On Tuesday (3/26) and Wednesday, I was at the Cirrus plant in Duluth, where I was invited as a representative of COPA to observe and participate in a series of CAPS tests.
By now many of you have read this Letter from Alan Klapmeier (link available to members); so this report is primarily to fill you in on my perspective on the testing, and other topics not covered in the letter. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the report I’ve posted on the Members Forum.
The first two tests, last night, were exactly as described in the letter. Prior to the testing, I was invited to talk to anyone about anything, and examine anything at all, related to the test. It was abundantly clear that every effort had been made to make this as “real” a test as possible – N109CD was a fully functioning demonstrator airplane, chosen in part precisely because it was an early SR20, with the same two CAPS SBs as we have all had done. The only changes made to the airplane were…
- One door was removed, so that the cameras could see the action inside;
- Fuel was drained;
- The airplane was tied down in an extremely secure manner – this to prevent any possible dragging by the parachute should it catch the wind;
- Air gaps in the aft bulkhead (between the baggage compartment and the CAPS compartment) were sealed with tape. This was done to minimize the amount of smoke in the airplane when the rocket fires. When the CAPS system is used in flight, this is not a concern – the smoke is blown away by the slipstream – but it’s pretty noxious stuff to have to breath on the ground.
When it was time for the test, the ramp in front of the building was cleared of personnel except for Cindy Broman and Paul Johnston (Cirrus Chief Engineer), who were both in the airplane; the video crew; and a handful of other people essential to the operation. Alan and Dale Klapmeier, representatives from BRS, Cirrus sales and engineering, and I, watched from an upstairs window.
The first two tests failed; the first because of a failed component (found only in the first 14 airplanes; expect an SB on this). The second because Cindy, who weighs 85 lbs, could not exert enough pull on the handle. Alan’s comment was that it wasn’t good enough.
The failing light dictated that testing for the day must end.
Many of the staff worked through the night (although probably not solely on this testing). When I arrived at the plant at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the parking lot was full. By now, N109CD’s handle had been fixed using the current bracket. It did not take long before we were ready to test again. This time, when Cindy pulled the handle, the rocket fired correctly. The “cap” covering the CAPS compartment blew off cleanly, and settled a few yards away. I was surprised at how far the forward risers pulled out of the skin - almost to the wing root on the left, and halfway across the wing on the right.
Ian Bentley said that the next test would be on an airplane from the production line. While that airplane was moved into position, Alan asked if I would like to do the next test - an offer which I immediately (and gratefully) accepted. I went down to Flight Ops, where I met Cindy, and asked her about the test. She said it was “very easy indeed”. While I donned the Nomex flight suit and crash helmet (obvious precautions), Paul Johnston briefed me on the logistics - how we would get signaled that the airport was shut down for the test, that the wind was OK, etc.
I went out to the airplane. It was an SR22 with tail number N46X, which I later discovered means not much - it’s a temporary tail number used for airplanes as they shuttle to and from the paint shop in Hibbing. Only one other modification was done to this airplane – the forward risers were disconnected, to save the extra damage to the fuselage.
I got into the pilot seat, and Paul Johnston occupied the right seat.
When Paul told me to pull, I removed the safety pin, and “popped” the handle out of it’s channel. This was the first (for me) surprise. This is definitely a two-step process.
Step one is getting the handle to dangle on 4-6 inches of slack cable. This is done by an easy pull of the handle forwards, to release it from its tube - it’s held in there by a rubber O-ring.
Step two is getting the “T” cross bar aligned fore-and-aft instead of left-to-right, clasping it with both hands, and pulling down. It felt as though it moved 2-4 inches. It was as though the other end of the cable was connected to a corkscrew, and I pulled the cork out of a bottle; except that after the cork was out, the cable stopped moving. Engineers told me that it was probably about a 60 lb effort, but I have to say that it felt like a LOT less, and that was without the benefit of Adrenalin.
It took a fraction of a second (1/4? 1/2?) for the rocket to fire. It sounded like fairly loud white noise – like water rushing out of a fire hose. I’m pretty sure that it would not be heard above the sound of a running engine, and probably not even above the sound of a “quiet” (failed or shut down) engine, if the airplane were in flight. The wind was calm, and there was no jerk on the airplane, nor any other sensation; although the cockpit did fill with smoke, which poured through the open door from the outside. I breathed through the mask which had been provided, and Jeff opened the passenger door. Within a few seconds, the smoke cleared.
Aside from now having a TON more confidence that the system works (after the literal and figurative kinks are gone), I feel really good knowing what to do if I ever really need to pull that handle. Actually doing it is a HUGE advantage that every Cirrus owner should try to experience.
After the tests, Alan showed me the CAPS demonstrator that is nearing completion, and which will be at Sun-'n-Fun. It’s clear that significant resource - and time - has gone into its development. It consists of a fuselage from just forward of the empenage to the firewall, with a pretty complete cockpit. A special version of the CAPS release mechanism has been developed - the production version is unsuitable, because it’s essentially a “one-time” mechanism that requires rebuilding after activation. The demonstrator version is designed to automatically reset, and to faithfully reproduce the expected worst-case loads and “feel” of the real thing. If you were thinking of going to Sun-'n-Fun, but weren’t quite decided… I feel that the two minutes you’d spend actually pulling that handle are worth the trip. Those who will attend the CPPP (Cirrus Pilot Proficiency Program) in Dublin, GA, might get the opportunity to use the simulator there – we are working with Cirrus to bring it there, provided that we can clear a few logistical hurdles.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the company somewhat publicly for their prompt, decisive, effective actions in their dogged pursuit of whatever issues there are with CAPS, and in fact any/all safety aspects of the airplanes. Alan’s comments, time and again, reflect that Cirrus is no more satisfied with an imperfect CAPS system than any customer is. At one point he said that it doesn’t matter WHY someone chooses to use the system - it could be that they simply feel that they no longer have sufficient confidence to continue a flight; whatever their reason, it’s an emergency to them, and if they pull that handle, CAPS must work. Those comments were repeated in spirit, if not in exact wording, by Dale, Ian Bentley, and many others. Thank you, Cirrus.
I have spent most of today at Cirrus, then in transit from Duluth back home to New Jersey; I have a ton of emails and voicemails that I have yet to look at and listen to. If yours is among them, and you are asking questions about the CAPS testing, please contact me again (preferably by email) if you need more information.
One of the many photos I have is attached. (A different one is on the Members Forum)