Editors Note* Journalist Lisa Brown provided the primary reporting for this story. Brown is a four time Emmy award-winning former television investigative reporter, and a private pilot with airplane, seaplane, helicopter, gyroplane, and glider ratings.
Cirrus Aircraft SR20
The Cirrus airplane crash that killed two prominent New York trial attorneys, Michael Doran and Matthew Schnirel shortly after takeoff from a Cleveland area airport last week, has once again brought the sleek aircraft back into the glare of the media spotlight.
Questions about the safety of Cirrus aircraft have risen along with the airplane’s popularity, reports IB member Rick Shapiro of the Virginia Beach law firm, Shapiro, Cooper Lewis & Appleton, P.C. who just returned from Doran's funeral.
In talking with pilots, many will say that it sure seems like there have been an inordinate number of fatal Cirrus SR20 and SR22 crashes. Is that the reality, or is it that pilots are more attuned to taking note because the Cirrus roared into the market as a highly coveted, high performance aircraft with a novel built-in parachute?
Perhaps it’s like falling in love with your first sports car. Once you desire one, or are lucky enough to be able to afford one, you are much more aware of noticing others on the road.
Or, maybe, the safety of Cirrus aircraft needs to be examined further, especially in light of the fact that the company has sold more aircraft more quickly than any other manufacturer in recent history.
As with most facts, they can be skewed in many different ways to represent many different views. This much is known. According to the National Transportation Safety Board database, there have been 46 fatal Cirrus accidents. Last week’s fatal crash is not yet in the database.
Some will note that the total number of fatalities per 100,000 hours flown (which is the aviation equivalent of miles driven) in Cirrus aircraft over the past ten years is triple that of Cessna aircraft.
Yet, the Cirrus Pilots and Owners Association, or COPA, argues that the number of fatalities can be misleading since the number of occupants in each plane can vary. COPA prefers to cite the total number of fatal “accidents” versus the total number of fatalities.
Using those parameters, COPA claims Cirrus aircraft have a fatal accident rate somewhere between 1.42 and 1.76 per 100,000 hours flown, depending on how you examine the numbers. That’s compared to the overall general aviation rate of 1.19 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours flown.
The Cirrus pilots’ organization concedes the Cirrus fatal accident rate is higher than the rate for all general aviation planes, but adds the caveat that the comparison is somewhat misleading, since general aviation aircraft include multi-engine planes. COPA notes that when compared to the “single-engine” piston aircraft fatal accident rate of 1.86, the Cirrus fatal accident rate is actually lower.
The Cirrus pilot website does concede that the number of accidents and fatalities has increased dramatically over the past two years, but it also points out that there has been a substantial increase in the number of Cirrus aircraft flying. COPA admits, however, “This upward trend is worrisome, especially as more of the fleet changes hands due to the sale of used airplanes without the provision of initial factory transition training.”
And therein may be the biggest issue. The Cirrus is no airplane for low-time pilots or complacent aviators. No pilot would argue that flying a Cirrus is “different.” The controls are more sensitive and the landing attitude (position of the nose relative to the horizon) is flatter, according to Bruce Landsberg, the executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Foundation.
Landsberg says “training and practice” in the Cirrus are imperative, and the company has implemented a training program that is mandated for buyers of new aircraft, and recommended for those buying pre-owned Cirrus airplanes.
The plane’s slick design (which translates into more speed), its flight characteristics, and its high performance capabilities make it less forgiving of errors than a Cessna. The Cirrus has a higher stall speed and longer landing distance than the more benign Cessna Skyhawk and 182 models.
Those factors can contribute to a higher fatality rate. Certainly, a longer landing distance could translate into more fatalities as the aircraft can hit more objects before coming to a stop. The Cirrus is classified as a high performance aircraft, and may be more aptly compared to the high performance Bonanza and Mooney aircraft, rather than Cessna.
Another concern cited by Cirrus critics is structural integrity. Some feel the composite materials that make up the fuselage (versus the metal found in other aircraft), and other design concerns such as the flammability of the parachute, may lower the survivability of crashes.
But the point is to minimize accidents in the first place. A review of every final finding report in the NTSB’s database of Cirrus fatal accidents shows that, save for three crashes that were either precipitated, or exacerbated, by air traffic controller mistakes or a National Weather Service icing miscalculation, pilot error was the predominant factor. Most accidents involved a loss of control, or failure to maintain proper airspeed, followed by the classic stall/spin scenario.
Finally, there is one more factor to consider - the question of mindset.
In Cirrus’ attempts to create a “safer” airplane with a parachute that can be deployed when there is trouble, could pilots inadvertently be lulled into a false sense of security? Since there is clear documentation that the parachute has saved lives, perhaps this safety “fall back” has caused some pilots to become complacent about their proficiency or their training, or caused them to feel so overly secure, that they actually assume more risk by taking off, or continuing flight, in weather conditions they might not otherwise have tackled had they been flying different aircraft.
It’s a lot to ponder, as the argument over the safety of Cirrus rages on, and attorneys consider lawsuits.
Footnote: Neither the NTSB nor the Federal Aviation Administration have posted preliminary reports on the Cirrus accident that claimed the lives of attorneys Michael Doran and Matthew Schnirel of the Doran & Murphy law firm of Buffalo, New York.
The NTSB will investigate such factors as altitude, weather conditions, mechanical malfunctions, speed, and loss of control. According to the FAA database, Doran was multi-engine and instrument rated and had more than 1350 hours of flight time.
A local television station reported wet weather and a cloud base of 700 feet at the time of the accident. A friend of the pilot says he recently purchased the Cirrus SR20. #