What’s right with Cirrus pilots?

Is it a mirror on the great debate?

In 2012 I posted an article about what might be wrong with Cirrus pilots. That attracted a lot of attention and is third on the list of most-read AIR FACTS posts. Four years later it is still in the week-to-week top 20.

A lot has changed since 2012, the Cirrus safety record has improved dramatically, and what has happened seems directly related to the great debate about flying through computers v. basic flying. I’ll explain that in a minute.

First, though, a review and the record.

It is not unusual for new airplane types to have problems in their early life. Some of these are related to the design or construction of the aircraft, as was the case with the Cessna Cardinal and 441, but most are related to the interface between pilots and the new design, as was the case with the V-tail Bonanza and the Cirrus. The Cessna P210 and Piper Malibu featured a bit of each.

Those of us who follow aviation safety watch new types carefully. If there is a problem, it is important to get word on it out there as soon as possible. The first I wrote of this about the Cirrus was in the September, 2002 issue of FLYING.

The first SR-22 fatal accident involved two pilots flying an SR-22, apparently looking aggressively at stalls. The airplane entered a flat spin at 5,000 feet and spun to the ground. Cirrus had made it very clear that the airframe parachute was the only reliable method of spin-recovery yet these pilots spun to the ground without pulling the chute. What I wrote then examined why this might have happened.

Cirrus article in Flying
It’s a question that has been asked for over a decade. Has it been answered now?

The comments on my 2012 Cirrus post show that there is still a great lack of understanding on the subject of spins in general and their relationship to the Cirrus in particular.

I closed my 2002 FLYING comments by saying There’s a lot left to learn here. That was quite obviously true ten years later and it is probably still true.

In the June, 2003 FLYING the question was What’s going on with the Cirrus? From April 24, 2002 until January 23, 2003 there were five fatal accidents in Cirrus airplanes. Because the fleet was quite small at the time, maybe about 500 total airplanes, that suggested a really bad fatal accident rate.

At that time I pretty much gave the airplane a pass and concentrated on the pilots. The primary question was whether or not the parachute emboldened pilots and caused them to do things with the airplane that they would not have dared do without the parachute. They were, in particular, having trouble dealing with weather and when things went to hell in a handbasket they were not deploying the chute.

I closed that discussion by saying Cirrus pilots will have to realize that the parachute addresses only a tiny percentage of the bad things that pilots do to themselves in airplanes. In retrospect, that was not entirely accurate because the percentage is not so tiny.

Apparently these and other admonitions fell on deaf years because 2011 was the worst year for Cirrus accidents. There were eight fatal accidents in the fall of 2011, which is pretty bad. The causes were much the same as they had been since the beginning. The 2011 record was what prompted the 2012 post.

Fatal accidents outnumbered chute saves through 2013 when the most dramatic change I have ever seen came to the Cirrus fleet. Chute saves soared and fatal accidents dropped. The fatal accident rate had been above the average for all of private aviation but starting in 2014 it appears to be among the best.

 

6237.cirrus fatals vs caps saves

What happened?

The folks who build Cirrus airplanes had been grappling with the safety question from the beginning. They had good training programs, they offered the high-tech stuff earlier than other manufacturers, and, of course, they pioneered the chute.

It wasn’t until recently that they started a program that really encouraged pilots to deploy the chute if there was any question about the outcome of the flight. I think that is what reversed the relationship between fatal accidents and chute saves.

The other thing that happened early-on but that gained traction over the years is the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. Type clubs, as they are called, have always been constructive but the Cirrus group is the most aggressive one out there when it comes to looking safety questions squarely in the eye and being realistic about what is going on with the airplanes.

One pay-off for the effort is that the members of COPA have a much lower involvement in accidents than non-members. I think that is because COPA shoots straight about risks and how they might be managed. They have also been brutally honest about the safety record, from when it was bad to now, when it has become a lot better. The website is both interesting and good.

The Flying Physicians Association isn’t a type club but what happened there some years ago relates to this. Doctor-pilots had a terrible reputation, underlined by such things as the designation of the Model 35 Bonanza as the V-tail doctor killer. The FPA launched an aggressive safety campaign and soon its members had a far better safety record than the doctor-pilot group in general—even when they were flying Bonanzas.

Cirrus SR22
Something has changed: is it the airplane or the pilot?

I said in the beginning that the Cirrus record might be a mirror on the great debate about basic flying v. flying through a computer. I’m old but I didn’t forget that because it is always fun to throw a bucket of 100LL on that smoldering fire.

I was not alone in thinking that the Cirrus was oversold as a Boeing replacement when it first came out. It was implied in promotional material, but there was simply no way the average instrument-rated private pilot could use a Cirrus to challenge weather that was being flown daily by the crews of Boeing airliners.

