Printer Friendly

Cirrus training: many Cirrus crashes involve pilots lacking Cirrus Owner and Pilots Association (COPA) training. What does COPA teach, and is it related to accident causes?

In November 2006, Alan Klapmeier, CEO of Cirrus Design, sent an almost-unprecedented letter to all owners of Cirrus SR20 and SR22 aircraft. The letter came on the heels of a string of fatal accidents in Cirrus aircraft in adverse weather conditions.

In his letter, Klapmeier reminded owners, "Cirrus offers several tools to help reduce the risks associated with adverse weather accidents [including]:

* Airplane systems such as weather data link graphics and terrain awareness and warning system.

* Training on risk management, including setting personal weather minimums.

* Cirrus' AFM, training materials, and website containing numerous relevant safety resources.

Klapmeier asked all pilots to "make a personal commitment to flying more safely," citing several resources on the company's Web site <> and acknowledging the independent Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) training programs.

Included in the same communication was a letter from COPA President Mike Radomsky, who implored pilots to "invest the time to train regularly to upgrade your skills and remain current and sharp [and to] strive for professionalism."

What do Cirrus' initial pilot training program and COPA teach, and how does it relate to the airplane's history? What lessons can we learn from the Cirrus mishap record?


As of late December 2006, there have been 65 reported mishaps involving Cirrus SR20 and SR22 airplanes, beginning with a fatal accident during pre-certification tests and ending with a fatal crash under currently unknown circumstances in the mountains of Arizona. Eighteen of the accidents involved SR20s; the remaining 47 were in the more-numerous SR22. A basic analysis is shown in the tables on the next page.

The high number of Cirrus accidents involving airplanes of recent registration is not so surprising when you consider a) low time-in-type is a well-known factor in airplane accidents and, b) all Cirrus airplanes being "new" in general aviation terms, it is logical that a high percentage of mishaps will involve recently registered airplanes. These factors--probably more than anything else--contribute to the frequency of Cirrus mishaps overall. Categorizing the Cirrus mishaps, we learn that:

* 24 percent involve loss of control in flight (excluding stalls and spins);

* 22 percent occurred during landing: hard landings, landing short, runway overruns and loss of directional control;

* 14 percent resulted from controlled flight into terrain (CFIT);

* 11 percent follow engine failure in flight;

* Nine percent involve stalls and spins;

* Three percent came during takeoff: insufficient obstacle clearance, delayed abort and loss of directional control; and,

* Five percent have (to date) "unknown" causes; 12 percent result from miscellaneous other causes.


When considering any aircraft's accident rate, it's instructive to look at what I call "similar-mission aircraft" (SMA); in this case, other piston-powered aircraft typically flown for the same purposes.

For over six years I have evaluated mishaps in Beech Bonanza and Baron airplanes, traditionally used for missions quite similar to a Cirrus. About 40 percent of all Bonanza/ Baron mishaps historically are related to the landing gear system--gear-up and gear-collapse accidents (This is where anyone objective acknowledges the Cirrus' similar performance with fixed landing gear). Remove those mishaps from the Bonanza/Baron record and we have what I think is a valid comparison of Cirrus accidents with another SMA.

When Cirrus accidents have occurred, they have historically been 2.7 times as likely to crash in IMC, and 2.3 times as likely to be involved in CFIT or in-flight loss of control than similar-mission aircraft. Cirrus accidents are almost twice as likely to be fatal; they almost universally result in substantial aircraft damage or total aircraft destruction, while such is the case in less than half of all SMA mishaps.


The Cirrus mishap record, in my opinion, is shaped less by the specific airplane and more by the combination of the airplane, the mission and the pilot. One of the stark differences when comparing between mishaps involving Bonanzas and Barons to the Cirrus fleet is low pilot time-in-type in the overall Cirrus fleet. In fact, for those Cirrus mishaps in which pilot time was reported, the average time-in-type when the accident occurred was only 40 hours.

Cirrus Design has been enormously successful in marketing to what the factory has called "non-traditional" pilots. For example, last year at AirVenture Oshkosh I saw all the usual aircraft displayed at the airport. I noticed, however, that Cirrus had positioned airplanes in parking lots and back lawns of restaurants and pubs throughout town (Cessna had a lone Skyhawk and a sales rep in the Oshkosh town square downtown, too).

Where Beech and Mooney advertise in aviation magazines, Cirrus runs ads in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur magazine. Focus is on comfort, equipment and capability, and to no small amount the additional safety of the ballistic parachute. Cirrus successfully takes the airplane to a new market, and its phenomenal success shows that the tactic is working.

The result, in addition to sales, is that a new breed of pilot is flying Cirrus airplanes: a pilot often with little to no prior flying experience who sees the airplane as a reliable business or personal transportation tool--a sort of Lexus with wings. In a nutshell we have a combination of:

* A complex and highly capable airplane,

* An expectation that the airplane is an all-weather transportation machine,

* The perceived panacea of the ballistic parachute, and

* A pilot with little practical experience to manage the risks presented by that airplane's capabilities in a demanding operating environment.


