Spotlight on Cirrus… again

Since 2002, Cirrus Design’s SR22 has been involved in 17 accidents resulting in 35 deaths, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Over the weekend, four were killed in Faribault when the plane flipped while trying to land in gusty conditions.

When a Cirrus plane crashes, it usually ignites a debate — at least in some aviation circles — on whether the airplane is safe. The plane’s accident record is not unusual. Dig under the debate, however, and you usually find disagreement with the route the plane took on the way to becoming the most popular; that the pilots weren’t “real pilots,” but rich guys who had to choose between a new Porsche and a new plane.

The truth? Companies build planes. And a few pilots — relatively few — crash them.

The SR22 is a higher-performance plane than the SR-20, that the Duluth-based company builds. The SR-20 is the plane which Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle and his flight instructor flew into a building in Manhattan last year.

Generally speaking, planes usually crash because of the pilot. Seldom is the plane responsible. Sixty-one percent of the fatal accidents in 2005 (and most other years) occurred in some measure because of the weather, or — perhaps more accurately — the judgment of the pilot when faced with the weather conditions. Poor decision-making was responsible in more than half of the fatal accidents in 2005, according to the NTSB.

The airplane is considered “safe.” Whether its pilots are up to the challenge of flying it is another question. And that’s true for just about every airplane.

Phillip Greenspun, a Cirrus owner, wrote in his review of the Cirrus,

“In terms of avoiding an accident, one problem with the Cirrus is its unforgiving handling compared to other basic four-seaters. The plane is harder to keep level with rudders in a stall than a Cessna or Diamond; if in a deep uncoordinated stall, the Cirrus wants to drop a wing and go into a spin.”

Ron Rapp, a California flight instructor and Cirrus pilot has a take on Cirrus accidents that plays to the they’re-not-real-pilots crowd:

The SR22s I instruct in are about $265/hr. A two hour flight with instructional costs will run close to $700. I have students who will make flights like that a couple of times per week. These guys are successful, fast pace, type-A personalities. They’re used to getting their way, making it work, pushing through and solving problems by either working really hard or throwing money at it.

This is not always an asset in the cockpit. In aviation, sometimes the answer is to not tackle the problem at all. Stay on the ground. Turn around. Land. Or, ask for help. Admit you’re lost. Declare an emergency. This is not an easy or natural mindset for a lot of these guys.

Cirrus accident statistics don’t seem to bear this out. The accident rate is only slightly higher than other airplanes, and the cross-section of pilots run the gamut of experience. The pilot of the doomed plane in Faribault, Chester Mayo, was an instrument-rated pilot; not an easy accomplishment.

It is,of course, far too early to say what caused the crash in Faribault. The early indication is that weather played a part. The pilot was making a second attempt to land in gusty conditions. That the plane flipped before crashing, could be indicative that the plane’s airspeed dropped too low (something that can happen when a wind gust disappears), causing a wing to stall and the plane to spin. At that point, the pilot’s ability is a moot point.

A key to the accident? According to a search of the FAA registration database, the Cirrus was brand new. It was registered on November 7, 2007.

Several home-brewed studies have shown that the chances of an accident in an airplane are higher in the initial hours a pilot spends flying it.

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