# Why don't pilots parachute from small planes that are in distress?

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?

• 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. Mar 20 '14 at 9:26
• @yankeekilo I flew gliders for a few years and never saw anybody wearing a parachute unless they were doing aerobatics... Mar 20 '14 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). Mar 20 '14 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. Mar 20 '14 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 '14 at 18:01

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.

• Sincere thanks for pointing out that engines are strictly optional. This fact has not yet sufficiently entered the public domain :D Mar 20 '14 at 9:16
• to add to this in Finland a parachutist plane went down and only 3 people got out Apr 21 '14 at 21:14
• @raptortech97 Well, two things make it very different for an aerobatic pilot (which the question was not about so I did not address it): 1) They do indeed fly around with the parachute on (which the typical GA pilot doesn't do), and 2) structural failure is more likely because of the high G-forces involved in aerobatic flight. Feb 4 '15 at 22:19
• About halfway through you mention the "extremely rare" situation, in which there is severe structural damage. If it is impossible to exit the airplane safely... do you just... die? Mar 16 '15 at 2:39
• @raptortech97 Aerobatic pilots are at much higher risk than pilots in normal flight. I think Lnafziger's analogy of wearing helmets in cars is actually very apt. Going along with that analogy, racecar drivers do wear helmets (and have lots of other extra safety systems) for precisely the reason that aerobatic pilots wear chutes: they're much more likely to be involved in a bad accident. May 24 '15 at 8:14

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.

• Something that isn't clear to me from anything on this page: assuming you are wearing a parachute already, and the plane isn't pulling any significant gees, how easy would it be to open the door and jump out? Feb 4 '15 at 21:39
• @raptortech97: I think aerobatic planes have provision for in-flight egress. For example, I was in a C152 Aerobat once and noticed that it had a D-ring that would pull the door hinge pins. Regular C152s I've flown don't have that. Mar 5 '15 at 17:56
• @raptortech97 It truly "depends on the airplane". Some would be quite easy, others not so much, and others are even impossible to open in flight. Mar 17 '15 at 12:38
• "As my main spar is enormous". Congrats to either you or your plane... or both. :-) Jan 22 '16 at 20:14

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!

• 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? Mar 20 '14 at 12:10
• As I recall everyone got out of that one. Very very lucky. All trained jumpers, all wearing chutes already. Mar 20 '14 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 Mar 20 '14 at 13:31
• You don't have to look too closely to see that! Mar 20 '14 at 21:55
• The video description says: All 9 skydiver landed safely, as well as the two pilots, one of which was taken to the hospital to treat minor cuts. Mar 21 '14 at 14:21

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.

• Apparently there's also the theoretical possibility of a departing skydiver fatally damaging or entangling the aircraft. Jumpship pilots usually have parachutes themselves, which would be a bit odd for someone flying any other sort of passengers. Jul 7 '17 at 4:39

I am doing basic pilot training with the RAF. In our single-engine trainers, we wear and are taught to use parachutes. There is no ejection systems, we have to remove the canopy manually. I don't know why this isn't a standard procedure in all light aircraft, we are doing fairly similar stuff to civilian aviation.

It's nice to know that you have a last resort if the engine is on fire. They aren't a huge amount of use below 1500ft however.

• Perhaps because most civilian pilots have a very small chance of being shot down? Mar 6 '15 at 19:12
• It's nothing to do with getting shot down, planes at that risk have ejection seats. Mar 7 '15 at 14:40
• Because small GA aircraft like primary trainers don't have "canopies"? I can barely get out of my C152 when it's stationary on the ground. I couldn't imagine getting out while it's hurtling towards the ground. Mar 25 '15 at 4:10
• Fair point... In which case that would make sense as our trainers do have canopies. Grob Tutor 115E en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grob_G_115 Mar 25 '15 at 11:50
• Perhaps the point of your parachute use and training is more about preparation for future need in higher performance, less forgiving aircraft in more hazardous conditions. I think civil aviation doctrine is that the aircraft should never need to be bailed out of... should never exceed its structural limitations, should never get into an unrecoverable flight condition e.g. flat spin, should never run into another aircraft, should never catch on fire, and landing the plane is safer than bailing out of it. Jul 4 '15 at 4:36

Sometimes pilots do wear parachutes.

It is a requirement for aerobatic flight that all occupants wear emergency parachutes. Aerobatic aircraft are also designed for quick egress with jettisonable canopies or enclosures and quick release restraints for the flight crew. The seats in the aircraft are also designed to accommodate an emergency parachute which doubles as a backrest or seat cushion.

The major reason for this here is the real possibility for an aircraft to depart from controlled flight or have the flight envelope exceeded, making a successful emergency or off field landing practically impossible.

In general for normal or utility category operations in a single engine airplane, nearly all emergencies will not result in a departure from controlled flight, if the aircraft is operated within the approved flight envelope specified by the manufacturer in the airplane's type certificate, airplane flight manual and cockpit placards as well as proper flight planning, weather briefing and preflight inspection. The aircraft can also be maneuvered to and landed off field, many times with a minimum of risk.

Naturally there are some exceptions to this. Engine failure at night and/or over rough or mountainous terrain, in IMC, or ditching in open seas can make a forced landing very hazardous. In these situations your chances of survival may be more favorable if you bailed out of the airplane at a sufficient altitude as opposed to attempting a forced landing.

As a Cirrus pilot myself with flight time in SR20 and SR22 aircraft, I am a big proponent of the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System System (CAPS), particularly in the employment of the CAPS in the situations described above simply because the chances of survival are dramatically better than without, if the CAPS is employed correctly.

Moving into larger, multi engine aircraft the extra redundancy offered by two or more engines largely negates the shortcomings of singles in these situations and the benefits of emergency parachutes or airframe chutes.

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.

• 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. Mar 20 '14 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.
Mar 20 '14 at 16:01
• Agreed - jumping out as long as a survivable landing is still a viable option would be quite debatable. Mar 20 '14 at 16:06
• @Chad Define 'truly unpopulated.' In the U.S., your chances of hitting anything other than a field or a forest are quite low unless you happen to be in or near a large city. These chances are even lower in, say, Russia, Canada, or Australia. Take a look at the sectional charts in the central or Western part of the U.S. The following are actual landmarks marked on Kansas sectionals: 'elevator' (referring grain elevators... the most common landmark on the Kansas sectionals,) 'stockyard', 'ranch', 'school', 'buildings' (yes, really,) 'church'. You'd have to try to hit something out there. Jul 1 '15 at 14:36
• @Reirab - But unless you are in the mountains there is a real risk that it will impact somewhere that is populated because over most of the country you can draw a 5 mile circle and there is probably at least one if not more human built structure in that area. In addition if you let the plane go and it causes a forest or wild fire you are responsible for that as well since you abandoned.