Lucas, a private pilot from Connecticut, writes: “There seems to be some disagreement here at the hangar. Was the Cirrus the first airplane with a full-frame parachute?”
That depends on how you define both “airplane” and “first.”
Ultralight airplanes had full-frame parachutes prior to Cirrus, or said another way, had them “first.” But with the SR-20, Cirrus beat all other certified airplanes to market with a full-frame parachute, or said another way, was the “first.”
So yeah, it was first. And no, it wasn’t the first. As I said, it depends on how you define your terms. But the story of the full-frame parachute is a lot more interesting than you probably realize.
So, the short version of the standard story of the full-frame parachute goes something like this: In 1980, Boris Popov forms a company called BRS (Ballistic Recovery Systems) and starts working on the full-frame parachute concept.
For those readers new to the subject, with a full-frame system, instead of a pilot wearing a parachute, the airplane wears a parachute. If something really bad happens, like a midair collision, a structural failure, or an engine failure over inhospitable terrain, the pilot can “pull the chute” and the entire airplane — occupants and all — floats to the ground.
BRS introduces its first model for the ultralight market two years after its founding. Within one year it recorded its first life “saved,” a tally that now stands at 466. The company was granted its first patent in 1986.
Fast forward a decade and it collaborated with Cirrus, which, in turn, goes forward to include full-frame chutes on all its piston models — and, now, in its jet as well.
Meanwhile, in the early 2000s, BRS is granted supplemental type certificates to add full-frame chutes to certified Cessna 172s and 182s, as well as the Canadian Symphony SA-160s. A first of another kind.
And BRS is first in its market, with chutes offered as a option for a blizzard of experimental and Light Sport Aircraft, including those from CubCrafters, Glasair, Kitfox, Lancair, Sonex, Vans, and Zenith and even as standard equipment on other models such as the ICON A5, the Elixir, and the ever-so-sexy Pipistrel Panthera.
And, of course, BRS still serves its roots, offering parachutes for a greater variety of ultralights than I even knew existed. All told, there are more than 35,000 airplanes flying around with parachutes at the ready.
And because I know you were curious, but were afraid to ask, prices range from a little over $3,000 for many ultralights up to $25,654 for the Cessna 182 add-on — but not to worry, like airplanes themselves, BRS systems can be financed.
Although first BRS doesn’t have the field to itself. It had competition from a European outfit called Stratos Magnum Systems, which focuses largely on the light sport end of the industry, and even, apparently, hot air balloons…I’m not quite sure how that works…and from another company called GRS for Galaxy Rescue Systems, whose claim to fame is the fastest deploying system in the world. Oh, yeah, and an Italian company even developed a full frame chute for helicopters a few years back.
OK. That wasn’t really so short. Sorry about that. In fact, I droned on so long, you might have already forgotten that I said this was the “standard” story.
You see, most people think the full frame parachute is a relatively recent innovation, and starts with Popov and BRS, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
For proof, I’d like you to meet Joseph A. Steinmetz. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s the mastermind behind a wide variety of modern innovations including improvements to engine mufflers, engine cylinders, airplane turnbuckles, and fire extinguishers. He also invented numerous items for the defense industry, the first car alarm, the indoor putting green, and even the beer cooler.
Oh yes. And the full-frame parachute, U.S. patent number 1067559A.
By the way, he applied for that patent in 1909, only six years after the first flight of the airplane as we know it. Steinmetz’s parachute uses a spring to deploy the parachute, rather than a rocket like modern systems, but in all other respects it’s much the same. Yeah, Steinmetz was definitely a man ahead of his time.
Steinmetz held dozens of patents and was a widely respected mechanical engineer and inventor in his time. He was a protegé of Samuel Langley, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, an early aviation pioneer himself. Steinmetz did groundbreaking work in the design of early aircraft engines, and even opened one of the first schools of airplane design. He was chairman of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, was active in the National Aeronautical Association, was a major donor to the Red Cross, and he was also an avid stamp collector.
Perhaps too avid.
In 1911 he became involved in the now little-known “Blue Paper Scandal” which involved bribing a postal official for access to a batch of rare stamps, which resulted in federal criminal charges against Steinmetz, and destroyed his otherwise stellar reputation.
Oh, and interestingly, back to aviation again before we bid Mr. Steinmetz adieu, he was also the owner of a pair of the famous inverted Jenny stamps. And that was after the Blue Paper Scandal turned his life upside down.
But what about the 70-something years between Steinmetz and Popov? Were there any other aircraft with parachutes?
Well, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft (and their equivalents from the USSR/Russia and China) come to mind, but I’m not sure spacecraft “count.”
Any other airplanes? Well, although I’ve not come across one yet, it’s hard to believe that no one tried some version of the system on some sort of airplane in all that time. Readers, please chime in if you know anything.
Now, back to Cirrus. First? Not first? Again, that depends on your point of view, how long your view is, and how you define your terms.
But where I think the company really deserves kudos is not so much in being the “first” “airplane” to have a chute — however you define “airplane” and “first” — but being the first to make the full-frame chute socially acceptable.
Believe it or not, when the Cirrus first was introduced, many pilots were against it. Vehemently so. Real pilots, apparently, didn’t need no stinkin’ parachutes to save themselves and their passengers (accident statistics suggest otherwise). It was a strange phenomenon, and no doubt one that left folks at Cirrus scratching their heads. I mean, who wouldn’t want the ultimate backup system in an airplane? After all, quoting Cirrus, “Chute Happens.”
