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Critic Raises Questions over Crash and Death Rates of Cirrus Aircraft In “Dead Pilots Don’t Lie”–Surprising Fatality Safety Analysis of Cirrus “Parachute” Planes vs. Cessna Small Planes

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I just returned from the Buffalo, NY funeral of my good friend, Michael Doran, a successful personal injury lawyer from Buffalo, New York, who last week died in a Cirrus SR20 plane he was piloting, that crashed just after take-off near Cleveland. Michael, age 51, of Doran & Murphy law firm was an avid pilot and had recently purchased a Cirrus aircraft, the new breed of small plane which features safety parachute technology. Michael and a young promising attorney named Mathew J. Shnirel who had recently joined his law firm had just taken off from a small airport near Cleveland when (apparent) engine trouble forced him to immediately circle back toward the airport, before the plane crashed just outside a residential area according to news reports-it appears Mike purposefully and heroically barely cleared a residential area, crashing beside a church.

Was it mechanical failure? Why couldn’t Michael have deployed the parachute-was the altitude and speed too low or did an engine failure prevent parachute deployment? Even my law partner, Jim Lewis, himself a pilot of small planes who blogs on aircraft accidents, did not have any answers though we all suspect engine failure. Following the emotional funeral and moving eulogies by family and friends, I still was looking for answers to difficult questions on my return home. Also, I recalled Michael telling me (we snow skied together) that he bought the Cirrus aircraft partly because of the safety parachute feature and I knew he was a safe pilot just from him explaining how very careful he was with weather conditions before ever flying his small plane. As of the drafting of this article, there has been no NTSB preliminary accident report, but this article deals with safety issues of the Cirrus and its main competitor, the Cessna aircraft, two of the most commonly piloted small planes. Note: I am not a pilot, but this article mainly deals with safety statistics surrounding popular small aircraft.

Cirrus aircraft are equipped with proprietary technology which can employ a special parachute and Cirrus planes also have an anti–spin feature incorporated in the wing design that is marketed as a feature that can prevent the plane from going into a deadly spin potentially saving the life of those on a Cirrus plane. As a prolific U.S. inventor myself, there is no question that Cirrus should be applauded for bringing the parachute safety feature to the small aircraft market. No other small aircraft has this safety feature. However, there are very troubling statistics relating to the Cirrus aircraft crash and death rates for the just 10 years since the Cirrus have been in use.

It’s been over a decade now since Cessna resumed small airplane production in 1997 and Cirrus delivered the first SR20 composite body plane in 1999. Together by year-end 2008, both companies delivered nearly 13,000 new aircraft, accumulating over 12 million hours flown.

Cessna aircraft are one of the most popular competitors to Cirrus planes, especially since the late 1990s. Cirrus planes go faster and feature proprietary parachute and anti-spin technology, Cessna’s metal body aircraft cost less generally. If one compares the government statistics relating to safety of the Cessna versus the Cirrus since the late 1990s, the rates show that the Cirrus aircraft has been in 2.8 times more crash deaths than the Cessna, per aircraft, per hour flown, according a long analysis called “Dead Pilots Don’t Lie” by Stephen Wilson on his aircraft/piloting blog.

Wilson is a mechanic, pilot, and operates a Cessna aircraft sales business and it is no a secret that he favors the Cessna aircraft and the Cessna safety record over the Cirrus’s safety record hands down-and essentially backs up his claims on his aviation blog that he has authored since at least 2002. He is an aircraft mechanic, aircraft owner, and flight instructor; a full-time aircraft professional in the single engine aircraft business for 23 years and also was an NTSB-trained Air Safety Investigator, who represented the Cessna Aircraft Company in field accident investigations. NO question he comes to the discussion with a bias, but he may have good reason to be biased. According to his analysis of NTSB records, although always equipped with an emergency parachute, Cirrus occupants were killed three times more frequently than those in Cessna planes with no parachutes to save them. The data contained in one hundred forty-one NTSB reports to date confirm what Wilson shows in tables on his website blog, and some are shown below.

