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There was another question that asked why commercial flights don't have parachutes. The almost ubiquitous response was that the parachutes would be useless because:

  • Most accidents with commercial airliners happen on take off and landing, and there is no time to parachute.
  • In order to get to a position where 100+ people can successfully jump out, you'd most likely need to descend some 20,000 ft and then maintain straight and level for a good 3 to 5 minutes once you got past 12,000 (so people have oxygen to breathe when they jump). And if you can descend and maintain level flight, you might as well land.

But what about in a light, single engine plane (think Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee)? Engine failures in small aircraft, for example, seem to be more common, so you have more accidents that start high above the ground. Thus, you usually have a few minutes before you're going to hit the ground and there's often only 1 or 2 passengers (rather than 100). Plus, you're usually already at an altitude where you don't need oxygen to bail out.

With that in mind, couldn't you put the plane into a shallow dive to keep it from stalling, trim it to keep it going straight and then bail out? It seems like a somewhat practical solution, yet I have never heard of anyone doing it.

Why do pilots often try to find a road to land on or a lake to ditch in when trouble strikes instead of just bringing a parachute and bailing out?

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It might be noteworthy that just about all glider and a lot of motor glider pilots wear chutes. There have been number of successful emegency exits, and in case of gliding some developments to facilitate exits, like the Roeger-Hook or (more exotic) DG´s NOAH-System. –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 9:26
@yankeekilo I flew gliders for a few years and never saw anybody wearing a parachute unless they were doing aerobatics... –  Lnafziger Mar 20 at 11:59
@Lnafziger this is interesting - at least in several European countries (e.g. Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain) I have not yet seen anyone without parachute. For competitions those are mandatory (not sure if that is international, too). –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 13:24
Gliders are a bit of a special case. Sport gliders often fly in close proximity, and so have a higher-than-average chance of mid-air collision. They are also easier to exit from. –  DJClayworth Mar 20 at 13:37
Actually, in European gliders (at least the ones I know, from 40 year old Soviet Block gliders to modern German ones) you can't even sit comfortably without a parachute: the seat is designed in a way that the parachute is your backrest. –  vsz Mar 20 at 18:01

6 Answers 6

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Mainly because in the situation that you describe, the airplane is perfectly capable of flying. You don't need an engine to fly as airplanes are designed to glide without it. Part of every pilots training is how to land the airplane when this happens.

Many of the same issues also apply in the smaller airplanes. Unless the pilot and the passengers fly around with their parachutes on, it would be quite difficult to put them on in the confined space, in a high stress situation, and with the very limited time available. Even if they did, untrained people are going to be hurt (probably quite badly) during the landing even if everything else with the jump goes well. (See my answer on your linked question for some of the things that can go wrong during the jump.)

You are also creating a hazard with the aircraft not being piloted and crashing into a random place on the ground. All of this when the airplane could have just glided in for a landing in a field or on a road. Most of these types of emergencies end quite well, and even a lot of the accidents will have fewer injuries and deaths than if people were jumping out all of the time. As an added bonus, the airplane can even be used again!

On the other hand, a major structural failure that makes the aircraft incapable of flight could be a reason to jump. This is extremely rare however, and even if one has a parachute in this situation it may be impossible to exit the airplane safely because of high G forces and the possibility of hitting the airplane as you are both tumbling through the sky.

Some manufacturers are now building ballistic parachutes into the airplane which can bring the entire airplane down safely in these situations. This is much more safer, reliable, and does have a positive impact on safety in these extremely bad situations. For just an engine failure though, I doubt that most pilots would even fire the ballistic parachute if there were suitable landing spots within gliding distance.

My view is that you would have a far greater safety impact by requiring everybody in a moving car to wear a helmet. Would it improve safety? Absolutely. Would people want to do it? A few would (and perhaps a few do), but the general population doesn't want to be inconvenienced by something that is only a remote possibility. The odds of a parachute helping you in a typical GA airplane is far more remote than the odds of the helmet helping you in a car.

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Sincere thanks for pointing out that engines are strictly optional. This fact has not yet sufficiently entered the public domain :D –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 9:16
Excellent answer, thank you :). –  Jay Carr Mar 20 at 15:23
There was an instance of the use of a plane parachute in the UK last year - bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-22798139 for more info - as it occurred over suburbs, I suspect there would have been significant damage without it. –  Gwyn Evans Mar 22 at 13:23
@JamesRyan uh-oh - seems like my sarcasm did not carry over well enough. Being a some 20 yrs glider pilot the principle is well-known to me. Still, a lot of people think that an airplane will crash by default if there is a engine failure, so the sarcasm is somewhat vindicated. –  yankeekilo Mar 22 at 17:56
@yankeekilo Sarcasm is not very helpful in a q&a setting especially when it doesn't really work in writing. –  JamesRyan Mar 23 at 14:39

I compete in aerobatics where parachutes are required by the rules.

