Dr. Richard McGlaughlin was level at 9,500 feet msl when the engine stopped, freezing the propeller over warm Atlantic Ocean water near the island of Andros, Bahamas. Accounts of the successful deployment of the Cirrus SR22’s parachute, and the Coast Guard rescue of McGlaughlin and his daughter, Elaine, 25, drew the attention of ABC News and the aviation media.
McGlaughlin posted a brief version of his Jan. 7 ditching on the AOPA Forum early Jan. 9, before continuing his interrupted journey by commercial flight to Haiti, where he is providing medical relief. McGlaughlin said a more detailed account would have to wait until his return to Alabama.
“Access to computers is a problem, mine got wet,” McGlaughlin said in an email to AOPA.
McGlaughlin’s Cirrus had departed Miami Jan. 7 after a routine stop, bound for Haiti.
“The engine was fine, normal [exhaust gas temperatures] and [cylinder head temperatures] as the oil pressure dialed down’ til there was no oil, then it made a scary racket ‘til it seized up altogether,” McGlaughlin wrote in his early-morning AOPA Forum post. “Silent is even worse, the prop stationary. Normal oil temps the whole way, too, made me think the oil was leaking.”
McGlaughlin had 10 minutes of glide time to work with, according to an account on the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) website. He declared an emergency and turned toward Andros. The island proved two miles too far, and at 2,300 feet McGlaughlin told his daughter to tighten her seatbelt low across her hips, and then activated the rocket-powered parachute. In just a few seconds, the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) had arrested all forward progress, and after a deep nose-low dip the airplane leveled off under the shrouds and continued down at about 1,700 feet per minute, or roughly 20 mph.
“A hard smack,” McGlaughlin recalled on his AOPA post. “No injuries. None.”
McGlaughlin and his daughter managed to exit a cabin filling quickly with water that poured through the vents. They made their way into a small inflatable raft, clinging to the shrouds of the red and white parachute canopy that made spotting them from a passing Coast Guard aircraft much easier. They were headed back to Florida in a Coast Guard helicopter less than an hour after declaring the emergency.
The CAPS system has been activated 32 times, generally sparing occupants serious injury or death, though not always. Aviation blogger Paul Bertorelli studied accident reports and opined on AVweb that the parachute has been activated too low, or at too high a speed in some cases, with fatalities and serious injuries resulting. Some pilots may lack the training required to make a split-second decision to activate the parachute before speed or altitude loss exceed the system’s operating limits—certainly not the case with McGlaughlin, who had time, and altitude, to work with.
“It’s quite a bit different if you think, ‘I’ve got five seconds or less to decide,’” said AOPA Foundation President Bruce Landsberg.
While a few continue to debate the true value of aircraft parachute systems under certain conditions, the extraordinary clarity of the outcome of a seized engine made McGlaughlin’s particular deployment a more clear-cut decision.
“Do we want to be doing 80 knots when we hit the water, or would we rather be floating down?” Landsberg asked.
According to the COPA account, McGlaughlin had been trained in a simulator what to expect when the parachute rocketed out of the airframe—including the nose dip and sudden jolt as the canopy filled. Landsberg noted that COPA and Cirrus have worked diligently to make the parachute an obvious option during emergencies.
“I think Cirrus and COPA have spent a lot of time trying to educate pilots that if you are in duress and you’re uncertain, pull the chute,” Landsberg said.