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Parachutes for Planes?

You have heard of parachutes for people but can an aircraft also be equipped with such a device to avoid serious mishaps in case of emergencies? Capt. Lim Khoy Hing explains the possibilities.

Life isn’t like in the movies where if James Bond was in a distressed aircraft, he would strap on a parachute and jump out of the plane with great ease. People like you and I would have trouble figuring out how to strap it on and use a parachute in the first place, let alone work out how to land safely! This, we discussed in a previous issue of Travel 3Sixtyº.

     In this issue, another reader wanted to know whether mega parachutes can be used to save planes from falling from the sky during an emergency. His email read: “I am a frequent flyer on long and short haul flights. I admit I have never been totally relaxed throughout the flight, regardless of how smooth it was. I have also been concerned about issues that may occur during flying.

     I have a question which may sound silly: Is there any research being made to develop mega parachutes that can be attached to a plane like huge balloons that will allow the aircraft to land in case of total engine failures?”

Cirrus Airframe Parachute System

Interestingly, the concept of fitting parachutes on planes has so far been fairly successful in small planes only. The device is known as the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS). What this system does is, when a plane’s engine quits mid flight, all the pilot has to do is pull a red, T-shaped handle in the cockpit, which will deploy a parachute within seconds. This will then bring the aircraft to the ground safely. The force of impact when using this parachute is like falling from a height of about 10 feet only.

This system was successfully used in 2002 when a pilot was gently dropped onto the ground in Texas, USA. It was the first time in aviation history that such a parachute had saved a life in an air crash. Unfortunately, in the following months, a major setback cropped up when the manufacturer of CAPS was sued by two families over the failure of the parachute to deploy in another air crash.

Parachutes for Bigger Planes

Despite the shortcomings of the abovementioned case, research is already in place to develop similar solutions for bigger commercial airliners. At first, it does seem a little impractical to implement this idea but after one Air France Airbus A330 episode that saw it dropping to around 10,000 feet per minute and, crashing from 38,000 feet, it does appear that the time is ripe for the aviation industry to take a serious look at what initially seemed like a preposterous idea.

     To implement this, the biggest challenge is to develop a parachute strong enough to be used on bigger and faster planes. NASA has been using such a parachute for spacecraft, but space capsules cater only for a few astronauts at a time while an aircraft will have hundreds of passengers.

     The most technologically advanced parachute at present can only withstand up to around 4,000 pounds. The CAPS is currently being used in small planes weighing up to 2,000 pounds and at a cruise speed of 175 miles per hour only. The latest Boeing 787 or Airbus A380 that weighs anything from half to over a million pounds would face many obstacles. Aviation experts question whether parachutes can ever be attached to such planes as their speeds and weight would not be practical at all for such equipment.

Splitting Cabins

Nevertheless, some have suggested that rather than having one huge parachute, the plane be divided into smaller areas with mega parachutes for each section. Such an aircraft would have a body with a few capsules located between the cockpit and the tail. The capsule will house passenger seating area and will come equipped with the ability to detach itself from the fuselage. One or more mega parachutes will be connected to each compartment for use during an in-flight emergency.

Ultimate Solutions

The solutions are available but are not being implemented due to the huge cost of constructing the parachutes, as well as such planes. This idea may seem fanciful, but it could indeed save the lives of passengers and crew if indeed the system is perfected.

Almost two years ago, Air France Flight 447 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris was trapped in a severe thunderstorm. This happened because the radar setting was improperly tilted, resulting in the inability to spot an intense weather activity ahead of the plane. As a result, the aircraft’s pitot tubes were iced up and blocked. This led to unreliable readings of the plane’s airspeed. The plane stalled and this problem was further confounded by the mishandling of the stall recovery process by the relief pilot. The captain who was resting at the back of the plane  was urgently recalled to the cockpit to help. However, it was to late. Had such a parachute system been in place, the Air France Flight 447 mishap with 228 people on board could have
been avoided.

     Moving on from this incident, all defective pitot tubes have been replaced on A330s and the airline industry has embarked on improving the pilot training programmes for safer flying.

Airline Humour

Here is a little joke from the Internet.

     “A slightly drunken lady gets on a plane and goes up to First Class. The flight attendant tells her that she is in the wrong section, as her ticket is not for that section.

     She replies, “I’m smart, I’m beautiful and I’m going to California”, and refused to budge.

     The senior flight attendant is brought in and explains that the passenger will have to move.

     Again she repeats, “I’m smart, I’m beautiful, and I’m going to California!”

     The senior flight attendant tells the pilot about the passenger. He comes in and looks the situation over. He leans over and whispers something to the lady. The lady gets up immediately and moves out of First Class.

     The attendants are flabbergasted, “What did you say to her?”

     “I just told her that this section of the plane doesn’t go to California.”


Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.

  • Lim

    this really a very good article.. Great if this can happen one day.

  • Dewi Ss


  • myhoney

    I’ve been asking this possibility for a long time. Why not?

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel360 Travel 3Sixty

      That’s the challenge to designers and engineers. Perhaps something cooler will come along one day!

  • Steve

    This is a solution that is possible now and in truth was possible 30 years ago. We have the technology to do this, it’s just that the powers that be would rather spend the R&D money on bigger planes rather than concentrate on passenger safety for what is already regarded as the safest mode of transport. I hate flying and a system like this would at least make my flying experience an easier one to handle. That or an escape hatch and a parachute for every passenger. Again, it could be done.