Low-altitude dive attitude

Most of the fatalities in CAPS deployments occurred in a dive with the pull very low, perhaps 50 to 200 feet above the ground.

Given that the rocket extracts the parachute (two seconds), the risers fully extend (to 90 feet), the canopy inflates (several seconds as slider keeps the opening symmetrical), and the line cutters delay the tail drop (six to 10 seconds), it takes time to come down level under canopy.

In a dive, you are decreasing your altitude and hence your time for deceleration. Pull early, before you get too low.

2) Low-altitude level flight

In level flight, things work better. Still, you need to pull before you stall since that induces a loss of altitude you may need.

Curiously, faster airspeeds result in shorter deployment times, while slower airspeeds result in longer deployment times. The Hawaii pull was at about 80 knots and took longer than the highest airspeed pull of 190 knots.

The CAPS procedure has changed:

1) Remove cover

2) Pull handle

No longer does it involve slowing down. If you need CAPS, just pull!

3) Low-altitude departure climb

Fortunately, we do not have many examples of this. Unfortunately, we don’t have good data.

This is the scenario for the callout “CAPS and FLAPS” when you reach a CAPS-viable altitude.

A climb attitude can trade airspeed for altitude, but you have to act deliberately and quickly.

Build a habit with a departure briefing for when you will deploy CAPS and build muscle memory by grasping the CAPS handle at the callout (no need to pull, but do more than just point or touch the handle).

4) Deceleration effect of deploying CAPS

Wear your seatbelts at all times. We have data on what happens. At high airspeeds, the data shows up to 4Gs of instant deceleration when CAPS first slows the airplane. Good for reducing energy, bad for bouncing you around the cockpit if you are not securely fastened.

The CAPS deployment sequence takes time. Just four seconds earlier in that 528-foot Indianapolis spin may have been sufficient to reduce the impact energy and not have killed the pilot.

Boris Popov, the inventor of the ballistic recovery parachute system, advocates deploying the parachute prior to impact. He asks: Why die with a perfectly good parachute behind you?

Part of his thinking is based on what we know and what we don’t know. We know that CAPS will decelerate the plane. We don’t know precisely how low or how fast or at what attitude we pull. So give it your best effort. You may avoid a high-energy crash.

Better to pull early, so plan ahead.

Departure Procedure

COPA encourages every COPA Pilot to brief CAPS during a departure briefing.

As you hold short of the runway, review the runway heading, the winds, say the airspeed if you will abort the takeoff on the runway, say the altitude when CAPS becomes viable, and say that you will deploy CAPS if you lose engine power.

As you climb, monitor your altitude. At your CAPS-viable altitude, say the callout “CAPS and FLAPS” and grasp the handle.

Build the muscle memory you may need. Say things out loud. Tell yourself and your passengers. Make it real.

Pull Early, Pull Often!

Pull early – before you get too low.

Pull often – in more situations than you might expect.

For more information

Discussions of Cirrus accidents and safety issues are prominent on the COPA forums.

Accident reports and information can be found on the NTSB website by searching for “ntsb aviation database.” More detailed reports, photos and data can be found in the NTSB Document Management System website.

COPA publishes video materials on the YouTube channel copasafety. These include safety keynote talks from past Migrations, video animations that reconstruct accident flights, and occasional safety briefings.

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

  • Very informative. Thank you

  • I have an original Series one SR22 and the parachute was replaced in 2014. Are you saying that I no longer have to slow the plane prior to the pull as I was originally taught?

  • Nick, correct. No matter what parachute system you have in your Cirrus, the manufacturer has changed the procedure:

    1. COVER ........ REMOVE

    2. HANDLE ...... PULL

    No more slowing down -- if you need CAPS, then pull!

    Cirrus Aircraft expects to issue a service bulletin when their tech pubs folks finish a few priority tasks (recall they are delivering a new airframe, the SF50 jet!!)

    For now, they are okay with us spreading the word -- the procedure in all Cirrus aircraft matches the G5: remove cover and pull!



  • Is there a mathematical model for airspeed vs altitude vs CAPS deployment that we could use interactively to graph the stages of deployment?  Here is why.  We'd all like to have sufficient altitude when we need CAPS, and I for one am an advocate of pull early, but what about when the flight regime does not include sufficient altitude?

    Departure:  I know the drill, but when I look out in front of my airplane I see trees or buildings.  I never see anything like a field that I could "land" on.  Everything I see out there is going to hurt me when I hit it at 65 knots or more.  So, on departure, I want to pull if I lose the engine.  Is there an altitude where the CAPS deployment will do more harm at say 90kts?

    Thanks for the post1

  • Good Question Bendrix, and I have an additional one: There must be a minimum deployment time (like the mentioned "faster deployment at 190 knots versus the longer deployment at 80 knots" that makes sense to me.. but can I speed up deployment by pulling at a higher speed? Then the next question is: should I ever trade altitude for airspeed to quicken the deployment?

    Doug Beary

  • @ Ben Bailey: sorry, I know of no such model. Engineers tell me too many uncontrollable variables: pitch, roll, rates, airspeed, weight, winds aloft, etc. On departure, if you are primed to act, then trading airspeed for altitude makes sense. In a descent with control,  you want to arrest the descent and climb to give yourself more altitude. If you are out of control, pull now!

    @ Doug Beary: my first thought is not to overthink the CAPS deployment procedure, just do it! Time to level under canopy seems to be dependent on so many variables that it is hard to estimate. From recorded data, good outcomes happen when activated above 1000 feet AGL, so 2000 feet is better -- especially since we know that too many CAPS pilots use up time from decision to action.



  • It would be useful to have the specs for deployment at straight and level flight at say a controlled deployment because of loss of the engine and pulling at best glide so we would understand the projected altitude loss at the point we have transitioned to nose low and then level flight.  With that you could decide whether pulling at a low altitude was likely to put you nose low at impact and potentially in worse position than not pulling.  I also ask because I have considered flying the plane to the ground and using the chute as a break in a low altitude pull.

  • Excellent article Rick.

    At the AVIA Cirrus Training Center in Melbourne AU, operating a full motion six axis simulator we see it all, good and bad, to low and high time Cirrus pilots.

    Prior to CAPS becoming available after takeoff - following a sudden and complete engine failure - the pilot is faced with the perennial decision of lowering the nose and carrying out a forced landing.

    We did some testing in the real aircraft and found that with flaps set at 50% the nose needs to go 5 degrees below the horizon to maintain 80 knots or better.  On a SR22 that means going from 10 degrees nose up to 5 degrees nose down.  15 degrees of shove required in no more than 2-3 seconds.  We find VERY FEW PILOTS ACHIEVE THIS!

    We encourage in the CAPS briefing "... And, in the event of a forced landing I will firmly push the nose over to 5 degrees below the horizon, which is there..."  And actually point to the 5 degrees nose down marker on the attitude indicator.

    No engine power and 100% flaps requires a minimum of 80 knots to successfully achieve the flare, otherwise you will hit like a bag of chaff.  Or worse.  In the simulator we see time after time pilots arriving before commencing the flare doing 60 knots - not pretty.

    If you land on wet grass with a line of trees coming up then we teach to go for the CAPS just before or after touchdown.  Note, this is NOT a sanctioned Cirrus procedure but as Papov says don't die with a perfectly good parachute on board.

    If you haven't done CAPS training in a sim yet you are really missing out on one of the best safety tools available.