Parachuting from a small plane that's in distress

Jay Carr
  • Parachuting from a small plane that's in distress Jay Carr

    There was another question that asked why commercial flights don't have parachutes. The almost ubiquitous response was that the parachutes would be useless because:

    • Most accidents with commercial airliners happen on take off and landing, and there is no time to parachute.
    • In order to get to a position where 100+ people can successfully jump out, you'd most likely need to descend some 20,000 ft and then maintain straight and level for a good 3 to 5 minutes once you got past 12,000 (so people have oxygen to breathe when they jump). And if you can descend and maintain level flight, you might as well land.

    But what about in a light, single engine plane (think Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee)? Engine failures in small aircraft, for example, seem to be more common, so you have more accidents that start high above the ground. Thus, you usually have a few minutes before you're going to hit the ground and there's often only 1 or 2 passengers (rather than 100). Plus, you're usually already at an altitude where you don't need oxygen to bail out.

    With that in mind, couldn't you put the plane into a shallow dive to keep it from stalling, trim it to keep it going straight and then bail out? It seems like a somewhat practical solution, yet I have never heard of anyone doing it.

    Why do pilots often try to find a road to land on or a lake to ditch in when trouble strikes instead of just bringing a parachute and bailing out?

  • Mainly because in the situation that you describe, the airplane is perfectly capable of flying. You don't need an engine to fly as airplanes are designed to glide without it. Part of every pilots training is how to land the airplane when this happens.

    Many of the same issues also apply in the smaller airplanes. Unless the pilot and the passengers fly around with their parachutes on, it would be quite difficult to put them on in the confined space, in a high stress situation, and with the very limited time available. Even if they did, untrained people are going to be hurt (probably quite badly) during the landing even if everything else with the jump goes well. (See my answer on your linked question for some of the things that can go wrong during the jump.)

    You are also creating a hazard with the aircraft not being piloted and crashing into a random place on the ground. All of this when the airplane could have just glided in for a landing in a field or on a road. Most of these types of emergencies end quite well, and even a lot of the accidents will have fewer injuries and deaths than if people were jumping out all of the time. As an added bonus, the airplane can even be used again!

    On the other hand, a major structural failure that makes the aircraft incapable of flight could be a reason to jump. This is extremely rare however, and even if one has a parachute in this situation it may be impossible to exit the airplane safely because of high G forces and the possibility of hitting the airplane as you are both tumbling through the sky.

    Some manufacturers are now building ballistic parachutes into the airplane which can bring the entire airplane down safely in these situations. This is much more safer, reliable, and does have a positive impact on safety in these extremely bad situations. For just an engine failure though, I doubt that most pilots would even fire the ballistic parachute if there were suitable landing spots within gliding distance.

    My view is that you would have a far greater safety impact by requiring everybody in a moving car to wear a helmet. Would it improve safety? Absolutely. Would people want to do it? A few would (and perhaps a few do), but the general population doesn't want to be inconvenienced by something that is only a remote possibility. The odds of a parachute helping you in a typical GA airplane is far more remote than the odds of the helmet helping you in a car.

  • On your comment of:

    Can you possibly think of an instance where having a chute would help in a GA plane?

    Yes, I can, and here's a video:

    Bet those guys were happy to be wearing chutes alright!

  • The only time I can think of would be if you are flying over a large expanse of unpopulated mountain area.

    You are responsible for the damage your plane creates when it impacts with the ground, so there is no time over populated land where there is any control over the aircraft that it is appropriate to bail out of the aircraft and leave the plane flying out of control until impact.

    In the mountains where there is no traffic for miles bailing out might give you a better opportunity to be rescued. A parachute can be controlled and you can put yourself in a better position to survive until rescue. In the mountains it is much harder to land safely than an area where there are open fields or flat spaces.

    Over open water bailing out of the plane might give you a chance to spot and/or be spotted by nearby sailing vessels. Though if you have some control over your aircraft then you would be better served using that control to ditch in a controlled fashion in visual range of a sailing craft than jumping from the craft.

    1. I believe most accidents occur during takeoff and landing when the machine and human pilots are most busy.

    2. Unless the aircraft experienced catastrophic failure I think most pilots would prefer to glide the plane down for a rough albeit survivable landing.

    Some small aircraft come equipped with ballistic parachute...this is a great idea... :)

  • I compete in aerobatics where parachutes are required by the rules.

    My personal criteria for bailing out are

    • Structural failure (a wing breaks off -- unlikely, as my main spar is enormous)
    • Control failure (flutter, stuck elevator)
    • Inability to see or control the aircraft (oil on the windscreen, maybe a bird strike)

    I might jump for an engine fire just because the main fuel tank is way too close to me.

    If the engine fails I would land the plane.

    As noted in Lnafziger's excellent answer, an engine is required for continued flight, but isn't truly necessary for landing :-)

    I compare wearing a parachute to wearing a helmet in a car. In unusual / high performance situations, it's a very good idea.

    It's unnecessary for the morning commute.

    I don't wear one when flying a non-aerobatic airplane.

  • It is common procedure to skydive from airplanes in distress, if the plane is already on it's way to altitude, carrying skydivers. There are parameters to consider though. When you are a trained skydiver, the safest option might be to get people out, because landing a plane with an engine failure is easier with a light load. This of course depends on altitude, and maybe surrounding options or landing a parachute (forests, mountains or relatively deep water would be bad).

