The Cirrus is a “new generation” aircraft loaded with safety features. For example, if a pilot flying after dark gets too close to a ridge line, the Cirrus’ on-board Terrain Awareness Warning System generates a voice urging him to “Pull Up! Pull Up!” The plane’s wings secrete fluid that helps prevent them from icing up in poor weather. The cockpit has airbags, and its seats protect the passengers in a crash by absorbing 26 times the force of gravity. The Cirrus is the only aircraft of its kind that comes with a rocket propelled parachute that can shoot out of the back of the plane in an emergency. Partly as a result of all its safety features, the Cirrus has become the most popular general aviation aircraft, with sales surpassing long-time industry leaders Cessna, Beechcraft, and Piper.
Critics, however, say that the aircraft has a lousy safety record, with a fatal accident rate significantly higher than the “old style” Cessnas and Beechcrafts. They say that the Cirrus, made mostly of fiberglass rather than the traditional aluminum, is not crashworthy. Not only does the
fiberglass splinter instead crushing to absorb impact forces like aluminum, but they say the fiberglass and the parachute are prone to catching fire after impact with the ground. They point out that, unlike other aircraft, the Cirrus is not recoverable if the pilot enters an inadvertent spin.
Cirrus owners say their aircraft is well-designed and that its safety record is not bad when compared to aircraft performing the same mission, rather than to the population of general aviation aircraft as a whole. Some Cirrus owners argue that the critics should be disbelieved because they are either salesmen trying to sell Cessnas or, worse yet, plaintiffs’ lawyers.
So, where does an owner who is also a plaintiffs’ lawyer weigh in on the debate?
The Safety Record:
Cirrus fans who parse the statistics miss the point. Cirrus markets itself as a company dedicated to providing “unprecedented levels of safety.” Spend some time with the statistics and you have to conclude that the Cirrus is, at best, only marginally safer than other aircraft. But no matter how you look at it, Cirrus’ safety record is nothing to brag about. The aircraft may have been designed to provide “unprecedented levels of safety” but, in practice, it really doesn’t.
Why the Record Fails to Live Up to the Design’s Promise:
My bet is that “Risk Homeostasis” is at work. Risk Homeostasis theory suggests that, when given the opportunity, pilots will use a safety feature to enhance the aircraft’s utility rather than enjoy the increased level of safety the feature could provide. For example, a pilot without on-board weather equipment will go many miles out of his way to avoid a deadly thunderstorm, regardless of how inconvenient, because he is uncertain where the storm begins or ends. If given weather depiction equipment, the pilot will use it to get closer to the thunderstorm than he otherwise would. Because the equipment provides better information concerning the storms contours, the pilot will not give the storm the same wide berth and will instead cut his safety margins and shorten his trip.
Similarly, a pilot who would not otherwise fly over inhospitable terrain due to fear of engine failure might make the flight if his plane has a built-in parachute, because the parachute improves the odds of surviving should the engine quit. By choosing to make the flight, the pilot has used a safety feature (the parachute) to increase the plane’s utility, but he takes a risk he would not otherwise have exposed himself to.
The Marketing Should Be Changed:
A feature should be marketed as either a safety feature or a feature that increases an aircraft’s utility. To blur the distinction is to invite trouble. And that’s what Cirrus’ marketing does. For example, Cirrus now sells an improved anti-icing system for its aircraft. Should the system be used to increase safety? Or to increase the aircraft’s utility? It can’t do both. But according to Cirrus’ website:
Cirrus again delivers increased aircraft safety and utility. With Known Ice Protection. . .pilots can now launch or continue flight with the peace of mind . . .that they’re both legal and safe. . .
This type of marketing only invites trouble.
The Training Should Be Changed:
Pilots who fly Cirrus aircraft need to be trained on the differences between using a feature to enhance safety and to increase the aircraft’s utility. Using a feature to increase the aircraft’s utility necessarily undermines the feature’s safety benefits.