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On aircraft equipped with parachute, What is the most common reason to deploy a parachute?

Is it engine failure, loss of control, disorientation, out of fuel, etc. or something else?

Clarification: The question is limited to only the deployments in the air for emergency reasons. I.e.: Parachutes for braking purposes in the ground is excluded.

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    $\begingroup$ Per the answer posted, you may want to clarify that you are asking about light civil aircraft that use parachutes for emergencies. At least that's what I assume you are asking about, but since some older military jets used a parachute on every landing to slow down someone may include this in an answer. $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Per this Flying Magazine.com article, dated 2015 (yes, I know, old), BRS claimed 300+ pilots and passengers survived parachute decent, and COPA (Cirrus Owners and Pilots Assc) claimed 95 survived 46 chute pulls. Both claimed no deaths related to the deployments, but the article has no details, so not an answer. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 10 at 17:08

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I went through the list of CAPS deployments on the Cirrus Owners & Pilots Association site linked by John K. I ignored the two that deployed on parked aircraft due to thunderstorms which leaves 148 intentional deployments. Not all deployments were successful (most were), not all occupants survived (most did), but this catalogs the reason they chose to deploy the parachute. To date, by far the most common reason for parachute deployments is loss of engine power for some reason.

70 deployments (48%) due to an engine problem of some kind, and a further 16 (11%) due to some sort of fuel issue, so a total of 86 (61%) deployments were due to a loss of engine power for some reason. While a few engine issues were due to pilot error, most were mechanical issues. Fuel issues were a combination of exhaustion due to pilot error (running out of fuel, not switching from an empty tank), issues when switching tanks, and mechanical issues.

The next largest issue is due to loss of control, resulting in 30 deployments (20%). Besides failures to maintain adequate airspeed, this includes disorientation and misuse of the autopilot, either in VMC or IMC (visual or instrument meteorological conditions).

Weather directly accounts for 13 of the deployments (9%). 3 (2%) were simply loss of control due to severe weather, 7 (5%) were due to icing, and another 3 (2%) due to VFR in IMC (visual flight into bad visibility).

Structural failure accounted for 7 of the deployments (5%). 5 (4%) of these were due to midair collisions while 2 (1%) were due to control surfaces departing the aircraft.

Instrument failures were the reason for 3 deployments (2%).

Pilot incapacitation was the reason for 2 deployments (1%).

7 of the deployments (5%) don't seem to have sufficient information to determine a reason at this time.

Pie chart of CAPS deployment reasons

Table of reasons for CAPS deployments

Here is a stacked area chart of the different reasons over time. The early data is a bit crazy as the deployments don't really pick up much until around 2010.

Stacked area chart of reasons over time

Here is a comparison of the total deployments and the total Cirrus aircraft delivered.

Aircraft and parachute deployments over time

Lastly, here is a chart of the individual reasons charted over time. I mostly include this to point out that engine problems become much more common around 2013 while other reasons maintain more consistent rates. It's also been a while since a fuel exhaustion or icing incident.

Different reasons over time.

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    $\begingroup$ Very nicely done @fooot! Thank you for putting in that effort. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 11 at 19:41
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Cirrus's system is probably the most common parachute recovery system outside of ultralights.

You can review 149 Cirrus deployments here and catalog the reasons and have some hard data. I wasn't able to find a detailed breakdown, but the information is all there if you want to do the analysis yourself.

Perusing the site, I see a few IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions, otherwise known as blundering into cloud when you have no business being there) encounters and lots of loss of power problems, either engine failures or running out of gas, and a surprising number of odd events like, say, a pilot who apparently ran out of gas because he was stoned.

With a fast landing plane like the Cirrus, a lot of people are going to choose the parachute over a forced landing compared to an ultralight, where most of the deployments are going to be due to control problems or structural failure.

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  • $\begingroup$ Definition of IMC please? $\endgroup$ Jan 11 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry. Instrument Meteorological Conditions. In other words, getting caught in clouds where you lose sight of the ground or horizon, when not trained for it. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jan 11 at 6:08
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On aircraft equipped with parachute, What is the most common reason to deploy a parachute?

Is it engine failure, lost of control, disorientation, out of fuel, etc. or something else?

None of the above. The most common reason to deploy a parachute on aircraft equipped with a parachute is that deploying the parachute is part of a landing procedure.

The currently accepted answer states that the most common reason is engine or fuel problems with 86 incidents. However, the Space Shuttle orbiters alone deployed their brake parachutes 86 times during landing.

If you add to that the B-52, Sud Aviation Caravelle, Tupolev Tu-104, Tu-124, Tu-144, Learjet 25 and 35, Dassault Falcon 20 and Mirage, several glider models, BAe Hawk, Norwegian F-15s, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-100, F-104, F-105, F-106, F-117, F-16, F-4, F-5, F-86, SR-71, Handley Page Victor, MiG-21, MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-22, Su-24M, Su-25, Su-27, Su-30, Su-34, Hawker Hunter, and various X-planes such as the XB-70, XB-51, X-10, and prototypes such as the early Concorde, all of which use braking parachutes at least some of the time, you will probably find that the number of times airplanes deployed parachutes to slow down during or after landing absolutely dwarfs the number of times airplanes deployed parachutes because of engine problems.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've added the clarification to the question that is is only for in the air deployment and for emergency reasons only. $\endgroup$
    – Gabe
    Jan 12 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Gabe - it's good that you added the clarification, although to me it seemed obvious from your original question that this is what you meant since you listed "engine failure, lost of control, disorientation, out of fuel, etc." as possible causes, which would not be the case when using braking parachutes on normal landings. There might be situations where that type of aircraft is landing on a runway in conditions that would not normally need to use the chute, but in an emergency landing for say mechanical problems maybe they would. But still that would not be the most common reason. $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @StevePemberton: That is interesting, I did not know that about Aviation.SE. On most of the other sites I frequent, it would be the opposite: editing a question in a way that invalidates existing answers would not be considered "good", but in fact, not appropriate. I found this Meta discussion (aviation.meta.stackexchange.com/a/3104/3721), but it was inconclusive, although the highest-voted and accepted answer seems to indicate that is the case on Aviation.SE as well. $\endgroup$ Jan 12 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ Jörg - I agree that in many cases it's unfortunate that a vaguely worded question can result in answers that don't fit as well when the question is later clarified. However new contributors tend to use wording that takes some parsing. In this case the question title could have meant anything including sport skydiving parachutes. Then the first sentence in the description narrowed it down to aircraft parachutes. The next sentence (in my opinion) narrowed it down to whole-plane recovery systems. More experienced contributors probably would have included whole-plane recovery system in the title. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 4:48
  • $\begingroup$ That's a nice list that you posted, several aircraft on there that I didn't realize had parachutes. As a side note I got to see the first Shuttle parachute deployment STS-49 at Edwards in 1992. Although I was on the other side of the lake bed in the non-VIP viewing area, so all I saw was a red dot pop up behind the Shuttle. But still it was pretty cool. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 4:49

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