Cirrus safety

February 1, 2004

ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg flew the Cirrus SR22 and found it to be different.

Cirrus Design proved that pilots want new airplanes that look good, go fast, and are comfortable and affordable. The company has broken sales records by selling more airplanes faster than anyone else in recent history. (See " Alan and Dale's Excellent Idea," page 94.) It has also challenged some conventional safety wisdom by adding the BRS airframe parachute system and completely changed the look of the cockpit.

Quoting from Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel by James Fallows (see " Pilots: James Fallows," page 142) about Cirrus, "Their basic idea is to build small airplanes that ordinary people will find simple and safe enough to fly.... Cirrus is making a real effort to break the traditional way of doing things." However, there is still a lot of the right aviation stuff required to operate a Cirrus or any of the current crop of aircraft. Does it require less or more from a pilot to fly a Cirrus compared to the classics?

A number of Cirrus pilots have fallen into the same traps that affect pilots of mature-technology aircraft. There have been a few maintenance or aircraft-generated problems, but pilots continue, as always, to be the leading factor in damaging fully functional airplanes. A quick examination of the ASF online accident database, drawn from NTSB reports, shows 13 accidents since 1999 (and one that occurred during flight testing, but that's why there is a rigorous certification process, and we'll not count that in the total).

My oversimplified way to categorize aviation thought processes may help you to think about safety solutions: The physical airplane (handling skills, stick-and-rudder action); the mental airplane (understanding all the avionics and having a good mental picture of what's going on, or situational awareness, if you prefer); and finally, the decision-making and judgment aspects when flying into a situation beyond either your or the aircraft's capability may result in an unfortunate outcome (see " Safety Pilot: Standard of Training," July 2003 Pilot).

The physical airplane

There was one landing accident and some incidents that did not meet the qualification for an accident. They also didn't meet the qualification for a good landing — one where the aircraft could be used again without repair. Early in the delivery process some of the Cirrus landing characteristics may not have been well communicated and there were some hard landings with prop and tail strikes. This is clearly in the "physical airplane" area.

A low-time private pilot went through the factory checkout, completing more than eight hours of flight training, and crashed during landing on the flight home. According to the NTSB report, the pilot leveled off too high and reduced power. The airplane touched down approximately 1,000 to 1,500 feet from the runway threshold, bounced twice, and started to nose dive on the second bounce. A go-around was attempted but the airplane's nose pitched up rapidly and veered left. The aircraft departed the runway under power and ironically slid into the side of a wrecked airplane fuselage used for airport fire crew crash-and-rescue training.

From the SR22 training manual on landings: "The SR22 is best landed in an only slightly nose-high attitude. The landing picture will seem fairly flat compared to a high-wing aircraft. Excessively nose-high landings result in poor control response and the possibility of striking the tail tiedown." According to Cirrus records, there were eight occurrences of propeller strikes involving both low- and high-time pilots prior to this accident. There were six tail strikes, one of which involved a pilot with a total flight time in excess of 10,000 hours and one occurrence where a high-time pilot veered off the runway during landing and hit a sign. This all took place before Cirrus changed its factory training provider and curriculum. An SR20 owner who was involved in a propeller strike said that he "thought that the transition to flying an SR20 is the toughest aspect of flying the airplane." He thought the controls were "very sensitive" and also noticed that the pilot can reach the end of control in pitch, remarking, "All of a sudden you're pulling back and there is nothing left."

These points are not intended as a criticism of the aircraft, because the incidents dropped off dramatically once the problem was understood and Cirrus changed training providers. Pilots should understand, however, that every aircraft has a personality. I had the great pleasure of flying the SR22 in Duluth, Minnesota, last February with a steady 10-knot crosswind. The aircraft was completely controllable, but it also handled somewhat differently from other aircraft.

