Did The Parachute Beget Cirrus Hate?

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In a world that’s polarized about everything from football teams to Lady Gaga’s lipstick shade, I have learned that when I write about Cirrus aircraft accidents, two things are predictable. One, I’ll get a little trickle of email claiming that I’m in the tank for Cirrus and covering up the brand’s scandalous accident rate. And second, a counter trickle will claim that I’ve got it out for Cirrus and I’ve besmirched the greatest aircraft ever.

But this time, I have to admit the real enthusiasts are getting ahead of the game even before the article is published. “From the questions you asked,” wrote one reader, “it appears you have entered your project with a pre-set opinion of the SR22 as an unsafe, tricky, accident-prone aircraft. Nothing could be further from the truth.” This is in response to a survey I sent out a couple of weeks ago asking owners about their experiences with the Cirrus.

Embarrassingly, I have to admit that the reader has unmasked my dark motivations. I’m trying to totally trash the brand in the hopes of cratering its resale value so I can eventually afford one. So far, no luck. But I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to slum along in a Cub.

I sent out the survey to ask a does-it-really-matter-at-this-point? question: In deciding to buy the Cirrus, did owners consider the parachute to be a decisive factor? I asked this very same question about 10 years ago and got back vague, indeterminate answers. Same thing this time. For some owners, it was the motivating factor, often pushed along by an enthusiastic spouse who liked the idea of a parachute. For others, not so much. And for some, not at all. My conclusion is that Cirrus succeeded for a unique combination of factors related to performance, perceived safety, customer service, market timing and a little luck.

By rights, it should not have succeeded, simply because most new airplanes don’t. When Cirrus rolled out the SR20 at Oshkosh in 1994, I gave it an editorial eye roll. “That’s not quite the 200-knot dream machine most of us wish the industry would magically produce,” I observed at the time, “but if Cirrus delivers at that price and survives the certification gauntlet—and frankly, we’re skeptical on both counts—the SR20 could be a hot seller.” The intro price, in case you’ve forgotten, was $130,000. That’s $224,000 in 2019 dollars. A new Lycoming-powered G6 fully tricked out sells for about $560,000 on a base of $440,000.

As Cirrus bumped along in certification, I boldly predicted that first, it would drop the parachute idea and next, it would make CAPS an option. Neither happened, which is why I’m reduced to pathetically pitching rocks to drag the airplane into my black vortex of doom. Meanwhile, a vintage SR20 still sells for most of $100,000.

A peripheral question is a phenomenon owners sometimes mention: Cirrus hate. It’s a real, all right, but less virulent than it once was when that damn parachute first came along to jar the manly sensibilities of a kind, forward-looking and open-minded community of pilots.

To be sure, there’s also Skyhawk hate, Mooney hate and Ercoupe hate, although the latter could more accurately be described as pity. Bonanza hate used to be a thing, but when owners learned the price of a replacement ruddervator was the equivalent of two new SR20s, hate gave way to respectful awe. It’s the aircraft industry equivalent of the rapture.

I might have been wrong about Cirrus giving up on the parachute, but I’m sure I’m right about it being a factor in Cirrus hate. CAPS has by no means been perfect, but as my analysis to appear in the April 2019 issue of Aviation Consumer shows, CAPS training has hit its stride and no matter how you slice the loaf, the parachute appears to have been instrumental in driving the Cirrus fatal accident rate to its current low of about 0.78/100,000 hours. That’s at or a little below the GA average fatal accident rate. That’s a dramatic change since 2012, when it stood at 1.6.

And here a little credit where it’s due. The kind of customer Cirrus attracted gave way to an exceptionally active owner group in the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. The group's safety expert, Rick Beach, played an outsize role in nudging Cirrus along to the current state of CAPS training. It’s rare in GA to see one guy have such impact.

My accident sweep also revealed another trend. While Cirrus fatal accidents remain impressively low, the overall incidence—the number of accidents in general—has been on the rise since 2015. While this may be a function of the ever-larger fleet, COPA and Cirrus think it may also have something to do with churn in the used market. As the older airplanes decline in value, they’re affordable by more price-conscious buyers who, being, well, cheap, may short circuit the training by using an instructor not intimately familiar with the aircraft. That's not always a bad thing, but it can be.

Again, to its credit, Cirrus is trying to nip this trend in the bud by offering free training to buyers of used aircraft. We reported on this program—called Embark—when it was announced at AirVenture in 2017. I didn’t really appreciate the significance of it until I started looking at recent accident trends.

The record seems to show that pilots trained in the use of CAPS and schooled in the right way to land a Cirrus have lower accident incidence. COPA’s internal data shows that its members, who often attend events and training clinics, are underrepresented in the accident population. That’s another way of saying this training and practice stuff really works.

Bad for me, though. If this keeps up, I’ll never be able to afford a Cirrus.