How Things Work: Whole-Airplane Parachute

When everything else fails, or fails all at once, pull the parachute that saves the whole airplane.

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John MacNeill

It’s not just for stunt men anymore. Every pilot may eventually need a whole-airplane parachute. Dino Moline did last August when the wing of his RANS S-9 aerobatic airplane snapped off during a performance in Argentina. With no way to eject as his craft spun out of control, he popped the big chute. Strapped in his seat, he floated to the earth, then walked away.

The idea’s been around for a while. In 1929, Hollywood stunt pilot Roscoe Turner deployed a whole-airplane parachute for kicks before 15,000 spectators in Santa Ana, California, and landed softly in his 2,800-pound Lockheed Air Express. In 1948, pilot and parachutist Bob Fronius twice deployed a chute from a JR-V Robin sailplane near San Diego, and several times the following year from a J-3 Piper Cub. “He would climb, shut the engine down, open the chute, play around with it, then release the chute and dive to start the engine,” says Fronius’ son Doug. Bob Fronius never commercialized his parachute. “He was a better experimenter than a businessman,” says Doug. “He considered the job done once he accomplished the experimental part.”

Not true for Boris Popov. In 1975, he fell 400 feet after losing control of a hang glider, cursing his lack of a whole-airplane parachute all the way down. He survived the impact with a Minnesota lake. “I came back to the surface,” he says, “and spit out a bunch of fillings.” Popov founded Ballistic Recovery Systems, maker of the parachute system shown here. The chute was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1993 for the Cessna 150. Later, Cirrus Aircraft began to build the chute into its SR20s and SR22s. More than 30,000 BRS chutes have been installed on a wide variety of airplanes and have saved 257 lives.

Michael Klesius is an Air & Space associate editor.


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