How do parachutes on small planes work when the aircraft's engine fails?

Six people saved by Cirrus Airframe Parachute System after aircraft engine fails over Brazil

The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System in action. Photo: Cirrus Aircraft
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It could be the plot of a Hollywood action movie.

But this week, the occupants of a light aircraft in Brazil were saved from a likely death when a parachute was deployed from the plane, allowing it to float back to Earth after it experienced engine failure in mid-air.

Six people — including a child and a baby — were saved because the Cirrus SR22 carried the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, a “whole-plane” ballistic parachute recovery system that gently returns a disabled aircraft to the ground.

The incident occurred shortly after take-off from Pampulha Airport, in Belo Horizonte, in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais.

Footage posted on March 11 was widely shared on social media this week.

How does it work?

The system works much like a parachute that a person would wear when jump out of a plane.

A parachute is deployed when a small solid-fuel rocket housed at the rear of the fuselage pulls it from its housing and deploys the canopy within seconds.

Aircraft that carry the parachutes are also fitted with an emergency side door in case the main doors are blocked after crash landing.

When was it designed?

The system was designed by brothers Alan and Dale Klapmeier in the mid-1980s after Alan Klapmeier survived a mid-air collision in 1985. The other aircraft spun to the ground, killing the pilot.

Cirrus started developing CAPS on the SR20 aircraft in the US state of Minnesota in the mid-1990s, first testing it in 1998 over southern California.

Chief test pilot, Scott D Anderson, a former Air National Guard F-16 pilot, completed all seven in-flight test deployments of the system.

The design was the first of its kind to become certified by the US Government’s Federal Aviation Administration.

The Klapmeier brothers were inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014.

How many lives has it saved?

Cirrus says the system has saved 240 lives — including the most recent six in Brazil.

In February, again in Brazil, a Cirrus aircraft that experienced engine trouble also used a parachute, saving those on board.

In 2022, a seven-seater Cirrus Vision Jet SF50 that hit severe turbulence near Orlando, Florida, used the parachute to land safely in a swampy area, with the pilot and two passengers all surviving.

And in 2014, three occupants of a Cirrus aircraft were saved when its parachute was used over Australia’s Blue Mountains, with the plane dropping more than a kilometre before landing in a garden.

Updated: March 15, 2023, 6:37 AM