Has saving lives become old hat?

Have deployments of whole-airplane parachutes become old hat?

That’s what Larry Williams, president of Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS), a leader in the industry, is wondering.

The company just learned about saves 189 and 190 a few months ago. Good news to report, right? Except company officials were a little puzzled about how to report the news. You see, the saves occurred on New Year’s Day.

“It might be that they are becoming routine,” he acknowledged at Oshkosh. “We also suspect there are a large number of saves that we are unaware of.”

One way they learn about saves, he reported, is when customers come into their South St. Paul, Minn., factory and ask how to get a parachute repacked.

“We’ve also had a lot of traffic at our booth during this show, including one guy who had a system that was 12 years old,” Williams said. “It’s important that systems that old are repacked to ensure they do their job.”

The company has sold more than 22,000 systems, with the majority installed on ultralights. When Cirrus decided to add the parachutes as standard equipment, it opened a whole new market for the company, which has sold 2,700 systems for certified aircraft. Besides Cirrus, the systems are available for Cessna 172s and 182s and Symphony 160s.

“People are embracing the technology,” Williams said. “We don’t have people stop and say “I don’t need that’ any more.”

It was common just a few years ago for BRS executives to hear from pilots at airshows and fly-ins that whole-airplane parachutes were unncessary. “People would say “if I needed a parachute, I wouldn’t fly an airplane,” Williams said. “We point out that F-16s have parachutes.”

A NEW ERA

The popularity of the parachute systems received a boost earlier this summer when it was announced that the new D-Jet from Diamond Aircraft would include a BRS system as a standard option. That means the system will be on the single-engine jet unless a customer specifically asks for its removal.

BRS officials think most customers will go for the parachute system. “When Christian Dries (the D-Jet’s designer) mentioned the parachute at DiamondFest 2006 in Ontario, there was a visible gasp from the crowd,” Williams said. “Then the audience broke out in applause.”

Development work has already begun on the jet parachute system, which will be the first civilian jet application, he said. “We’re pretty far down the road,” he acknowledged.

However, BRS official note there is quite a bit of technology yet to be developed for the jet chute. While ultimately it could evolve into a two-stage chute — “one to slow the airplane down and one to take it to the ground,” Williams explained — initially the company is looking at a restricted operating envelope that could evolve into a two-stage system.

Getting it just right will be a focus in the next few months. “We know we’re going to be doing a lot of drop testing in the next few months,” he said.

Some preliminary drop tests have already occurred and several prototypes have already been built, he said. The emphasis now is on looking for a new material to take some weight out of the parachute system. While the old parachutes were made out of nylon, the company is now looking at non-woven fibers to decrease weight and Kevlar for strength. “We’ve been looking at the sailboat industry” for inspiration, he noted.

While Diamond is the jet chute’s premiere customer, the new system will be available to all interested jet manufacturers. “We believe the single-engine Very Light Jets are a perfect target for these parachutes,” he said.

But are single engine jets the limit for BRS’ parachutes? No, Williams said emphatically. “The Apollo capsule was recovered with parachutes,” he noted.

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