A look at some of the key statistics according to Wilson from a review of the pertinent NTSB records:

Cessna (Single Engines Mfg 1997 and Newer vs. Cirrus)

The Serious Accident Tally

1997-2009

Total Serious
Accidents

Fatalities

Cirrus

59

97

New-Production Cessna
(Skylanes and Stationairs Only)

36

53

1997-2009

Total fleet hours

Hours Flown
per Serious Accident

Hours Flown
per Death

Cirrus

2,650,000

44,900

27,300

New-Production Cessna
(Skylanes and Stationairs Only)

3,590,000

99,700

67,700

Wilson’s charts indicate that serious accidents occurred 2.2 times more frequently in Cirrus aircraft than in Cessna’s. 2.5 times as many people were killed in Cirrus’s than in Cessna’s given the same number of hours flown-basically an apples to apples comparison.

He also took a look back from the date of accident in either aircraft in that timeframe to analyze safety statistics in a different way as follows:

Comparing Total Hours on Aircraft at the Accident Site
Consider how many hours (total aircraft time) accident aircraft accumulated from date of manufacture until the day they crashed. The NTSB recorded aircraft total time on 41 Cirrus and 72 Cessna accident investigations where there was serious injury or death in the last 10 years.

Hours on Accident Aircraft before the Serious Accident Occurred

1997-2009

Number Reports That
NTSB Reported Total Time

Hours Flown

Number of Fatalities

Average Aircraft Total Time
at the Accident

Number of Aircraft Hours
per Fatality

Cirrus

41 reports

17,835

61

435

292

Cessna

72 reports

76,680

95

1,065

807

Cirrus serious accidents were 2.8 times more fatal than Cessna in the same number of fateful hours flown, Wilson says, based on the NTSB statistics. To see the underlying statistics, click here:

Cirrus NTSB Serious Accident Reports
Cessna (Single Engines Mfg 1997 and Newer) NTSB Serious Accident Reports

As an injury lawyer representing victims of injury, I don’t have any personal bias between Cirrus and Cessna airplanes, but I have a strong interest in personal injury/wrongful death safety in the United States, whether it be in the workplace or in airplanes-and my good friend died piloting a Cirrus. It is striking that the aircraft with the most advanced safety features (parachute and anti-spin technology), has a clearly higher rate of serious accidents or death per hour flown, compared to a more standard aircraft such as the Cessna. What is causing this as it seems counter-intuitive? Could Cirrus argue that “inexperienced” pilots fly the Cirrus vs. the Cessna? Doubtful this would skew the statistics so violently.

As of March 2009, there were 18 reported deployments of a Cirrus parachutes with at least 30 survivors. BRS, the parachute manufacturer for the Cirrus, has been installing parachutes on small ultralight and experimental planes since 1983. To date, the company claims 228 “lives saved” (assuming the plane’s occupants would have suffered death in the event). A three-year-old report from BRS shows that nearly half the “lives saved” in the most recent 50 incidents were Cirrus occupants. Obviously, there is merit to the safety feature of the parachute, but something is going on with the overall control issues on the Cirrus to make the fatality statistics so skewed in favor of the Cessna aircraft record over the last ten years.

More comparison details from Wilson: in a Cirrus, the passenger must shut off power to the engine, and follow the instructions on the emergency placard to activate the parachute. A passenger in a Cessna can also shut off power by pulling a big red knob, then turning the elevator trim wheel full up to attain best glide speed. With a Cessna, there’s remains an opportunity to steer the plane to avoid injury to people on the ground as much as possible. With over 20 knots greater stalling speed, greater landing distance required and other factors, the Cirrus may be less crashworthy than the Cessna, according to pilot Wilson (not covered in this analysis). All of this is food for thought if you are pilot ready to either purchase one of these aircraft, or planning to just fly one regularly. Sometimes a safety improvement must be considered with all other available safety data. In the Cirrus crash that killed my comrade, I do not know the answers yet. And, unfortunately, none of this analysis will bring my friend and pilot Mike Doran back. God bless him, his family and the Schnirel family.

Note: If you have an important safety comment or thought on these issues, please write a comment on my blog!

May 10, 2009 Update Alert: National News Desk Reporter Jane Akre, with Lisa Brown did a national followup story on the Cirrus safety debate. Click here to read "Cirrus Fatalities Have Critics Questioning Safety."

About the Editors: Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm (VA-NC law offices ) edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard, as well as the Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as a pro bono service to consumers. Lawyers licensed in: VA, NC, SC, WV, DC, KY, who handle car, truck, railroad, aviation and medical negligence cases and more.