The mental aircraft

Possibly in the "mental aircraft" category, a newly instrument-rated pilot who had also just taken delivery of his Cirrus inexplicably made a 70-degree turn off the final approach course and descended into power lines more than six miles from the airport. A review of recorded air-to-ground communication tapes and radar data showed the accident airplane established on the final approach for Runway 31R at Reid-Hillview of Santa Clara County Airport at 2,100 feet msl. At six miles out, the airplane started a gradual right turn and descended until radar contact was lost. The weather provided by the control tower showed the visibility at four miles, a 1,200-foot broken ceiling, 8,000-foot overcast, temperature 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and dew point 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The parachute had not been activated and there were no distress calls.

This accident is still in preliminary status so it's impossible to know for certain, but indulge me in a little speculation. If the pilot wasn't incapacitated, perhaps he was distracted? Unless something turns up in the investigation, the probable cause will likely be "failed to follow IFR procedure." That answers the what, not the why. One explanation is that a new IFR pilot was confronted with a new aircraft, new avionics, and a new environment to him — night instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Even with the best panel, if you're not quite sure how it all fits together, have not practiced with some seasoned help, and have not debuted your new skills in a more benign setting, things can get complicated in a hurry.

Cirrus will be taking delivery of a visual simulator later this year to help pilots really learn the mental airplane. Having personally struggled with capable (complex) avionics, I heartily applaud this and encourage all manufacturers, training organizations, and pilots to allow enough time to reach a journeyman level of IFR proficiency in a new environment.

Good judgment

The toughest area to deal with involves judgment and decision making. A number of Cirrus pilots broke every common-sense and legal rule in the book by continuing VFR into IMC, and often in mountainous terrain. The risk on several of these flights is far enough up the scale that you can't help but wonder if the Cirrus' excellent avionics, comfort, and parachute system seduced the pilots into a fatal rationalization.

An excerpt from one final NTSB report: "The composite aircraft impacted the side of a mountain approximately 20 minutes prior to sunset after the noninstrument-rated private pilot departed on a cross-country flight. The pilot obtained printed weather information via a DUATS system approximately nine hours prior to the flight's departure. Airmets for mountain obscurement, moderate turbulence, and moderate rime/mixed-icing conditions were in effect, and included the area of the accident site. Previous weather observations from the departure airport reported snow showers located over the mountains in the vicinity of the flight's route. A witness located near the accident site reported he could not see the base of the mountain throughout the day because of sleet, snow, rain, and wind. Nearby airport weather observations indicated VFR weather conditions; however, forecasts for the flight route indicated there was still a chance of mountain obscurement. There was no record that the pilot received updated weather prior to departure, although it's possible that was received from an untraceable source."

The number of VFR Cirrus pilots crashing in poor weather made insurance difficult to obtain and expensive for many Cirrus pilots for a period of time. Cirrus produced a VFR-only aircraft, the SRV, in response to VFR customer demand in hopes of convincing insurance underwriters that the pilots really don't intend to cheat. A less radical move was for the company to subsidize the pilot's insurance cost for the first year if the pilot agrees to get an instrument rating and fly a certain amount of time. A flight instructor standardization program was also implemented, administered by University of North Dakota Aerospace, the factory training organization, to meet the need for recurrent training as well as initial training in preowned aircraft for pilots all over the country. All of this has improved the insurance situation for Cirrus buyers.

The safety emphasis is a positive step forward to resolving what some have referred to as the "mystery of Cirrus." Why should one of the most technically advanced aircraft have accidents? There is no mystery nor is there anything that we've seen so far to indicate a dark side to the aircraft. Until our weather forecasting and dissemination system can provide more certainty, the tough choices will still be there, requiring pilots to take a hard look at the same old things — themselves, the aircraft, and the weather — to determine if the trip can be made safely.

Cirrus airplanes are fast and comfortable with "capable" avionics that will become simpler with training and practice. The same can be said of the handling characteristics. Pilots need to allow some time to make friends. It is the same with all aircraft.