My personal criteria for bailing out are

  • Structural failure (a wing breaks off -- unlikely, as my main spar is enormous)
  • Control failure (flutter, stuck elevator)
  • Inability to see or control the aircraft (oil on the windscreen, maybe a bird strike)

I might jump for an engine fire just because the main fuel tank is way too close to me.

If the engine fails I would land the plane.

As noted in Lnafziger's excellent answer, an engine is required for continued flight, but isn't truly necessary for landing :-)

I compare wearing a parachute to wearing a helmet in a car. In unusual / high performance situations, it's a very good idea.

It's unnecessary for the morning commute.

I don't wear one when flying a non-aerobatic airplane.

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On your comment of:

Can you possibly think of an instance where having a chute would help in a GA plane?

Yes, I can, and here's a video:

Bet those guys were happy to be wearing chutes alright!

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Yeah.... And that they were already outside of the airplane when it happened. Wow, not good. Any idea if the pilots were able to get out? –  Lnafziger Mar 20 at 12:10
As I recall everyone got out of that one. Very very lucky. All trained jumpers, all wearing chutes already. –  Jay Carr Mar 20 at 12:58
@Lnafziger - yes. One plane actually landed heavily damaged (pilot survived). The other was a total loss (obviously), but the pilot was also wearing a chute and survived by jumping –  SSumner Mar 20 at 13:31
@Lnafziger I believe everyone survived from both planes. You can see one of the planes falling in a fireball if you look closely. –  Danny Beckett Mar 20 at 21:51
You don't have to look too closely to see that! –  Lnafziger Mar 20 at 21:55

The only time I can think of would be if you are flying over a large expanse of unpopulated mountain area.

You are responsible for the damage your plane creates when it impacts with the ground, so there is no time over populated land where there is any control over the aircraft that it is appropriate to bail out of the aircraft and leave the plane flying out of control until impact.

In the mountains where there is no traffic for miles bailing out might give you a better opportunity to be rescued. A parachute can be controlled and you can put yourself in a better position to survive until rescue. In the mountains it is much harder to land safely than an area where there are open fields or flat spaces.

Over open water bailing out of the plane might give you a chance to spot and/or be spotted by nearby sailing vessels. Though if you have some control over your aircraft then you would be better served using that control to ditch in a controlled fashion in visual range of a sailing craft than jumping from the craft.

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If the aircraft is uncontrollable anyway staying in if you have a chance of chuting does not make sense damage-wise. Over sparsely populated areas it is quite difficult to hit something relevant at all, be they mountaineous or flat. –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 14:54
If the aircraft is uncontrollable unless you have some sort of automatic ejection seat your chances of getting out in the first place are pretty low. This question really focuses "Why do pilots often try to find a road to land on or a lake to ditch in when trouble strikes instead of just bringing a parachute and bailing out?" This sort of infers at least some control. –  Chad Mar 20 at 16:01
Agreed - jumping out as long as a survivable landing is still a viable option would be quite debatable. –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 16:06
@yankeekilo - The other issue is there are very few land spaces left on the planet that are truly unpopulated and not a sanctuary or reserve. If you bail out above 500 feet your plane could go for miles leaving you with no ability to direct where it impacts. If you bailout below 500 the landing is liable to be painful. –  Chad Mar 20 at 16:10
If 100 people parachute in a mountainous region, that will cause a very bad day for the rescue team, as everyone will land at different places. This is considering that most of the passengers will be too untrained and too unorganized to control where they should land. –  Lie Ryan Mar 20 at 19:58
  1. I believe most accidents occur during takeoff and landing when the machine and human pilots are most busy.

  2. Unless the aircraft experienced catastrophic failure I think most pilots would prefer to glide the plane down for a rough albeit survivable landing.

Some small aircraft come equipped with ballistic parachute...this is a great idea... :)

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In Germany ballistic safety systems are mandatory for aerodynamically controlled ultralights. –  yankeekilo Mar 20 at 15:13

It is common procedure to skydive from airplanes in distress, if the plane is already on it's way to altitude, carrying skydivers. There are parameters to consider though. When you are a trained skydiver, the safest option might be to get people out, because landing a plane with an engine failure is easier with a light load. This of course depends on altitude, and maybe surrounding options or landing a parachute (forests, mountains or relatively deep water would be bad).

I have done this once, when one of the engines of a twin otter went out at 9000 feet. This is also the reason why skydivers are ALWAYS required to wear their gear fully fastened while in the aircraft. In an emergency, even trained skydivers might not have time, space or stability enough to put on gear properly.

And by gear i mean the parachute, and it's straps. Not necessarily the helmet etc.

For untrained, and/or people not already wearing the harness, I would assume that it is safer to try to land with the aircraft, If in a situation where getting out is at all possible.

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