Student Pilot and Emergency Parachute

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Dear Mr. Greenspun,
I've read on your forums quite a bit, got me learning to fly
actually. I just started out, not soloed yet. I have a question. I am
training in the Cessna 172, at the local airport in Bangkok. I wear a
nomex Flight Suit, as it is fire proof, and a sensible pre caution.
But I noticed that the Air Force student pilots on the opposite
ramp, they train in the Diamond Kantana. They all wear flight helmets,
Nomex Suites, gloves, and the thing that intrigues me of all, a
parachute. Now I know the military does things their own ways half the
time.
Would it be prudent for me to get a small Softie emergency parachute?

Somsak, from BKK.

-- Somsak Supakit, May 3, 2008

Answers

A parachute is nice if your airplane breaks up in flight, as is unfortunately a possibility with an ultralight, a glider, an aerobatic plane, or a mid-air collision. Keep in mind that neither a Cessna 172 or a Diamond Katana has ever had an in-flight breakup except for some mid-air collisions in the 172.

I don't think that the Thai military is expecting their students to need the parachute, helmet, or fireproof suit in the Katana. It is probably just preparation for flying with these encumbrances in higher performance aircraft.

A non-air-conditioned airplane plus Nomex suit and gloves in the heat and humidity of Thailand sounds like a painful combination. I would think that the reduction in alertness due to heat would result in a net increase in risk. I personally would fly a 172 in T-shirt, shorts, and sandals over there!

Head injuries are so devastating to families that I've often wondered why nervous parents don't make their kids wear bicycle helmets 24/7, even when playing around the house or walking down the street. The same goes for adults. People who tripped and fell in their bathrooms and were injured would have done better if they'd been wearing a flight helmet or even bicycle helmet. People who get burned in nightclub fires or car accidents would have been better off if they had worn a Nomex suit.

So... for maximum safety, wear the parachute in the airplane and the helmet and Nomex suit at all times.

-- Philip Greenspun, May 4, 2008


I got my primary in a Diamond Katana, and frankly, I think that jumping off it would not offer the best survival plan.

Opening the canopy (thus creating a *huge* airbrake), removing yourself from your seat (with its somewhat backward reclined position), getting out (which requires standing up), I presume they intend to jump off over the wing and behind it. Not the easiest scenario. I actually think that in the 172, with your own door and high wing, you'll have a much easier time jumping out than they would. You still would have to avoid the horizontal stabilizer.

That said, there are not too many scenarios in which you'd jump. If you're low - you won't jump. If you're in high G - you probably won't be able to jump. You have to be high enough, desperate enough, and with no passengers that you'd abandon by jumping for you to make that decision. I'm not sure that's worth the expense.

I wonder what are the USAF procedures in the Katana.

-- Tal Reichert, May 4, 2008


Thank you for your responses. I took Mr. Greenspun's recomendation and waltzed over in shorts and t-shirt. It was 36C today, 96F for you guys. For the first time ever, the security guys asked for my ID before letting me on the ramp. My instructor made a funny remark about me, "not being properly attired for flight," very funny since HE is wearing shorts.

An air conditioned plane is a MUST in my country.

Sounds like the parachute isn't that helpful. I was curious because I saw all the Air Force guys wearing one. Somsak, BKK.

-- Somsak Supakit, May 5, 2008


I used to wear a parachute while flying gliders, so let me regale you with some anecdotes from 'back in the days'.

Wearing parachutes was to some extent a legacy from the 30s when in-flight breakups (after entry into clouds) where not an uncommon occurrence. In modern times, (with composite gliders being near indestructible), this is more in consideration of the elevated risk of midair collisions while flying in thermals.

The cockpit configuration in gliders is similar to the katana (which is a powered glider with the wings cut short after all). Some smart people did experiments on how realistic it is to get out of such a cockpit with the plane in a uncontolled flight attitude. The conclusion was that unless you are at least 3000ft agl, your odds of completing the several steps required (getting the canopy released and pushed off, yourself unbuckled and over the side of the fuselage) are slim to none.

That said, one of the few accidents at my glider field involved a plane that most most of its tail during a winch launch at approx 1000ft agl (result of a botched manufacturer repair of prior damage). The plane immediately inverted. Instructor and student unbuckled and pushed themselves through the plexi canopy. Both where wearing old-fashined military type automatic chutes that opened just before either of them hit the ground. Both where a bit banged up but not seriously injured (so was the plane incidentally, after it was relieved of its payload, it slowly spun to the ground, was welded back together, recertified and flew another 25 years).

So if you want to get a chute (which won't protect you from landing accidents or flight into bad weather), make sure its the type with automatic deployment.

-- Florian Weilke, May 10, 2008


From years of skydiving experience, don't bother with a parachute. Although sport skydiving is loads of fun, an emergency chute will create a false sense of safety.

Due to the forces on your person, chances are you won't be able to get out of the plane if it's in an unusual attitude. There have been a few plane crashes where none of the skydivers got out. One in particular had only the person outside the plane, standing on the wheel, who made it. Also, at typical flight training height AGL, you won't have much more than 15 seconds to get clear of the plane before impact. Actually, only about 8 to 10 as it will take about 5 seconds or more for the parachute to open. I agree with Philip, all of extra safety equipment will encumber and distract you. Focus on flying the plane.

Carl... Austin, TX

-- Carl Phillips, May 22, 2008


This is actually an interesting thread --> aviation is for the most part safer than car travel. However I believe I read that General Aviation is actually the opposite, of course it depends on your training and several other factors. Long story short, one of the last ways to improve safety statistics in general aviation will eventually be escape - ie parachute devices. Usually the focus is on training and other items which are supposedly more cost effective than egress - such as ground collision and air traffic warning systems. But even here limits are reached and structural failure and collisions become the last areas where an escape method would be great. However as stated by the above comments this is extremely difficult given the time and altitude needed. Million dollar rocket powered ejection seats as used by military fighters are of course out of the question in cost and weight for gliders or props...However these problems can be solved - still at a cost - but one that should be considered a mandatory manufacturing cost and required by the FAA etc...For propeller aircraft this system would consist of a yankee type extraction system as used by i believe the A-1 Skyraider in the USAF in the 60s, which pulls your parachute out upon deployment - and a similiar but even lighter system was developed by the russian zvezda company for the yak redbull aerobatic aircraft. On the glider side an even simpler airbag powered system which automatically released the harness and inflated to 'throw' a pilot out of the seat was being developed at a german university - but not sure if it has completed trials. Eventually these items should be required just like seat-belts for car manufacturers. As for the Nomex suits for gas powered aircraft these are again nice to have - here and there through the years pilots have suffered burns when the engine caught on fire - but not an issue for gliders. - ok a long winded reply here but important.

-- brent david, March 8, 2010