I recall when the Cirrus first came out, one of the principals said that product liability was not going to be a problem for them because the airplane would be so safe.
Since that time the NTSB shows 80 fatal Cirrus accidents in its database. Because of the litigious nature of our society, most, if not almost all, have likely resulted in legal action against the company.
Since the beginning, Cirrus has worked hard to try to see that the pilots of these airplanes are properly trained. All Cirrus airplanes have an airframe parachute, too. Without the chute there would have been many more fatal accidents because presumably a pilot does not pull the chute until he feels for certain it is necessary to save his ass.
The Cirrus was the first light airplane with a glass cockpit, too, and Cirrus has been a leader in using the latest whistles and bells to help pilots be better informed.
Despite all this, the Cirrus SR-22 has a higher fatal accident rate than most similar airplanes from other manufacturers. (We all know that SR-22s fly a lot of hours every year but that is taken into account when comparing accident rates.)
Why, with every safety advantage, has this come to be true?
It can only be because of one thing: the Cirrus pilot.
If you take at face value the benefit of type-specific training, Cirrus pilots have that.
If you accept that glass cockpits give a pilot many valuable informational tools, Cirrus pilots have that.
If you buy into the fact that an airframe parachute gives a pilot one last but extremely valuable option, Cirrus pilots have that.
What they don’t seem to have is common sense and that is our collective fault. Both industry and government have worked to ensure that Cirrus pilots don’t know the score.
Start with the FAA. A while back the instrument rating requirements were drastically reduced making the rating both less expensive and potentially more lethal. This was in response to pressure from general aviation interests, especially AOPA.
The result is that we have instrument-rated pilots who are not at all prepared for instrument flying, especially in technically advanced airplanes. The training systems that have been developed do what training systems have always done: they prepare pilots for the FAA tests. A person with an instrument rating might know something about operating on an IFR flight plan but know nothing of cloud flying.
Why would this affect Cirrus pilots more than others?
From the beginning the Cirrus has been sold as a transportation machine. That relates to weather flying like the airlines do. So a new pilot, and many Cirrus pilots are relatively new, gets an instrument rating and is suddenly trying to do what infinitely more experienced pilots are doing with airliners. And there are two of those experienced pilots in the front end of every airliner.
You can look at Flight Aware’s listing by type of airplanes in the IFR system at any given moment and there will be a lot of SR-22s in there. In fact there are usually more than any other GA type that is used for transportation. Sadly, you can look at that number and, unless it is a clear day, it can be safely assumed that an unhealthy percentage of the pilots really don’t know what they are doing or at least might be unable to handle anything out of the ordinary. This is not their fault. They were certified by the government, they were sold the airplane, and they were encouraged to use it.
So, cloudy day IFR wrecks are a big part of the Cirrus problem. So are low speed losses of control. Here the FAA also has bloody hands.
Normally a single-engine airplane has to be spun as part of the certification process. The Cirrus wasn’t. The FAA waived this requirement and accepted the airframe parachute as an alternate means of compliance. I kid you not, the spin recovery in a Cirrus is based on deploying the chute. That is the only way a pilot can recover from a spin in a Cirrus.
The stall characteristics of the airplane are not bad when compared with some other airplanes but they aren’t real good, either. It might have been reasonable to expect stellar stall characteristic in a new design but, alas, aerodynamics reached a plateau many years ago.
When everything is considered, the Cirrus record is what it is and will remain ever so unless some pretty drastic steps are taken. It can’t be more training or more safety features because those things are already there. The only thing that can actually lead to improvement is the mind-set of Cirrus pilots.
Years ago, insurance underwriters put far lower rates on insurance for twins than singles. Then some wise-ass writer (that would be me) started exploring the fact that the serious accident rate in twins was actually higher than in singles. The underwriters had been basing rates on what they thought to be true as opposed to what was actually true. Insurance underwriters have done that in a lot of areas over the years.
Such might be the case with Cirrus pilots. With training, advanced equipment, and a parachute, a pilot could develop a false sense of security about flying the airplane.
I recall an accident that well illustrates this. A professional person had finished a long and full day of work. After work, and after darkness set in, he flew an IFR trip to an airport located in rough terrain. At 11:30 p.m. he left that airport on an IFR clearance. He lost control of the airplane soon after takeoff and collided with rising terrain.
This was a relatively inexperienced pilot and you can read between the lines of the NTSB report and contemplate several things.
To me it is likely that there was some sort of distraction or confusion that caused the pilot to lose control. Certainly a marginally trained and inexperienced pilot does not have a lot of ability in reserve, especially in the middle of the night following a long day.
The airplane had a good autopilot. Was the pilot not properly trained in its use? Autopilots have been known to cause confusion if not used correctly.
A question that has to be asked is whether or not the pilot would have even been flying IFR in bad weather over rough terrain at night in his single-engine airplane if it had not been equipped with a parachute. I have always thought that a pilot who would do anything in a twin that he wouldn’t do in a single is an accident looking for a place to happen. Same goes with the parachute.
I question, too, whether or not many in the industry don’t minimize the hazards found in aviation. No manufacturer is going to tell you that a product is dangerous as such and no entity that is in the business of promoting aviation will either. But collectively we should feel an obligation to make sure that new pilots understand that an airplane can kill you quicker than most anything else. When I look at the Cirrus accidents, I get the feeling that many of the pilots did not realize how quickly an airplane can bite, hard.
I always communicated with airplanes. Mostly the chatting was about the good things but I always though the most important question to pose was, “Old buddy, what are you going to do to try to hurt me today because I can’t let you get away with that.”
What do you think it would take to rein in the Cirrus fatal accidents?
Four years later, Richard Collins updated his analysis in a new article called “What’s right with Cirrus pilots?” Be sure to read it here.