    I have done this once, when one of the engines of a twin otter went out at 9000 feet. This is also the reason why skydivers are ALWAYS required to wear their gear fully fastened while in the aircraft. In an emergency, even trained skydivers might not have time, space or stability enough to put on gear properly.

    And by gear i mean the parachute, and it's straps. Not necessarily the helmet etc.

    For untrained, and/or people not already wearing the harness, I would assume that it is safer to try to land with the aircraft, If in a situation where getting out is at all possible.

Related questions and answers
  • airliners happen on take off and landing, and there is no time to parachute. In order to get to a position where 100+ people can successfully jump out, you'd most likely need to descend some 20,000 ft and then maintain straight and level for a good 3 to 5 minutes once you got past 12,000 (so people have oxygen to breathe when they jump). And if you can descend and maintain level flight, you might... at an altitude where you don't need oxygen to bail out. With that in mind, couldn't you put the plane into a shallow dive to keep it from stalling, trim it to keep it going straight and then bail

  • WWII. They didn't have flight control computers back then, and the only control complaints I recall them having is that early versions had a tendency to flip over backwards when approaching stall speeds, well, that and the ground effects were pretty strong. But, no mentions of going into flat spins when going into hard maneuvers (that I recall). So how do they control that Y axis on flying wings...How do flying wings, like the B-2 Stealth bomber, actually keep themselves from yawing out of control without a vertical stabilizer? For the record, I assume this has to be a simple mechanics

  • actually are (or, as most pilots prefer to think, you're lower than what your altimeter reads) Have a look at this VOR approach into Newark Most altitude restrictions are a minimum level, so...Non-precision instrument approaches generally have altitude restrictions which get lower when you get closer to the airport. I always figured these restrictions were AMSL using the current altimeter... ground level. Although I don't see any obstructions that high during this segment of the approach, as far as I know instrument approaches are supposed to guarantee a 500 ft obstacle clearance, do

  • Some light aircraft now have airframe parachutes. If a pilot does have to pull the chute on a Cirrus (for example), is the aircraft flyable or at least repairable after landing or is it a write-off? What G forces are involved in the impact? I realize that there are lots of possible variables here, but let's assume that the parachute deploys correctly and in plenty of time for a stabilized... occupant protection. The airplane will descend under the canopy at less than 1700 fpm and ground impact is expected to be equivalent to dropping from a height of 13 feet (about 4 meters

  • the boom straight at the house, still no windows were shattered. ** But I've wondered, ever since, if they were unsuccessful because the plane was simply too small. What if the sonic boom had been generated by a B-1 Lancer or perhaps Concorde, which are several times larger than the F/A-18? Logically it seems that since you are displacing more air, the energy wave should have more energy. Then again, the plane isn't going any faster, so perhaps the surface area of the wave would be larger (because of the larger plane) but you wouldn't actually have any more energy at any given point? Anyone

  • the fuselage and tail (with its rudder and elevator)? Twins generally have their engines on the wings, and the tail is no longer directly behind it, does that mean the choice of a pull-engine is not as advantageous? If there isn't an inherent disadvantage, why are pusher configurations so rare? If there is one, why do they exist at all? Disregarding designs where the choice is obvious, like powered parachutes where you simply don't want a propeller in your face The Convair B36 is one notable multi-engine aircraft with engines in pusher configuration, as is the Piaggio Avanti. Single engine

  • After answering this question on History.SE, I started to wonder if it would be possible to find out even more detail about the plane now that its serial number is known. I have no idea what kind of flight records the US Army Air Corps kept, however. I know most flight logs today are kept by pilot, but I imagine there would be some way to trace what pilots flew a particular plane. I have no idea if this is possible for USAAC trainer planes in the 1930s. Could I get access to these records? If so, how would I go about it? I'm mostly interested in seeing if I can find out more information

  • be incorrect) is that ADS-B will mandated for most (everyone?) and so aircraft will be actively reporting their precise position without the need for a radar track. Will existing radar coverage eventually be phased out? Seems unlikely due to airspace security issues alone. But are there any other reasons to keep radar coverage? ...Based on the reading I've been doing of FAA's Next Generation Air Traffic Control (NextGen) plans, I've been wondering if and how radar systems will continue to be used for ATC as NextGen rolls out

  • and that's why I don't hear reply, however on approach side much bigger distances are heard in my area) Thank you I did verify that indeed the aircraft that I don't hear read back from receives... out in the question for some reason mostly it is "big" aircraft that gets this preferential treatment, but I am not 100% sure why. ... by the pilots per this question however on more than one occasion I don't hear read back on critical vector info on departure, despite the visual confirmation of instruction (pilot making proper vector

  • " as to when you should perform this power reduction (inches off the ground or 700-1,000 feet), and if so, have there been actual studies that say why one way is better than the other, or is this one...), but on the flip side, I've heard that if an engine is going to do something funky, it's probably going to happen when you do a power reduction, or otherwise do something. I personally want all the power I... the ground... Or, When you're 700-1,000 feet off the ground... Reduce to about 23" of manifold pressure and then reduce the RPM to 2,450 (or 2,300) depending on the plane. The POH or Owner's