August 2009 Issue
Is BRS Always a Life Saver? Not Exactly
Claiming that every deployment averted death is overstating the case. However, a chute is a better option than banking on superior skill and luck.
At a Wall Street analysts’ forum in 2007, the CEO of Ballistic Recovery Systems, Larry Williams, told the audience why he thought the all-plane parachute made sense: "In 2005, there were just over 1600 [accidents] involving general aviation airplanes in this country that resulted in 556 deaths. Now, if you offset that with the fact that we’re saving 199 people, all of the sudden, parachutes start to make sense." Except that it’s not that simple. As of this writing, BRS has claimed to having saved 233 lives, but that’s counting every occupant on every successful parachute deployment as a saved life. A quick look at the record shows that death was far from a certainty in many of the parachute deployments. A subtler knot in the logic that BRS has saved 233 people is that having a parachute installed affects the delicate balance of risk versus utility in aircraft. We know from experience and interviews that there are pilots who will take on conditions such as rough weather with the chute that they wouldn’t take on otherwise. We can only guess that some of the CFIT accidents in the Cirrus were influenced by the faulty assumption that the pilot will always have enough time to pop the bddn chute before auguring in. But the risk equation is more complex than that. Situations such as single-engine at night over mountains or low-visibility takeoffs are risky only because the consequences of an emergency are high, even though the likelihood of failure is extremely low. Having an ace-in-the-hole to cover that unlikely event will shift the go/no-go call for some pilots. We believe those pilots will get more out of their airplane with a negligible increase in real risk. So BRS may be overstating its positive impact on lifesaving, but also understating its positive impact on aircraft utility.
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