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In this incident near Hawaii, a Cirrus SR22 had fuel problems and deployed its airframe parachute.

My question is why did the pilot deploy the parachute rather than perform a "normal" ditching procedure in the ocean?

For reference, here's the video.

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    $\begingroup$ Much better chance of a successful outcome. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jan 27 '15 at 8:02
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    $\begingroup$ Just to add context to the below answers: A Cirrus SR22 has fixed landing gear. This makes a conventional "ditching" onto water VERY perilous. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 27 '15 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ But why did he run out of fuel is also another question $\endgroup$ – Brian Jan 28 '15 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ I read somewhere that he had a problem with a fuel tank. But I haven't been able to confirm that. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Jan 28 '15 at 17:37
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First, according to one operating handbook for the Cirrus SR-22 (there are several versions out there), pulling the chute is the correct ditching procedure (CAPS is the parachute system):

Ditching

  1. Radio ............................................ Transmit (121.5 MHz) MAYDAY giving location and intentions

  2. Transponder........................................................... SQUAWK 7700

  3. CAPS ............................................................................. ACTIVATE

  4. Airplane.........................................................................EVACUATE

  5. Flotation Devices ............INFLATE WHEN CLEAR OF AIRPLANE

Second, the conditions were reported to be windy with high waves:

Weather conditions at the time of the rescue were seas of 9 to 12 feet and winds of 25 to 28 mph.

Those would be tough conditions for ditching in. I've read several times that when light aircraft ditch, the pilot and passengers usually survive the impact but they often struggle to exit the aircraft successfully. This article and video explain in detail how difficult it can be to exit an aircraft in the water, even in good conditions. If the aircraft flips or cartwheels then exiting would be extremely tough and the rough sea would make it much worse. Since the parachute lowers the aircraft straight down in a more or less level attitude, the chance of flipping over is greatly reduced. The downside is that you no longer have control of where you touch down relative to the waves, so you might land just in front of one but that still seems like a good option compared to the risk of flipping the aircraft on impact.

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    $\begingroup$ In the video, even after the plane was put down more or less flat on the water, it filled quickly with water and inverted in less than 30 seconds. $\endgroup$ – CJBS Jan 28 '15 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. Thanks for including the info from the PIM, and specifying what CAPS is. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Jan 28 '15 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Your link to the video appears to be, sadly, dead. $\endgroup$ – AEhere Dec 20 '18 at 12:24
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Once your engine fails the airplane is the property of the insurance company, your only goal at that point should be to survive. Using a whole-airframe chute increases your chances of survival whether over land or sea.

The things that kill people in forced landings of any kind are high-g deceleration and post crash fire. A parachute decreases the chances of both as you have very low lateral speed and much less chance of fuel tank leaks. A parachute also will increase the chance the airplane will remain upright, so escaping the aircraft will be much easier - very important in a water landing!

The only reason for a "normal" ditching procedure is that you have no other choice, using a parachute if you have one will almost always be the right option. The only time I would consider otherwise is if I had enough altitude to glide to a safer emergency landing spot. If pulling the chute would mean landing in water or dangerous terrain but gliding would mean reaching land where a forced landing was reasonable I'd probably opt for gliding.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the insurance company angle. If you're no longer responsible for the airframe, then why risk life and limb for it. $\endgroup$ – RoboKaren Jan 27 '15 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ Pilots kill themselves and sometimes other trying to prevent damage to their aircraft in emergencies. Aircraft can be replaced, lives cannot. $\endgroup$ – GdD Jan 27 '15 at 15:21
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Maybe pulling the chute is the normal ditching procedure for a cirrus with an airframe chute. The splash down looks to be very gentle compared to a normal gliding ditch with fixed gear. It's also less prone to pilot error; once you are dangling there is not much the pilot can mess up.

I imagine the checklist being something like:

  • pull chute

  • when aircraft stabilizes open door put on life vest and prepare raft

  • should plane roll and sink get out and on the raft

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. I would assume that landing on the ocean with a chute would be much gentler than attempting to ditch in the open ocean. Landing on a river is one thing; 'landing' on the Pacific is another. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jan 27 '15 at 2:54
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The odds of survival with the chute are currently at 100% (Per Cirrus) and the odds of surviving a ditching are much less. The plane was lost in the Pacific either way. The correct thing to do is pull the lever and ride it down, live to be a great pilot another day. The real question is what did the pilot do wrong to end up in that situation?

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure about the 100% number. This page lists quite a number of fatalities involved in CAPS pulls. Maybe you're referring to water-ditching only? $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jan 27 '15 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ @abelenky or he's referring to the number of deployments in the proper altitude and speed. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jan 27 '15 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ "The real question is what did the pilot do wrong to end up in that situation?" Early reports say that he had plenty of fuel, but due to a faulty/stuck valve on a ferry tank, the fuel couldn't be fed to the engine. If anything, it may suggest a lack of pre-flight inspection & testing of the newly installed ferry-tanks prior to such a long trip with no alternates. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Jan 27 '15 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @abelenky - I'm betting that it was an in-flight failure after 10+ hours of flying/vibration - it seems unlikely that the temporary fuel tanks and fuel system wouldn't have been inspected closely in pre-flight prep. Though maybe having a single valve able to act as a single point of failure was a mistake. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 28 '15 at 2:35
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The proper response to losing the engine would be to follow the emergency procedures checklist. In that you will find it says to deploy the ballistic parachute.

While a better option, the ballistic parachute has its own drawbacks. I recall when getting checked out in a Cirrus years ago by an approved training provider that I was told the impact with chute deployed can be up to 8 G's.

So I would say not 100% survivable. Actually I know of a Cirrus that went down near Sanford Florida a few years back that deployed the chute and the occupants died.

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  • $\begingroup$ According to this page, in that crash (I'm assuming you're referring to the February 2009 Deltona, Florida crash - CAPS event #18), the parachute was fired "immediately prior to ground impact", and the fatalities resulted not from the parachute being deployed, but, rather, from it being deployed too late. $\endgroup$ – Sean Sep 13 '18 at 0:14

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