Cirrus in flight
7 min read

After a recent weekend immersed in the world of Cirrus airplanes, I have a renewed appreciation for the French maxim plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. No matter how you slice the data, and no matter what airplane you fly, the most important driver of aviation safety continues to be the person in the left seat. Even with all the latest technology—in fact, maybe especially with all the latest technology—there’s no substitute for a humble pilot.

My weekend in Cirrus world was an absolute blast. While I have logged a couple hundred hours in SR22s over the last five years, it’s definitely not my daily driver. But after flying 1100 miles in one and attending the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) annual convention, I wish it were. It’s an impressive airplane supported by a passionate community, one that has gotten quite good at having tough conversations about safety. The results are encouraging: the overall accident record has improved significantly since a peak in 2011, to the point where it would be boring if not for the personal tragedy involved.

Cirrus in flight

It’s just a piston airplane.

That shouldn’t surprise us. Cut through all the technology, all the buzzwords, and all the jokes from non-Cirrus pilots, and you are left with one unavoidable fact: the Cirrus SR22 is just an airplane. It is a fixed gear, single engine, four-seat, unpressurized airplane powered by a Continental engine and loaded with Garmin avionics. Sure, there’s the parachute—more on that in a bit—but far too many people overcomplicate this discussion. The similarities between an SR22 and a Cessna 182, for example, vastly outweigh the differences.

You’ll occasionally hear: “It can’t recover from a spin. That’s why it has a parachute.” So what? That’s not what causes crashes. Or maybe: “It’s all gadgets and glass cockpits!” Again, so what? You could say that about almost any airplane delivered over the last 20 years, and that’s not what causes crashes either.

What does cause crashes are the same things that any pilot will recognize from countless NTSB reports: landing mishaps due to unstabilized approaches or poor crosswind technique; VFR into IMC or other weather accidents; poor IFR technique leading to loss of control; and engine failures, often due to poor maintenance. None of these are unique to the Cirrus, and almost all of them relate to the pilot. Hence COPA’s focus on training and technique.

One common thread is a lack of humility. I don’t mean that as a personal criticism of the pilots (although if we’re honest, few of us are known for our modesty), but rather as an acknowledgement of the subtle pressures involved in personal aviation. To stay safe, we simply have to be humble enough to admit defeat sometimes. When the gas gauges get low, we have to admit defeat and land short. When we’re high and fast on short final, we have to admit defeat and go around. When we take off and find worse than forecast weather, we have to admit defeat and turn around. That’s not easy for anyone, but especially type A personalities who have been successful enough to earn a pilot certificate.

Of course there is one part  of the accident record that is unique to the Cirrus—many crashes resulted in no fatalities, thanks to the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS). In fact, just about every CAPS pull that has happened above 1000 feet has been successful, meaning no fatalities and in most cases not even any serious injuries. In an emergency, it is much more foolproof than the average pilot.

But I’m not interested in reopening the debate about the parachute. You can find that discussion here, here, or here. The key point at the convention was that using CAPS is not easy for most pilots. COPA safety guru Rick Beach played the ATC recording of an SR22 pilot who lost engine power at altitude, but got tunnel vision and tried to glide to a faraway airport. He realized too late that he could not reach it, was too low to pull the parachute, and ended up in a field.

Beach shared other examples of pilots who briefed that they would use CAPS and trained for the use of CAPS, but still pulled the handle too low or not at all. These were believers in the parachute who still couldn’t bring themselves to use it when they needed to. The chart below (courtesy of Beach) shows how tragic this mistake is: over 150 lives could have been saved.

Cirrus accidentsTask saturation may be part of the problem in these examples, but I think pilot mindset plays a big role too. Just like deciding to go around or cancel a flight in marginal weather, it takes humility to pull the handle. Consider two scenarios:

  1. The engine quits at 5000 feet and you try to glide to an airport. You come up short and land in a field, seriously damaging the airplane (and possibly seriously injuring yourself). In the end, you’re letting gravity/nature/luck make the decision whether the airplane crashes. “I tried to save it, but it just didn’t work out.”
  2. The engine quits at 5000 feet and, recognizing you won’t make the airport, you pull the CAPS handle at 2500 feet. The airplane comes down in a field with very serious damage but you walk away (again, statistically a 100% chance of survival here). In this case, you as the pilot are the one totaling the airplane. “By pulling that handle, I affirmatively decided to crash my airplane—and save myself.”