They did try, though, especially as high-tech avionics came to the Cirrus after the first few years of production. There were a lot of weather accidents and a lot of them were clearly the result of the pilot biting off more than he could chew.

In a few of the weather encounters the chute was deployed and when it was, it worked, with one exception. A pilot lost control of a Cirrus in icing conditions at high altitude and didn’t deploy the chute until the airspeed was way high. It didn’t save him. On the other hand, it appears that all chute deployments at or above 1,000 feet a.g.l. and below 200 knots indicated airspeed have been successful.

When you look at how Cirrus accidents have evolved, it is clear that the pilots are becoming ever better at using the high-tech equipment while at the same time becoming ever better at recognizing its limitations. The latter is probably the biggest factor in an improved safety record.

The campaign to get pilots to use the chute when in doubt has been quite effective but I think this does not have a whole lot to do with the improved safety record. Why? I looked at some of the more recent chute deployments and it appears that most are related to power problems.

When you look at fatal accidents in the huge fleet of Cessna 172s, almost none of the events are related to power problems. A 172 might fare a little better than a Cirrus in the hands of an average pilot in a forced landing but it wouldn’t be a big difference. That is why I don’t think the more frequent use of the chute has a big effect on the Cirrus fatal accident rate. I hasten to add that both the challenge and the risk do escalate when the (or an on a twin) engine quits and a Cirrus pilot can calm this escalation quickly with the chute.

There are those who would declare a Cirrus pilot to be a true aviation wuss for popping the chute over something as simple and survivable as a power problem. I’m not one of them. If a pilot pays for a chute, what he does with it is his business. It is even possible to relate use of the chute to using a flight control system to fly an instrument approach. In both cases the pilot is using the technology in the airplane to successfully reunite it with the ground.

Cirrus with airframe parachute
“If a pilot pays for a chute, what he does with it is his business.”

As an aside, when the Cirrus was introduced it was said that any airplane that came down under the chute would be totaled. Not true. In 14 of the 68 successful chute deployments, the airplane was repaired and returned to service. Ironically, two of the 14 were later destroyed in a fatal accident that had no apparent connection to the repair.

From the record it is obvious that Cirrus pilots are doing a good job of using the technology built into their airplanes to avoid certain risks and that is why the fatal accident rate has improved markedly. Score one for high-tech.

On the other side of the coin, when you look at more recent Cirrus accidents, a lot occur after a low-speed loss of control at a relatively low altitude. That can only be attributed to a pilot who comes up short in the basic flying department. Score one for seat-of-the-pants flying.

A classic example of basic flying trouble was seen in a recent accident where the crash was captured on video. It was hard to watch. What preceded the crash was an apparent series of problems with a visual approach that led to an eventual low-speed loss of control.

What all this does for the Cirrus is put it with most of the rest of the fleet where the low-speed loss of control is the most frequent cause of fatal accidents. In case you forgot, that was also true in 1938 when AIR FACTS was founded. Progress.

As far as the safety record goes, COPA uses data from Cirrus on fleet size and hours flown to come up with accident rates so the numbers are as close to accurate as you can get. They recently showed the rate to be 0.81 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours over the last 36 months and a rate of 1.18 over the last year.

The FAA is projecting a general aviation rate of 1.03 for 2015 but I think that is suspect. The number of fatal accidents is an absolute but the number of hours flown is a wild guess and the FAA has always seemed to estimate on the high side, substantially so at times. However you look at it, I think COPA is correct in saying the Cirrus rate is better than average.

How does it compare with other types? I developed some rates a while back. The methodology likely wasn’t as accurate is that used by COPA but the rate I calculated for Cirrus airplanes was quite close to the rate they had calculated at that time. My Cirrus rate was 1.52. I showed the Bonanza A36 at 1.81, and the Cessna 182 at 0.74 as matters of comparison. At that time the Cirrus was still settling in where the pilots of those other two airplanes had been flying them for years so I thought the Cirrus rate was not bad considering that new airplanes always have teething problems with pilots.

I think it is obvious what is right with Cirrus pilots. They have become much more realistic about the balance between the risks and rewards of using airplanes like this for purposeful private air transportation. Once that is done, there isn’t a better way to go.

18 Comments

  • Thanks for your kind words about the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. We are an almost all-volunteer organization, spread around the world. The efforts of so many, from our Safety Chair, Rick Beach and Training Chair, Trip Taylor to the pilot members who spend so much time on trading, proficiency and studying the accidents that do happen, all go towards our commitment to creating a “Culture of Safety” among our membership. We know we have much more to do and need to find ways to reach all Cirrus pilots, not just our members.