Initial problems with insurance for new Cirrus owners--driven more by the lack of actuarial data on composite-construction airplanes than the design itself--led to a cooperative effort with the University of North Dakota's aerospace department to create an initial flight training syllabus. This evolved into the Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilot (CSIP) program, an initial checkout insurance requirement for virtually all new Cirrus owners.

The CSIP syllabus includes a detailed PowerPoint classroom presentation covering normal, abnormal and emergency procedures; checklist use, single-pilot operations and "flight profiles," tools visualizing sequential actions from preflight planning through shutdown at the end of a flight. Emphasis is on the cockpit technology: Primary Flight Display and Multifunction Display (PFD/ MFD) operation including electronic checklists, and flow patterns for accomplishing each flight operation. "By the numbers" flying (use of preplanned power settings, aircraft configurations and airspeeds) is the standard procedure, as is autopilot use for most phases of flight. There is a presentation dedicated to Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) deployment; the six-page Safety Information section of the Pilots Operating Handbook is dedicated exclusively to operation of the CAPS. The program is a very good systems-management approach to flying Cirrus airplanes.


An independent organization that understandably receives great support from the Cirrus factory, the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association exists primarily to provide safety training and information to Cirrus pilots. Central to COPA's offerings is the Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Program, or CPPP, the stated objective of which is "to enable pilots to operate their aircraft with greater confidence, safety and enjoyment."

Pilots attending weekend CPPP events, held around the country and in Europe, can elect to complete ground and flight training or, if they wish, extended ground-only training.

Flight training, for those pilots who elect to do so, consists of two flights tailored to the individual's needs. There is also a "partner in command" program for non-pilot passengers to become more familiar with the role they can play in normal and emergency operations safety.

Perhaps taking its cue from AOPA Air Safety Foundation's "Seminar in a Box" program, where prefabricated training materials kits are made available for local pilot meetings, COPA has instituted a course called Critical Decision Making, or CDM. CDM addresses the true cause of most general aviation accidents, pilot judgment. Cirrus owners and host organizations (such as fractional ownership programs using Cirrus airplanes) are encouraged to hold seminars using the CDM kit. This author hopes to be able to attend a CDM course and report on it in detail in a future article.


There's a prevailing attitude in all personal aviation that flight instruction is something we take in intense doses to earn a certificate or rating, and then sample briefly at two-year intervals to retain our flying privileges. This may be adequate for recreational, VFR flying in simple airplanes, but the mishap record in cross-country IFR-capable and Technologically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) suggests otherwise.

Yet the culture of personal aviation has not fully caught up with the demands of flying TAAs, especially with the newest generation of schedule-intense pilots. To its credit, Cirrus Design instituted the CSIP program and highly encourages pilots to take advantage of COPA's training at every opportunity. COPA's offerings, in particular, but also Cirrus' latest online resources, seem focused on the critical decision-making skills needed to improve the mishap record. Participating (or not) in available safety programs says more about the individual pilot's attitude than the airplane's design.

The record shows that Cirrus airplanes are involved in more weather-related accidents than other similar-mission airplanes, and that the consequences of those accidents tend to be more severe. Are Cirrus airplanes more difficult to fly than other SMA? From my admittedly limited personal experience in Cirruses, no. Do all TAAs demand greater pilot skill and decision-making ability than minimum initial and flight review requirements of the FARs? It seems so. Do all pilots need to reevaluate the true capability of their airplanes and their own piloting experience, especially in adverse weather? Absolutely.

To their great credit, Cirrus' leadership has recognized that the fantastic performance and capability of their products demands a culture of safety that only a strong pilot education program can bring.

Now it's up to individual pilots to heed the lessons of the Cirrus mishap record.

What About The 'Chute?

Probably the most obvious safety feature of Cirrus aircraft is the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, or CAPS[TM]. CAPS is designed "to protect occupants in the event of an emergency by lowering the aircraft to the ground after deployment. CAPS revolutionized general aviation safety by providing an alternative measure of safety to occupants, similar in theory to the role of airbags in automobiles.... The final impact of a textbook deployment, comparable to jumping off a 10 foot ladder, is absorbed by the specialized landing gear, a roll cage and Cirrus Energy Absorbing Technology (CEAT) seats." To the uninitiated it sounds quite gentle.

Absolutely, CAPS saves lives. To date a little over 12 percent of all reported Cirrus mishaps include a CAPS deployment, with eight "known pulls" on record. The number may be slightly more or less; the CAPS deployment rocket often fires on impact in a deadly crash and sometimes it's unclear if the 'chute was pulled before or after the airplane hit. In a celebrated case a family survived by deploying CAPS when the pilot became incapacitated in flight.