The result for the airplane is identical in both cases—serious damage—but the blame feels different. In the first one, you did your best and things just didn’t work out; in the second one, you directly caused the damage. In hindsight, it’s obvious that scenario two is the better option, since your chances of avoiding death or serious injury are much better, but in the moment it’s a very hard decision to make. As soon as you pull the handle, you’ve eliminated any chance of a miracle ending. It’s sort of an aviation version of the trolley problem.

Flying with more humility is easier said than done. Committing to regular, type-specific training is helpful, but only if you’re willing to admit it when your performance is sub-par. Using some type of standard operating procedures can also help, even if it’s just a few rules of thumb. Instead of trying to make a snap decision in case of engine failure, for example, it’s helpful to know that “passing through 2000 feet AGL, I will pull the CAPS handle unless the landing is 100% assured.”

Training and SOPs help, but so does reading accident reports, a topic that’s back in the aviation news this month. Paul Bertorelli at Avweb wrote a thoughtful article recently about whether pilots’ obsession with accident reports are driving us all crazy (and possibly scaring off new pilots). It’s an old debate—you can read Richard Collins’s take on it from 2014—but Bertorelli brought it up again partly due to the boom in instant analysis videos on YouTube. Any time an airplane crashes, you can expect four videos speculating on the cause within 48 hours, some of dubious quality.

The worst of these videos are nothing more than digital rubbernecking; a dispassionate analysis of other pilots’ mistakes, on the other hand, can prevent overconfidence and provide real insights. If you watch one of those videos and think, “what an idiot; I’d never do that,” you’re doing it wrong. With rare exceptions, it could happen to you (or me—that was my takeaway from Beach’s presentation on CAPS non-pulls). If you watch one of those videos and think, “aviation is unsafe; I’m never flying again,” you’re also doing it wrong. Personal aviation is unforgiving, but to a large extent the pilot in command determines how safe the outcome is.

The only question that matters when reviewing an accident report is, “what would I have done differently to prevent that unfortunate outcome?” That question avoids the blame game and encourages introspection—something we all need if we want to stay safe.

24 replies
  1. Mark W Sletten
    Mark W Sletten says:

    Thanks for this, John. Humility–and compassion–are sorely lacking in many areas of modern society. One thing I would add. Well, maybe not add, but get more specific regarding SOPs: Personal minimums. FAA minimums for general aviation do not take into account pilot and aircraft dynamics–that’s left up to operators. CFIs should make a concerted effort to teach their students how to develop personal minimums, and to make a plan to modify those minimums as the pilot progresses in knowledge/skill and/or moves to new aircraft. Company-mandated minimums are a big part of the reason Part 121 and 135 operators enjoy accident rates many times lower than GA operators.

    Reply
  2. Scott
    Scott says:

    “It can’t recover from a spin.”
    This is actually 100% a lie. Please stop spreading it. It can absolutely recover from a spin. The reason why Cirrus doesn’t want you to attempt it is because you SPEED UP REALLY QUICKLY in a Cirrus. It’s a smooth, slippery airplane. CAPS deployment speed varies between models, but let’s take the higher value model at 140 KIAS. HoW many seconds do you think it takes in a spin to exceed this speed (Vpd)? One second? Two? Three? Are you high enough to recover before hitting the ground? Can you make that determination quickly enough the very first time you find yourself in an unexpected spin? How often do you do spin training? Every six months? I’m guessing NOT.

    The fact is, immediately deploying the parachute at the first indication of a spin is simply the easiest, safest response to train. Period. Do better.

    Reply
    • Scott
      Scott says:

      Oh, and less than 3% of unintentional, sudden spins are ever successfully recovered from, in ANY airplane so again, what has better odds?

      Reply
      • John Zimmerman
        John Zimmerman says:

        To be clear Scott, I agree 100% on this. The whole spin debate is a silly distraction – the Cirrus is now one of the safest piston airplanes out there, and all pilots should try to understand why that is.

        Reply
        • Marc Vantournhout
          Marc Vantournhout says:

          Dear Mr. Zimmerman,
          We are aware of too much fatal accidents of IBSP equipped aircraft.
          To help avoiding this we developped PAWS, Parachute Activation Warning System.
          Please have a look at Talosavionics.com.
          Feel free to contact me if interested in a demo or test.

          Reply
      • Mac Hayes
        Mac Hayes says:

        It’s good to know that if I ever get into an SR22 and into a spin, I shouldn’t give up and pull the handle if I have enough altitude to try a spin recovery attempt.