    — Andy Niemyer, COPA President

  • COPA is garbage. Most of the commentors on the site no longer own the product. A few sit and bully new owners steered there by Cirrus until they no longer ask questions or participate and then leave. COPA also tolerates deviating from factory standards which is far more dangerous to actual owners of the aircraft.

  • I’m not so sure of your estimate that a 172 would fare only a little better than a Cirrus in a forced landing situation. The Cirrus would have a significantly higher stall speed which is not favorable in a forced landing situation. I would think that, in nearly all situations, the use of the chute after engine failure would dramatically alter the odds in favor of a good outcome for that type of airplane. As you state, if pulled above 1000′ and below 200 kt, it has been 100% effective. I’m pretty sure the odds would not be that good for a forced landing in any high performance airplane.

    • Stephen – you’re right that the stall speed differential (43 kts vs. 59 kts) clearly works in favor of the occupants of the C-172 vs. that of a Cirrus SR-22, if the forced landing is indeed a controlled “normal” full stall landing on the mains. It’s likely, however, that the circumstances of a forced landing could alter the outcome quite a bit. It’s pretty common for pilots in loss of power to try and stretch the landing profile, or try to dodge powerlines or trees at the last instant, in which cases loss of control often follows. The surface condition and obstacles in many forced landing scenarios can make a safe return to earth all but impossible, even in a relatively low speed aircraft like the 172.

      There are some mitigating factors for the Cirrus occupants, however, such as the 26-G seats, four point harnesses, optional airbags, and the passenger compartment engineered to withstand rollovers that aren’t available in most if not all of the legacy C-172s.

      All things considered, one’s chances of surviving or avoiding serious injury in Cirrus vs. a 172 in a forced landing are, as Dick said, fairly comparable.

  • I have always enjoyed Mr Collins’ South Alabama accent, and I learned a lot about weather flying watching his flying videos. I think he’s a terrific writer.
    As a Cirrus pilot and a long time COPA member, I’m glad there was some better news to report, and thankful that Mr Collins reported it. As he noted, his 2012 article certainly made the rounds. I’ve spent too much time defending our planes and pilots after his 2012 article, which unfortunately, was also pretty accurate.
    I think the interplay between COPA and Cirrus, often a little uncomfortable, has been instrumental in improving the safety of these excellent planes, and making the pilots more realistic about what they can and cannot do in a plane which, despite its many capabilities, is still a single engine piston. That fractious cooperation between Cirrus and COPA serves as a model for the way to budge accident rates, which have otherwise been pretty static.

    • COPA does not have a relationship with Cirrus. Cirrus training is the gold standard…not the opinions given over at COPA. As noted, most of those commenting no longer own a Cirrus or have very old models of the product. New owners should not assume ANY discussion or opinion seen on COPA is to be followed or assumed correct. Any credit for better safety stats belongs SOLELY to Cirrus and none to COPA.

      • I don’t know who you are geebigs, but your statements here deriding COPA are just plain ridiculous, defamatory, and inflammatory. Let me make a WAG and suggest you must have been booted from the COPA forums for insulting its other members, as you insult them here … so now you’re left to spreading your sour grapes here.

        COPA has been operating safety seminars for the Cirrus aircraft since 2002, with over 350 annual attendees. Their members have been active in promoting the appropriate use of the CAPS, as has been described by COPA member Rick Beach in many of the Cirrus threads here on Air Facts Journal. There is no way that any airframe manufacturer can replicate such a widespread and effective continuing education program for its owners. COPA provides a great model for all type clubs to follow. They are still humans, and therefore subject to all human weaknesses – but they don’t need to be perfect to make a very big contribution to the much improved safety performance of Cirrus aircraft these last several years.

        All pilot safety training is good – the more the better.

        Anyone who maliciously and falsely disparages a group dedicated to making flying safer is someone not worth listening to.

  • Thank you Richard.

    What a great read.

    Who is going to do this kind of aviation writing when Richard decides to pass the baton?

    • You are correct you don’t know who I am. My statements about COPA are factual. I left the site on my own…but not before running into everything I described. The insults I received were from the non-Cirrus owners primarily because I challenged them giving out dangerous and malicious disinformation on the product. Especially in regard to break-in period and process.

      The articles I read on CAPS on COPA were generic and did not have incorrect information per se but the author of one of them deviated from the factory in one important way – the idea of a min altitude pull for each of the model types. It’s a trivial point but an important one…the min AGL is critical and is briefed before each takeoff as specified in factory training and online courses.

      The issues I have with COPA are simple to understand. If COPA wants to pretend to be a resource for Cirrus Owners and Pilots they need to make sure what they peddle as correct be verified and aligned with what the factory has in their material and what the factory tells owners.