Anyway, it took time, but Cirrus was finally able to move the pilot culture needle, and although some anti-full frame parachute comments are still uttered from under the darkest of troll bridges, I think most pilots have come to accept — and perhaps respect — full-frame parachutes as part of the aviation ecosystem, along with composite structures and glass panel avionics, both of which are found in Cirrus aircraft, and increasingly, in a large number of other aircraft as well.
And no, Steinmetz didn’t hold patents on either of those. But he did have one titled “Method of Navigating Aircraft,” which he filed in 1918, just a few months after Max Miller flew the very first airmail out of Washington, D.C., headed the wrong direction.
So I guess the best way to be first at anything is to be there at the beginning. And in our industry, that was a long time ago.
But if you can’t be first, at least you can always be best, which is just another way of saying…wait for it…first-rate!
Dave Newill says
And then there were all those target drones that come down with onboard parachutes – WWII and later! Some were larger than the Cirrus.
John Carroll says
Once a pilot pulls the chute, the descent path and impact is left to circumstance and local terrain. The pilot is reduced to a passenger, with no control or further options. It would seem to me that a pilot-controlled descent and landing is often the better alternative.
The people who so unashamedly make claim that opposing aircraft parachutes is somehow an inexcusable heresy should check their egos and close their wallets. Why would anyone glorify the inability to recover from spins and be removed from the decision making?
Brent Taylor says
Interesting story, but a bit more research on the authors part would have easily turned up the first was actually a 1928 Thunderbird W-14, N5830 (an OX-5 powered biplane).
It was used by famous race pilot Roscoe Turner to test a whole airplane parachute. Restored to flying condition by Dennis Trone (deceased) in 2007, it still has the bent seat tube from the successful parachute test.
Currently is is part of, and on display at the Eagles Mere Air Museum in PA .
Benjamin Presten says
To fill your gap between 1909 and when Cirrus did it, Roscoe Turner tried it in the 1920s. He bought a Thunderbird biplane and had it modified so the center section of the top wing housed a 50 foot diameter parachute that deployed to float the entire airplane to the ground.
Michael Sundstrom says
WILLIAM E. DUBOIS,
Great article as usual! Would the cockpit of the F111 be considered as full frame? I’d bet not as the rest of the aircraft crashes…
BIG question: Are you going to air race this year? People want to know!
David Baldwin says
I have the very first Kitfox SLSA built by the Kitfox factory with a BRS parachute, (likely the 1st of any Kitfox). At the time I ordered the Kitfox, there had been a number of mid air collisions here in Alaska and a good number since then. Lots of aircraft to have to watch for, more than most places, due to 80% of Alaska having no roads where you are flying. Narrow mountain valleys makes it worse, channeling aircraft, through mostly very hostile mountain terrain. I would rather come straight down slower under parachute, than at higher (stall point) forward speeds in those steep rugged locations, with an engine failure or other.
It would be absolutely last resort, a 2nd chance at survival after a mid air collision, etc. I figure if I have one, I won’t end up needing it, right? 🙂
A pilot who claims they don’t need a parachute because they are so highly skilled is like a driver who claims he doesn’t need to wear seatbelts because he is such a fantastic driver he will never, ever have an accident. Pride goeth before the fall.
Larry Nelson says
You are reading something into the comments that is not there. Try again.
Douglas Grant says
BRS has also provided airframe parachutes for a number of Light Sport certificated planes well before the 172 and 182.
William Ruttan says
The “ Real pilots, apparently, didn’t need no stinkin’ parachutes” sentiment is, unfortunately, still with us.
Nad Remraf says
I’d like to know who made the first bi-fold hangar door?
Kent Misegades says
An interesting article. There have been others develop such systems however. For instance Aviation Safety Resources, which patented and demonstrated a full aircraft system on a Stinson decades ago. And then there was Second Chantz, from the early 1980s, that developed a non-pyrotechnic system for ULs. A friend of mine is a highly sought-after instructor pilot for new (low-time) Cirrus owners. He tells me that these pilots push the autopilot button just after take-off and buy the plane in large part due to the parachute recovery. Cirrus promotes the BRS heavily in its exhibits at “lifestyle” shows and events, especially to non-flying wives. Nothing in principle wrong with any of this, but I prefer an airplane I can fly to a landing, even dead-stick, over one dangling from a parachute with no control, and the prospect of complete airframe destruction upon impact. But then, I also enjoy flying gliders. To each his own.
Larry Nelson says
If the 466 lives “saved” is a valid description of the result of a chute pull, then the chute-less aviators that were able to AVIATE their way back to earth, safely, after their inflight dilemma, must be GODS (and maybe even without a crumpled up airframe). I am not denying the benefits of a chute. I have always held the advertising gimmick of “lives saved” with the highest disdain. It presumes that the airplane driver had no skills at all. I am wearing my asbestos underwear today, so flame on.
Alex Nelon says
The Antique Airplane Club of Greater New York displays a Stinson (I believe) and the full frame parachute that was the subject of an experiment in the 40s or 50s. These are located at Bayport Aerodrome on Long Island.
Marc Rodstein says
The claims of parachute “saves” are overstated, as they assumed everyone who comes down under a full aircraft parachute would have died without it. Not true, as many pilots land safely in emergency situations every year without parachutes. This exaggeration of the number of “saves” is a stain on the otherwise laudable benefits that the whole aircraft parachute has provided.
Peter Wilmink says
Thanks for this article. Another question: is Cirrus the first manufacturer which includes full-frame parachute in it’s aircraft types (SR-types and SF-type)?
According to you article, other have an option to a full-frame parachute package (which I don’t know!). That’s also a difference.