        Reply
    • Ben
      Ben says:

      Agreed that Cirrus can recover from a spin but when an aircraft is in a spin, it is stalled and stays that way unless recovered which means the aircraft stays at stall speed.The reason that CAPS activation is the required procedure is because the parachute substituted for FAA required spin testing which means in the US, the FAA never made the determination that the Cirrus was recoverable and so the only option from a regulatory perspective is CAPS. The Europeans were not as keen on this idea and required spin testing which the Cirrus did fine with.

      Reply
  3. Will
    Will says:

    Humility does not equal admit defeat or lack of confidence. You have some good tips, and Macho is definitely a bad attitude, but this article borders on promoting one of the 5 dangerous attitudes, Resignation.

    Reply
    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      I see what you’re saying, but I certainly am not advocating resignation – exactly the opposite in fact. A VFR-into-IMC accident often has too much resignation: “oh well, we came this far… I guess we’ll keep going and see what happens.” Active humility (if I can invent that) would be to snap out of that resignation and do something to change the outcome. Stay PIC.

      The defeat word is tricky, but I chose it intentionally. Sometimes I hear safety advocates say that turning around or canceling a flight is a success – celebrate good risk management! I appreciate the sentiment, but any pilot who has ever done that does not feel like celebrating. I think we should be realistic and say that sometimes defeat is the right answer. You can’t make that flight you really wanted to make – it hurts but it’s still the right call.

      Reply
      • Candy
        Candy says:

        Going around, Or returning are not defeats. They are simply good safe decisions. If I had felt defeated after every mistake I made as a Professional Pilot then indeed I would’ve been defeated. And I believe a defeatist attitude is simply dangerous as is the macho attitude. Admit it’s time to evaluate options and fly the plane.

        Reply
  4. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Agree 100% with the left seater being the critical safety element. For this, or any other aircraft, no amount of tech will remove one’s head from one’s @$$. Flying, and learning from it and others’ experience, is what makes for a safe pilot/airplane combo.

    Reply
  5. Jerry Kemp
    Jerry Kemp says:

    If your airspeed increases in a spin, you are no longer in a spin, by definition.
    You are in a spiral and airspeed will continue to increase until you recover.

    Reply
  6. John Majane III
    John Majane III says:

    Nice article. The Cirrus is what it is a travelling plane. It is not much fun to fly, those grass field fly ins are often not doable. But it does what it is supposed to do well. Get you from point A to B in an effecient and hopefully safe matter if the pilot takes advantage of the features, Yeah it does spin. There was fatal stall spin at ANP years ago with an SR20 and of course the famous Texas crash where the pilot was overwhelmed and basically stopped flying the plane. But as the author stated that is not the cause of the crashes.

    Reply
  7. Bob
    Bob says:

    Getting back to the Cirrus aircraft. It’s not the aircraft, it is the people that were buying them and didn’t have but minimum experience.
    It is a performer, and I remember years ago (50’s & 60’s) Bonanza’s were called “Split tailed Dr. killers”, why? They had the money to buy one and didn’t have the experience to fly it. There wasn’t a thing wrong with the Bonanza, just too much for some inexperienced pilots. I have flown with 2 different Cirrus pilos in their aircraft and was amazed how little they knew about flying. Both had Pvt license and Instrument rated. I heard of Cirrus encouraging new pilots, buy the airplane and we’ll teach you and get your license. NOT GOOD.
    With an experienced pilot I believe the Cirrus is NO different than any other.
    And on Spins. I guess my first question is when do spins occur? In the traffic pattern (base to final). Not much time to recover there.
    Maybe teaching how to AVOID getting into a spin would be a good idea.

    Reply
  8. Tom Curran
    Tom Curran says:

    Hey John;

    Great points about humbleness, humility…and Type A personalities.

    As a fighter pilot, I never thought of those traits as being weaknesses. I was often “humbled” by those with more experience, skill, and wisdom than I had, and I sought to learn as much as I could from those encounters.

    Certainly after being ‘schooled’ by other fighter pilots, I learned that being humble didn’t have negative effects on my attitude, judgement, or decision making…or my ability to be extremely aggressive in the cockpit.

    I could also still temper that aggression as the situation warranted…

    This was in stark contrast to the opinion held by a USN fighter pilot, with whom I had VERY short exchange: He insisted that if you were humble, you had no business being a fighter pilot.

    Since I have NEVER been beaten by any Navy fighter pilot in an air combat training engagement (“dogfight”)…ever…I ignored him…

    After all; no one said BEING humble was easy!