      COPA is tolerating non-Cirrus owners and perhaps others to banter around ‘opinion’ as fact with the implication that opinion is gospel. I was even told directly by some commenters that the factory and it’s CSIPS are not the central and final word on how the aircraft is to be maintained and flown….which is utter nonsense.

      Attacking the messenger accomplishes nothing…but I am happy to take the arrows because as I said….getting the wrong information can be not just be costly but dangerous.

  • Thanks for this great followup. I’ve been following the BRS data since they became available and it is good to see they are finally effective at saving lives. It’s still true: You can only buy safety at the training store.

  • Thank you, Richard. I have a buddy with an absolutely wonderful wife, who he probably doesn’t deserve. We said he “over married”, and was blessed to do so. Cirrus early woes were likely due to pilots who “over airplaned”. If so, they bought the chute, so should not have hesitated to use the chute. So glad to see Cirrus and its pilots have doubled down and piloted-up. It’s a great airplane.

  • I really liked this article. Analysis of the Cirrus safety record has implications for pilots of all types of aircraft. The bottom line is use all the tools you have, know how and when to use them, and understand their strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Don’t get lazy when your life is on the line.

  • GBIGGS

    Would you share your data on the Cirrus ownership distribution on the COPA site?
    I was not aware that most members do not own a Cirrus

    • I ordered a new 2016 Cirrus SR22T. After completing the online portal training Cirrus provided I traveled to Diluth to take delivery. Cirrus factory training (by factory CSIPS) is thorough and includes stacks of factory training materials and product documentation. Cirrus also has a full-motion simulator for CAPS training. And has owner assistance by telephone for any questions or problems that arise.

      An hour before hopping into the new plane and flying home I was given a free subscription to try COPA out as a kind of parting gift by the customer service staff. My expectation was to meet other owners and share experiences.

      After two weeks I found that those who are actively commenting on COPA and some of those who are in COPA management are not current owners of the product. Some were presenting themselves as ‘experts’ on the product and argued with the information I was given by CIrrus itself.

      The experience became contentious and IMHO destructive. At one point one of the non-owners insisted the break-in period on new aircraft should be cut short by 50% and that following the factory guidance was wrong.

      After several of these kinds of arguments it was clear COPA was not for me and IMHO sadly really is not for any current owner who is following factory guidance on the operation and care of the aircraft.

      You can ask COPA for their data, but don’t hold your breath…doubt they either have it, or will give it to you.

  • Bill,
    It’s always sad when a troll gets into an otherwise useful discussion and diverts the matter at hand, an improvement in safe outcomes, into his or her own personal agenda, not to say a complete and utter misstatement of actual facts. Such is the grimier side of life on the Internet.

    In 2015 the COPA Board of Directors conducted an extensive and statistically valid survey of its membership. Specific to your question, we noted that about 22% of members were not current owners, but most of those were prospective owners who had joined to get independent information about Cirrus aircraft while they were in the process of making the purchase, new or used, of a Cirrus. A much smaller percentage of that 22% have gone on to own other aircraft in the aviation ecosphere. They chose to stay for the general information on all aviation topics.

    The COPA Board, as well as the Board of Trustees of the COPA Safety and Education Foundation, are all current, active Cirrus owners and pilots. A handful of those active on our Boards fly aircraft such as Huskies, Carbon Cubs, Pipers, Pilatus, Skyarrow and even Eclipse’s and Cessna’s. The commentor’s claims above to the contrary are patently false.

    I will be happy to answer any further questions you might have.

    Be safe and have fun,
    Andy Niemyer, current COPA President

    • The troll comment is below an adult response. And is reflective of the kind of environment found on the COPA site.

      You admit a large chunk of your membership are not owners of the product. And you admit many of them are regular commentors on the site.

      My remarks are truthful and correct. When the break-in controversy started I as astonished. COPA management was made aware of it and chose to ignore the dis-information being restated over and over by the Eclipse owner. I asked Cirrus about it and they re-iterated the process.

      COPA holds themselves out as a source of ‘expertise’ on a product they have ZERO official connection with nor are acknowledged by anyone other than COPA as a reliable and consistent source of information on Cirrus aircraft as they are being made today.

  • Has anyone looked into the challenge of flying the Cirrus SR with the left side stick controller for right handed pilots being a contributing factor? Almost every other aircraft is set up for right hand flight control or at least provides the ability to fly right handed. Most righties have little dexterity with their left hand, especially when stressed. Since the SR already attempted to modernize GA, perhaps the aircraft can be optioned for right seat PIC. Putting the primary flight control in most pilots’ dominant hand can only help.

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