Canadian rancher Albert Kolk's small plane banked uncontrollably over British Columbia's Monashee mountains, then began spiraling toward the ground. "Seat belts! " he barked to...
WASHINGTON — Canadian rancher Albert Kolk’s small plane banked uncontrollably over British Columbia’s Monashee mountains, then began spiraling toward the ground. “Seat belts!” he barked to his teenage grandson and two young friends. Then he reached for a red lever in the cockpit.
Suddenly, an orange-and-white parachute as big as a house opened above the plane and gently landed his stricken aircraft in a rocky clearing.
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If the maker of the parachute that saved Kolk’s life this past spring succeeds, one day commercial aircraft such as regional commuter jets may have similar safety systems. First, though, there’s the challenge of creating a parachute robust enough to rescue bigger, faster planes.
“Weight and speed are always the challenge,” acknowledged Robert Nelson, chairman of Ballistic Recovery Systems, which sold about 500 of its $16,000 parachute systems this year for small private planes and pilots like Kolk.
The company’s most advanced parachute now can accommodate nearly 4,000 pounds. While small planes can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and cruise at about 175 mph, regional jets weigh 80,000 pounds and fly at more than 500 mph.
That’s why Ballistic Recovery Systems is working with NASA — which gave it $670,000 for research — to design a new generation of emergency parachutes that would work on small jets and could be steered by pilots as they drift to the ground.
Kolk, who was piloting his private plane April 8 from Seattle to his B.C. ranch, remembered reaching for the parachute handle as his plane slipped into a dangerous flat spin, “like how a dog chases its tail.”
A seasoned pilot, Kolk said he had never experienced such a disaster in more than a decade of private flying.
“I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t straighten out,” Kolk said. “When that chute opened, it was a peaceful, wonderful feeling.”
Kolk’s experience is one of four cases where parachute-equipped planes landed safely beneath a canopy since U.S. regulators approved the system six years ago. Ballistic Recovery Systems, based in St. Paul, Minn., says eight lives were saved in those four incidents, plus dozens of other people in accidents involving smaller parachute-equipped ultralight planes that resemble motorized gliders.
The parachute, stored behind the rear seats in small planes, is fired with a rocket through the rear windshield; it’s attached to the plane with high-strength lines.
They are increasingly popular among private pilots, and for good reason: The government said 626 people died in general aviation crashes in 2003, compared with 81 people aboard commercial airlines.
Aviation experts question whether parachutes will ever be attached to the largest passenger jets, such as the Boeing 747, which weighs more than 900,000 pounds. “The speed and weight of those planes would seem to preclude a system like that,” said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Most of the estimated 500 parachute systems that Ballistic Recovery Systems sold in 2004 went to aircraft manufacturer Cirrus Design of Duluth, Minn., which includes them as standard equipment on its line of small private planes. U.S. regulations allow owners of some small Cessna planes to install parachutes, but only about a dozen have bought the add-on equipment so far.
Brent Brown, a lawyer in Roanoke, Va., was having one added to his plane. Brown, who often flies over the mountains in western Virginia, said he couldn’t imagine choosing to save money by not adding the new safety equipment. “I would feel awful silly on that terrible, terrible ride down,” he said.
The emergency parachutes aren’t flawless. Two families in Syracuse, N.Y., are suing Cirrus, Ballistic Recovery Systems and others for $67.5 million over a fatal crash in April 2002. The case is pending in federal court.
The families said the pilot, a plastic surgeon who bought the plane six days earlier, tried to open the parachute but it failed. Defense lawyers have denied the system malfunctioned, and federal investigators concluded the parachute never opened “for undetermined reasons.”
Some pilots insist they’ll never fly without a parachute.
“People are crazy not to fly with them,” said William Graham of San Diego, an instructor pilot whose plane landed beneath a parachute this spring near Stockton, Calif., after it unexpectedly flipped upside down at 16,000 feet.
Graham, who was flying with his wife, Barbara, said they drifted onto a farm field so gently the landing didn’t break fragile Christmas ornaments and glass bottles aboard the plane.