July 2, 2009
By Dave Hirschman
The padded, snug-fitting shoulder straps in the front seats of the AOPA 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22 feel much the same as any others—but they contain a hidden and potentially lifesaving technology.
Just as airbags have vastly improved automotive safety in the last 15 years, the technology is moving into general aviation with some very encouraging early results. So far, manufacturer AmSafe counts 11 lives saved by airbags, and that number is likely to grow as the number of airbags in the GA fleet increases.
“Airbags are going to become as common in the GA fleet as they are in cars,” said Bill Hagan, president of AmSafe’s aviation division. “The extent to which airbags improve aviation safety is huge. Airbags can absolutely prevent death or serious injury in a broad variety of aviation accidents.”
AmSafe doesn’t quantify the speed or descent rates at which airbags can make aircraft accidents survivable. But Hagan said airbags have been shown to save lives and lessen the severity of injuries across a broad spectrum of takeoff and landing accidents, as well as forced landings in which pilots maintain control of their aircraft to the ground.
In one case, a student and instructor practicing night touch-and-go landings in an airbag-equipped Cessna 172 lost their bearings and flew into a heavily forested area at normal approach speed. Both walked away from the accident with minor injuries. Another event involved a botched go-around in a Cirrus SR22 in which the airplane cartwheeled and was completely destroyed—yet both occupants survived.
According to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Nall Report, light GA airplanes suffered 6,448 accidents in the decade ending in 2007 during takeoffs, landings, or go-arounds in which 842 people were killed and 731 seriously injured. Takeoff accidents accounted for 28 percent of the total but caused more than half of the casualties. Landing accidents were the most numerous (4,166 accidents during the period) but the least harmful with 131 deaths and 226 serious injuries.
AmSafe began installing airbag seatbelts in GA aircraft in 2001, and they have become standard equipment in 80 percent of the new, single-engine airplanes manufactured today. About 17,000 sets of airbag seatbelts have been installed on GA aircraft, and that includes a growing number of retrofits in the existing fleet through supplemental type certificates. All new Cirrus aircraft all have them, and AOPA wanted the Let’s Go Flying SR22 (a G2/GTS model built in 2005) to carry them as well.
The retrofit installation in the Let’s Go Flying SR22 was performed at Landmark Aviation in Frederick, Md., and came with a total retail price of about $5,000. The Cirrus retrofit required two days (24 shop hours) to complete and involved modifications to the airplane’s composite floor and extensive work on both front seats. The installation also added about two pounds to the airplane’s empty weight.
AmSafe officials say Cirrus retrofits are among the most labor-intensive airbag installations, and the safety equipment can be added to other aircraft in less time. Airbag kits typically sell for $1,500 to $1,750 per seat without installation. The amount of labor to install them varies from about eight to 25 hours depending on the type of aircraft.
Lee Langston, an AmSafe field service technician based in Phoenix, Ariz., has installed seatbelt airbags in airplanes ranging from Cessna 172s to Airbus A380s, and he helped guide the installation in the Let’s Go Flying SR22.
After removing the front seats, technicians applied a composite patch to the floor on the passenger side of the aircraft. The reinforced flooring holds a mechanical crash sensor that tells the airbags when to fire. The sensor measures the severity and duration of the forces acting on the aircraft, and it only tells the airbags to deploy if there’s a forward deceleration of 9 Gs or more.
Turbulence doesn’t register and neither will a hard landing.
“There’s never been an inadvertent airbag deployment involving any of our aircraft systems,” Hagan said. “You’ve got to hit something solid to deploy the airbags.”
Hagan said seatbelt mounted airbags are far superior to those mounted in cars that deploy toward the occupants. There have been numerous injuries—particularly among small children and the elderly—caused by airbags themselves. But since airbag seatbelts in airplanes deploy away from the occupants, and they’re not a threat to young children or the elderly.
“It’s a huge advantage for the airbags to deploy away from the occupants,” Hagan said. “There’s no risk of injury from the airbags themselves, and they’re OK for a small child to wear as well as a 240-pound adult male.”
Airbag seatbelts require periodic maintenance. At each annual inspection, a technician performs a diagnostic check of the system that takes about two minutes to complete. Also, the battery pack in that powers the crash sensor (and is separate from the aircraft electrical system) must be replaced every seven years, and the stored gas canisters that fill the airbags (with helium) have a 10-year life limit.
To date, aviation insurance companies haven’t yet offered premium reductions to the owners of airbag-equipped airframes—but AmSafe and AOPA are hopeful that the technology will prove so beneficial that owners will qualify for rate reductions. And those rate reductions could go a long way to justifying the added cost of airbags for individual owners, and increase the use of airbags throughout the GA fleet.
Hagan said airbag seatbelts for GA are the first product AmSafe has ever attempted to sell directly to individual owners. All its other products are sold to vehicle or component manufacturers. So far, GA pilots have been slow to adopt the technology, but Hagan said that’s changing.
“When you present them with the information, it doesn’t take long for pilots and aircraft owners to see the advantages,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight—but airbags are going to make a major contribution to improving aviation safety.”
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