Haiti bound pilot Dr. Richard McGlaughlin was flying with his daughter in his Cirrus SR22 on a trip to volunteer his services at a medical clinic. After departing Florida, McGlaughlin says he noticed the oil pressure dropped slightly while flying at 9, 500 feet. A few minutes later the engine had stopped completely. He and his daughter were now flying a glider over the blue waters of the Bahamas.
An experienced pilot, McGlaughlin immediately established a slower air speed that would allow the airplane to glide the maximum distance given the altitude above the water. After declaring an emergency with Miami air traffic control, he determined that he and his daughter were not going to make it to the nearest island. Based on their altitude and the glide characteristics of the airplane, they were going to come up about two miles short.
All pilots learn the basics of how to make an emergency landing in the water during pilot training and about 90 percent of pilots who ditch their airplanes in water survive. But landing on the water at more than 60 miles per hour can result in an airplane flipping over and can cause injuries. McGlaughlin had another option. His Cirrus airplane is equipped with its own parachute designed to carry the aircraft and its passengers down to the surface when other options may not look as good.
So minutes after his engine stopped and McGlaughlin determined he couldn’t glide to land, he and his daughter tightened their seat belts and he pulled on the handle on the panel above his shoulder that deploys the parachute according to the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association website.
After the initial jolt of the parachute inflating, the airplane was descending through 2, 000 feet at a rate of about 1, 700 feet per minute. That’s not exactly a speed for a soft landing, and McGlaughlin says they did hit the water harder than he expected, but both were okay with no injuries.
McGlaughlin has made the trip to Haiti several times before to deliver supplies and volunteer his services and was prepared for the over water trip. Within minutes he and his daughter were out of the airplane with their life jackets on. They were able to get into the inflatable raft they had brought with them and less than an hour after declaring an emergency, the two were on a Coast Guard helicopter.
Cirrus was a pioneer in implementing the use of airframe parachutes on small general aviation aircraft. Since the SR22 and the similar SR20 were first delivered to customers in 1999, there have been 32 deployments of the parachute. Not all of the deployments have resulted in injury free touchdowns like the McGlaughlins. There have been six fatalities and several injuries.
Many of the problems have occurred when the parachute is deployed at an altitude too low for it to fully inflate, or too fast a speed. Aviation writer and pilot Paul Bertorelli believes better training for Cirrus pilots could improve the safety of the parachute equipped airplane, writing that pilots may be waiting too long or not long enough before pulling the handle. Both the Cirrus owners group and the airplane maker emphasize the need for training specifically aimed at when to deploy the parachute.