‘I’m saving a life’

On one of his first days as the new president and chief operating officer of Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc., Larry Williams was walking through the company’s South St. Paul, Minn., plant. He stopped to watch one of the firm’s employees pack a parachute.

Intrigued by the process, he asked the young woman what she was doing.

“I’m saving a life,” she responded.

Good way to impress the new boss — but also insight into what BRS is all about.

Last year, BRS parachutes saved 18 lives — a record for the 25-year-old company, according to Williams.

BRS systems were credited for saves in the United States, Canada, South America and Europe. Deployments included a wide range of aircraft from ultralights and experimental kit planes to three production aircraft. Total saves are now 177.

In 2004, 10 pilots were saved. More telling is that almost as many passengers — eight — were saved, testimony to how things have changed over the past few years for the company. The turning point for BRS was when Cirrus Design Corp. decided to add BRS parachutes as standard equipment on all its models. About 1,500 of the 19,000 BRS systems around the world are on Cirrus aircraft.

A majority are on ultralights and experimental aircraft, but watch for those numbers to shift as more aircraft manufacturers add the chutes as standard or optional equipment. Last July, the company received FAA certification for parachute systems for installation on the Cessna 182 line of aircraft. STCs for other Cessna models are in the works.

Just last month, kit manufacturer Velocity Inc., said it would add the BRS parachute system to its XL-5 experimental canard aircraft kit.

Velocity first approached BRS in 2004, after XL-5 customers requested the parachute system, saying it would offer “additional peace of mind” to passengers and pilots.

“These requests led to the modifications and the adaptation of the proven BRS technology and now we can add this system to production kits,” Williams said.

The system can be added to existing airplanes by purchasing an installation kit direct from Velocity.

Also on the horizon for BRS: Developing systems for the new very light jets set to take the market by storm. A few years ago, BRS received a NASA Small Business Innovation Research grant to study the development of a larger system for the new generation of personal jets. Designers and engineers now are working on developing chutes for aircraft that are much heavier and travel much faster, Williams said. They also are working to make the parachute steerable. BRS officials hope to unveil this new system by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, they are talking with “big name” manufacturers in GA to add the parachute systems as standard or optional equipment. Williams would not name any of those companies.

He did say the company is looking at the latest technology in hopes of decreasing the weight of the systems, as well as the price. One area they are specifically looking at is new lightweight materials.

The key to new product development, according to Williams, is getting the systems on more airplanes. While talks are ongoing with manufacturers, he realizes marketing efforts also need to be directed at individual pilots.

“Pilots being pilots, they never think they are going to have a problem,” Williams said. “They think ‘nothing’s going to happen to me,’ but things do happen. There are situations where you find yourself in an environment with a problem.”

Williams saw the result of a lot of those problems early in his career. A pilot, he is a former airport fire chief who spent 25 years in aircraft rescue and firefighting. “I’ve pulled people out of crashed airplanes, which gives me a unique perspective,” he says.

Training is always key to safe flight, but training in how — and when — to pull the BRS chute is also critical. This was evident in a recent Cirrus accident in Florida, when the chute wasn’t pulled.

“Training is a big part of the overall system,” Williams acknowledges. “You don’t want to pull it if you don’t need it. Once you pull it, you are committed.”

But timing is important as well. The chute needs to be deployed in time to get a plane down safely. Williams saw the same problem with military pilots and ejection seats during his rescue days. “I worked a lot of military accidents and a lot of times we’d find the ejection seat very close to the accident — the pilot pulled it too late.”

BRS is also fighting the belief that once the parachute is pulled, the aircraft is totaled. “In four Cirrus deployments, people walked away from the accidents without injuries and the aircraft were really not that damaged,” he says. “They were repaired in short order.”

For the last four years, Williams was vice president of business development for AmSafe Aviation in Phoenix, which has developed air bags for aircraft. He sees the two companies as complementary to each other, not competition. “The airbag is used in takeoff and landing, while the BRS system is used in flight,” he says.

As he looks down the road, Williams sees safety features, such as the BRS parachutes and AmSafe’s airbags, a “big part” of the technological advances in aviation. But, as he points out, “we don’t build airplanes to crash, we build them to fly.”

“Airplanes today are so much more technologically advanced, with avionics and safety equipment,” he says, pointing out this creates another problem: Pilots can get overwhelmed with technology — or the failure of technology.

“I’ve worked a number of accidents where the pilots just forget to fly the airplane,” he says.

That’s why, at the end of the day, Williams is glad to work for a company that has saving lives as its main goal.

“This is a product that you hope you never have to use,” he says. “But if you do, it will save your life.”

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