    I also have concerns with the burgeoning on-line “Early Analysis” industry. A valuable service? Or just a rush to get on-line content out on social media? I wonder what the NTSB thinks about folks “lead turning” their formal investigative process, especially if it turns out the early analyzers were wrong.

    Reply
    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      The instant analysis videos are like a lot of social media: the initial “hot take” will often be seen by tens of thousands, but the retraction will be seen by dozens. You can’t un-ring the bell, so to speak.

      I do think it’s fair to point out, though, that most NTSB investigations take forever to be completed. I know these are complicated processes, I know they probably need more staff… but two years to decide a pilot flew VFR into IMC?! Seems like the NTSB could cut back some of this speculation by improving their communication.

      Reply
      • Tom Curran
        Tom Curran says:

        …assuming they do a retraction when the real story finally does comes out. I agree the NTSB takes way too long, especially in cases where the obvious…was obvious. Maybe something Bruce Landsberg can influence.

        Reply
  9. Robert Wood
    Robert Wood says:

    Perhaps the word “defeat”, with its negative connotation, can be changed to “making a positive and active choice”. As in, “I decided to go-around” versus “My landing failed”. As a Cirrus pilot and actor, I have had hundreds, maybe thousands of auditions. To my knowledge, I was never “rejected”, as in defeated, but I was not chosen (I was too old, short, heavy, light, etc) for the part many, many times. It’s all in ones perspective. I chose a positive outlook, forward looking and that equates to “choosing” a different action. That is not a defeat. It’s a positive, active choice.

    Reply
  10. Wild Bill
    Wild Bill says:

    Another aspect of the Humble Pilot – It CAN happen to me… Fatalities due to engine failures are primarily caused by poor pilot training/lack of proficiency. Pilots that fly slick higher performance aircraft (Not just Cirrus, but Bonanzas, Mooney’s etc…) simply do not practice a few simple things. 1- Always be looking for a landing spot. 2. Always plan for When, not If there’s a problem. and last, but most importantly 3-Practice emergency procedures as realistically as possible, as often as practical. That includes making power off approaches from altitude to a full landing. GA pilots have been taught the whole “Stabilized Approach” science- which was developed for Large Twins/Jet aircraft, and doesn’t look at the reality of a single engine piston, GA plane, where the glide angle is often double that, and the need to carry power on the approach to ‘stabilize’ it much less relelvant. So when a pilot really really needs to know just how far they can glide, how short they can land, and how to NOT stall and spin in, it’s for real, and they’ve got no idea where they can reach, or even how to get there. Lack of practice of real conditions means they’re so rusty they screw it up and make a crater. They die because the Training and Flight review system failed, not the engine. Does anyone ever teach the concept of a deliberate ground loop to stop an aircraft before it hits obstacles on the ground? Ground loops are 100% survivable, hitting trees, poles, walls, etc usually ends badly. Stalling and spinning always ends badly. How often do pilots practice on truly short runways (if your airplane can land on 1600ft, you should be able to as well – just sayin’). Added safety features are great- but they’re not addressing the root cause- Pilot proficiency. It does address the fact that many pilots simply want the easiest solution, and don’t want to develop the skills sets to make them really safe pilots, or maybe even Aviators.

    Reply
    • Vic Myev
      Vic Myev says:

      Good points. I instruct exclusively in Cirruses. When I teach emergencies, I ask my student what is the FIRST thing you do when the engine quits. “Well, I guess I’ll look for a place to land.” No, wrong answer! You should be looking for a place to land from the moment you take off. Include that in your scan for traffic, looking at the ground for either a place to land or to pull the parachute. Once you pull the chute, you’ve lost all control and are at the mercy of the wind. You don’t want the wind to blow you into high-tension lines or a steep canyon. And preferably, you will come down near civilization where you can get help if you need it. Once the plane is down, open the doors and RUN away from it! The wings are full of high octane gas and it doesn’t take much to set it off. So how far can you glide when the engine quits? ForeFlight has a wonderful safety feature called the glide ring, which gives you your approximate glide distance considering terrain and winds. And don’t be in a hurry to pull the chute. Wait until you’re about 1000 AGL and are in the best position for deployment. Since the prop is windmilling, who knows? maybe the engine restarts. Miracles do happen!
      As for stalls and spins, my hard rules are: 1. never below 85 kts in the pattern (Vs0=59 kts) until runway is made and landing assured; 2. no bank over 30 degrees and 3. always attempt to hear the stall warning before the mains touch down. I enforce these rules with the hammer Cirrus has conveniently stowed in the center console. Students remember!

      Reply

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