A pretty wild video has been shared with me in the Autopian’s internal Slack chatroom. A plane in Belgium crashed, but the pilot quite literally walked away from the wreck. It’s thanks to a ballistic parachute system that turned what could have been a horrifying crash into something far less violent.
Details on this particular crash are pretty thin at the moment, but we do have some information. On July 15, an ultralight aircraft was flying through Sint-Andries in Belgium when an emergency occurred, reports news site VRT NWS. At this time it’s unclear what the emergency was, but the pilot deployed a potentially lifesaving device.
The plane and its pilot then came to a relatively gentle crash on a road thanks to a whole aircraft rescue parachute system. It was captured by a passerby and it’s easy to see why it’s doing rounds on the net:
Some people commenting on social media believe that the aircraft involved here is a Cirrus SR22. It’s a good guess, but there’s a different plane involved.
I’ll explain why people think it’s a Cirrus. Here in the United States, whole aircraft parachute systems are known in part because of their application in Cirrus aircraft. These planes are really clever in their design. In an emergency, the pilot of a Cirrus SR20, SR22, and Vision SF50 jet can pull a red handle that activates the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS).
Here’s how it works.
When the pilot pulls the handle, a rocket fires off to deploy the aircraft’s parachute. It takes about 45 pounds of force on the handle to start the rocket’s ignition process. That’s in part so that you don’t blow your ‘chute on a hard landing. Here are what the rockets look like.
BRS Aerospace, a manufacturer of ballistic parachute systems and supplier for Cirrus, says its rockets accelerate over 100 mph in the first tenth of a second after ignition. And the whole firing sequence takes just a second. For Cirrus, it’s designed to bring the aircraft to a largely level descent at a rate of less than 1,700 feet per minute, or about 19 mph.
BRS parachute systems are available for a variety of aircraft, including the Cessna 172 and 182. Here’s an illustration of how the parachute works with that plane:
In Cirrus aircraft, the system is more than just a parachute. The airframe, seats, and landing gear are all designed to collectively absorb energy in an impact. The seats are built with a honeycomb-like structure designed to transmit as little force to the plane’s occupants as possible. Cirrus says that when CAPS is deployed, your impact should be the equivalent of being dropped from 13 feet.
And in case you’re wondering, here’s an illustration on where everything is in a Cirrus SR22:
The pilot reaches up and pulls on the handle. That pulls an activation cable, which leads out to behind the cabin and into a compartment housing the rocket assembly next to the parachute assembly.
There are two types of ignitors. One is a percussion ignitor, which is described as:
In the percussion fired ignition system the rocket motor is mounted in a launch tube on top of a rocket motor base and an igniter assembly. The igniter assembly contains two primers and dual firing trains containing black powder and magnesium. The rocket motor base is mounted atop the igniter assembly and contains a secondary booster charge of black powder and magnesium.
When the activation cable moves the plunger approximately ½ inch, a spring compresses and two ball bearings fall free of the plunger and igniter body allowing the plunger to move rapidly opposite the direction of the activation cable, the plunger then makes contact with the firing pins, which in turn strike the primers, firing the system.
The other is an electrical ignitor, which replaces the two primers and secondary booster charge with electrical contacts. Yanking the cable closes a circuit, which initiates the firing process.
The parts of the parachute system are packaged under breakaway panels. So if you walked up to a plane with a parachute system you wouldn’t know unless you saw the warning labels.
And here’s what the compartment looks like:
The parachute is at least 55 feet in diameter and is attached to kevlar harnesses rated for 20,000 pounds. These harnesses are also hidden behind breakaway panels that get revealed only when the system is put into operation. In the above photo, you’re seeing the rocket motor and the parachute tucked away in the compartment. The bag is roughly two feet by one foot by eight inches.
The aircraft involved in this incident is much smaller, lighter, and uses its BRS-supplied parachute differently than the Cirrus planes do. This adorable plane is called a Dyn’Aéro MCR01.
It’s a plane that flies in Europe’s Ultralight category. Whereas an American Ultralight cannot have an empty weight of greater than 254 pounds, a European Ultralight can be up to 1,041 pounds when it’s a two-seater with a parachute. What classifies as an Ultralight in Europe is somewhat closer to what the FAA defines as a Light Sport Aircraft. The Dyn’Aéro MCR01 sits right at the legal limit in its specs.
Before I get to the parachute, let’s talk about why this French plane is so neat. It’s all-composite — built out of carbon fiber — and can hit a top speed of 198 mph with a 100 HP Rotax 912ULS flat four. The plane is a development of the MC-100 Ban-Bi, designed in the 1990s by French engineer Michel Colomban. Dyn’Aéro offered the MCR01 as a kit or ready-to-fly built in its factory. In 2018, SE Aviation acquired the rights to the aircraft and now sells an improved version called the MCR Sportster.
One of the options for the MCR01 and the MCR Sportster is a BRS ballistic parachute. Deployment is like the Cirrus system, but the attachment points are towards the rear. As a result, the plane descends at a vertical attitude. The parachute system here is supposed to reduce the MCR01’s fall to a slow 12 mph.
Specifications about the MCR01’s parachute system do not appear to be readily available, but BRS notes that the safety that you get whether you have their system in a Cessna or a Cirrus is the same. Rocket and parachute sizes may be different depending on the plane. Where the rocket and parachute are stored may also differ. For example, on a Cessna the system launches out of the rear window.
Another neat thing about these systems is that they don’t need a huge amount of altitude to work. Cirrus and BRS both say that there isn’t a minimum or maximum altitude for deployment, though, at least 580 feet is recommended before deployment in a current-generation SR22. Cirrus has seen successful CAPS deployments as low as 400 feet, and Flying Magazine reports a successful parachute deployment as low as 100 feet.
However, of course, the systems still need some room to work. There have been fatalities after pilots deployed their parachutes too close to terrain. But for another good example of the work these systems do, thanks to CAPS: There were no fatalities when a Swearingen SA-226TC Metro II and a Cirrus SR22 collided in mid-air last year. BRS says that, as of this month, its systems have saved 463 planes.
In this case, the Dyn’Aéro MCR01’s ballistic parachute meant the plane nosed into the ground, but the pilot was able to hop right out and walk away. They reportedly ended up with minor injuries, and the plane’s nose is smashed up, but again, that’s way better than how some plane crashes go. This crash makes a great case for getting a plane with a whole aircraft parachute, if you can afford it.