At the June 2005 Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) conference in Leesburg, Va., the FAA proudly announced that CAPS provides an "equivalent level of safety" to a second engine, permitting IFR Part 135 operations with passengers in Cirrus airplanes. Marketing by Cirrus places great emphasis on CAPS. There is no doubt that CAPS provides a last-ditch "out" when the airplane is completely uncontrollable, such as after a midair collision or pilot medical emergency. But might an inexperienced pilot (Cirrus' main customer) be tempted to fly in conditions he/she might not otherwise because of the "safety net" CAPS provides? This is one possible explanation for Cirrus' very high rate of weather accidents compared to similar-mission aircraft.


Cirrus accidents may be among the most visible because they involve a relatively new product, and the mishaps seem to be coming with great frequency. It's a fact that Cirrus accidents tend to be more deadly and damaging than accidents in similar-mission aircraft. But long-term observers of aviation will note that we've seen similar records as aircraft capability has leapt beyond pilot experience in the past (see "Transitions," January 2007).

The first few years of the Beech Bonanza, for instance, were similarly accident-strewn and deadly as pilots accustomed to Piper Cubs and Aeronca Champs moved into airplanes with capabilities matching many airliners of the day. The introduction of light twins in the 1950s led to many mishaps for transitioning as pilots as well. And the first years of the Learjet were particularly deadly as pilots experienced in DC-3s and Twin Beeches saw a phenomenal increase in airplane performance.

In all these cases the "dangerous" airplane eventually proved to be extremely safe and reliable, once pilot training and expectations caught up with the leap in capability.

I have every reason to believe that, once low-experience Cirrus (and other TAA) owners get a handle on what it takes to fly the airplane properly, that Cirrus design and its customers will enjoy a long history of safe operation as well.

One Owner's CSIP Experience

I flew with an SR20 pilot several months after he completed initial CSIP training. He was typical of many Cirrus pilots when he bought the '20: He had about 200 hours total flight time and a recent IFR ticket.

Transition training, he says, was a "major obstacle" to owning the Cirrus. He had about 20 hours of Cessna 182 time and found that, even in a new glass-cockpit Skylane, he would not have any pre-PIC training requirement from his insurance company. For the Cirrus, on the other hand, he had to complete the CSIP program.

Fortuitously, a CSIP worked at his home airport, so scheduling was not too difficult. After some significant delays brought on by multiple airplane systems problems--all eventually handled to his satisfaction by Cirrus--training began. The pilot's CSIP flights were cross-countries (the first at night), concentrating mostly on the autopilot, Garmin 430 and Avidyne PFD/MFD avionics--except the CSIP had little knowledge of these systems and the pilot says he "learned more by reading" the manuals than from the CSIP. He says he "taught the CSIP more about the avionics" than he learned from the instructor. Flying was "very heads down" in the cockpit with "too many bells and whistles" unfamiliar to them both. The pilot considered himself "very proficient in basic airmanship" in the Cirrus when he completed training, but on reflection "won't say so now." On his first solo in the SR20, he "saw so many things he didn't know" that for a while he was very reluctant to fly the plane. Even a year later, flying primarily by automation as encouraged by his CSIP, the pilot feels less than expert on basic hand-flying, part of why he's sought out additional training.

Is the CSIP syllabus adequate to take a low-time pilot and make him/her safe in the airplane? "Probably if we [had] followed the syllabus straight through" so it "flows better," and the CSIP he chose had more experience in the type, the pilot says "yes." The lesson, he relates: Insist on following the checkout syllabus precisely and completely; if you find an instructor who can't teach both basic airmanship and the intricacies of the airplane's avionics, find another CSIP; and follow up initial training with additional instruction as needed.

Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.
Pattern Analysis, To-Date Cirrus Accidents

(Percentages are averaged and may not sum.)


VMC    IMC    Not Reported    Night    Surface wind
                                         > 15 kts

57%    31%        12%          8%           9%


Fatal   Serious   Minor    Destroyed   Substantial   Minor
        injury    injury                 damage      damage

39%       15%       5%        40%         49%          6%


Dual flight     Parachute          Recent
instruction    deployment *    registration **

    8%             12%               46%

* Evidence of intentional CAPS deployment prior to impact

** Aircraft registered within 12 months prior to the mishap date

ACCIDENT FACTOR                              CIRRUS    SMA

Fatal mishaps                                  39%     20%

Aircraft destroyed or substantial
damage                                         89%     47%

Mishaps in IMC                                 31%     12%

CFIT plus in-flight loss of control
(incl. stalls and spins)                       48%     21%

Recent registration                            46%     31%

Source: NTSB
COPYRIGHT 2007 Belvoir Media Group, LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:RISK MANAGEMENT
Author:Turner, Thomas P.
Publication:Aviation Safety
Article Type:Table
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Previous Article:Pitch + power = performance: complying with the laws of aerodynamics isn't just a nice idea; it's mandatory for safe, controlled flight throughout an...
Next Article:Mellow yellow: as enticing as it may be even in smooth air, flight in the airspeed indicator's yellow arc risks structural failure and more.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters