Updated February 12:

A Cirrus SR-20 single engine aircraft collided with a Pawnee tow plane that was pulling a glider. The Cirrus reportedly ran into the Pawnee’s tow line. The Pawnee crashed and the pilot was killed.  The occupants of the Cirrus were also killed.  The glider pilot, however, recognized the impending collision, released his aircraft from the tow line, and landed without injury to himself or his two


Each Cirrus aircraft is equipped with a rocket-propelled parachute.  One purpose ofCirrus parachute the parachute is to safely return the aircraft to earth if it is damaged in a mid-air collision.  Unfortunately, the parachute didn’t help in this case. Video of the Cirrus wreckage, on fire, descending beneath its canopy is here.

Some questions:

Who had the right of way?

Gliders and tow planes have the right of way over other aircraft.

Why couldn’t the Cirrus pilot see and avoid the Pawnee’s tow line?

The tow lines are nearly invisible in the air. But despite the news reports, the Cirrus most likely collided with the Pawnee tow plane itself, not with the tow line.  [The glider pilot has now confirmed to the NTSB that the Cirrus collided with the Pawnee’s fuselage, not the towline.] That explains the tremendous damage to the Cirrus and the Pawnee, and the immediate fireball that resulted, as reported by the glider pilot.

Doesn’t the Cirrus have radar to help avoid other aircraft?

No radar, but some Cirrus aircraft are equipped with other devices to detect and help avoid other traffic.  That equipment is optional, however, and may not have been installed in this particular Cirrus. [Reports are that the Cirrus was not so equipped when it left the factory.]  Even if it was installed, it only detects aircraft that hPawnee tow plane ave an operating transponder. Most gliders don’t have transponders. We don’t know whether the Pawnee’s transponder was on.

What good is the Cirrus parachute if the aircraft burns after a mid-air collision?

Some argue that the Cirrus is not crashworthy because it is prone to post-impact fires.  That’s because it is made largely of fiberglass rather than aluminum.

It is true that aircraft should be designed so as not to burn after an accident.  However, that standard applies only when the crash is otherwise survivable. The impact forces in this accident appear to have been so great that the accident was not survivable. That makes it hard to blame the design of the aircraft for the post impact fire.  In fact, the occupants were likely killed on impact, making the fire irrelevant to the tragic outcome. (The parachute was likely deployed as a result of impact forces acting on the parachute’s igniter cable, not by the aircraft’s occupants.)   

Was this a freak accident?

Maybe, maybe not. Here is a video of a remarkably similar accident. The camera plane hit a tow plane’s cable, rather than the tow plane itself.  The camera plane was equipped with a parachute, like the Cirrus was in this case.  The pilot deployed the parachute and ultimately walked away from the crash.