Will Commercial Airplanes Have Parachutes Someday?

Whole-aircraft parachutes are already being used in small planes to save lives, but one company believes they are also feasible for commercial airlines

BRS parachute system 2
Ballistic Recovery Systems, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has outfitted small aircraft with parachutes designed to support as much as 4,000 pounds. NASA

Statistically speaking, the chance of dying in a plane crash is one in about 11 million. Yet, despite significant safety advances that make the likelihood of such a nightmare scenario ever more remote, there’s always that looming fear. But what if passenger airplanes were equipped with parachutes that, during an emergency, allowed them to float safely towards a soft landing?

Ballistic Recovery Systems is the one of the few companies to show that such an idea is indeed plausible. Beginning in 1998, the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based firm has outfitted several small, lightweight aircraft with backup parachutes designed to support as much as 4,000 pounds. Tucked in the rear of the fuselage, the BRS system is activated simply by pulling a red lever that releases a rocket-launched capsule containing a large canopy chute. Once deployed, the suspension lines expand at a controlled rate, allowing the canopy to open fully as the plane's speed slows.

For inventor and BRS founder Boris Popov, adapting something that's used mainly by skydivers and military personnel for flying objects that are several times heavier meant that he had to first come up with a much wider design. He then had to reduce the parachute's bulk and weight without sacrificing structural integrity. His $16,000 rescue parachutes, found in personal aircraft like Cessnas and the entire line of Cirus planes, are comprised of an ultra-lightweight composite material that is five times stronger than steel, but 100 times lighter. The 30-pound parachute is then condensed into a compact package using an 11-ton hydraulic press. The "ballistics" part comes in the form of a rocket motor with about a pound of explosive material, enough to blast the parachute through a fiberglass panel in the rear of the airplane so that the canopy can deploy within seconds. At last count, the company claims their technology has saved nearly 300 lives.

Inevitably, the question becomes whether the technology can be applied to larger commercial aircraft, such as Boeings and Airbus models, to assuage the fears of the billions of airline passengers that travel every year. Well, Popov believes it's definitely doable if the public wills it to happen.

By Popov's calculations, every pound of descending weight requires about a square foot of parachute material for such a system to work. A passenger-loaded Boeing 757 can weigh as much as 250,000 pounds and cruises at around 500 miles per hour. Safely lowering a plane of this size and weight would mean employing multiple BRS parachutes (as many as 21 for a jumbo-sized ,735,000-pound Boeing 747) . One approach to making this more feasible is to engineer an aircraft that can separate into smaller segments. That way, only the passenger cabin would be braced during a freefall. Under this scenario, the wings and other components would detach to shed weight quickly.

It’s an idea that a team of researchers at the Scientific Research Institute of Parachute Design and Production (NII Parachutostroyeniya) in Russia has been exploring for some time. One conceptual blueprint even involves an aircraft designed to automatically sear off its wings using automated blades while the passenger-carrying sections would break off into parachute-equipped survival pods. In a special BBC report, the institute’s chief designer Viktor Lyalin explains that this type of system would “drastically reduce speed and avoid human casualties during take-off and landing accidents."

Implementing such an extreme safety measure, however, may not even be practical considering that aviation experts still question the effectiveness of using parachutes. For instance, a spokesman for the UK Civil Aviation Authority tells the BBC that even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that an airplane stalls in mid-air, there probably wouldn't be enough time for a parachute to deploy as the plane is moving at high speeds. And since most fatal accidents occur during the takeoff or approach and landing phase of the flight, a scenario where a parachute might make a difference is rather remote.

Unphased by skeptics, BRS is working, for now, to further develop the technology to a point where it can be used in private jets and other larger aircraft that seat up to 20 passengers.

CEO Robert Nelson tells The Wall Street Transcript, "...when you start talking about military applications or getting into personal light jets, that is, the small jets that people can afford to own and operate, or even into a bigger class of airplane, when you get up to a higher weight and more passengers, those are areas that we believe the product will work for future applications."

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