NASA helps create parachute to save lives and airplanes
Posted: November 21, 2002

This sequence shows the parachute deployment during certification of the CirrusSR20. The ballistic rocket can be seen extracting the parachute from the hatch located behind the rear window. Photo printed with permission of Cirrus Design Corp.
The pilot of a small disabled, single-engine airplane, which floated to a safe landing instead of crashing, can thank NASA and a Minnesota company. The pilot walked away, from what would have been a catastrophic crash, with just a stiff neck.

In 1994, NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program awarded Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS), Inc., of South St. Paul, Minn., an SBIR Phase I contract to develop a "low-cost, lightweight, aircraft-emergency recovery system."

In October 2002, a pilot released his single engine aircraft's parachute and landed safely in a Texas mesquite- tree grove. The pilot was uninjured, and there was minimal damage to the plane. The safe landing made aviation history, as it was the first emergency application of an airframe parachute on a certified aircraft.

The successful "save" is a research and development (R&D) success story between small business and government. The SBIR program provides an opportunity for small, high technology companies and research institutions to participate in government-sponsored R&D efforts in key technology areas.

NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., recommended funding for the BRS SBIR Phase I proposal. BRS wanted to develop new, lightweight and strong materials that would allow a parachute to deploy at the speeds required for high- performance general aviation single-engine airplanes. The parachute and mounting gear had to weigh less than 60 pounds including the straps that are part of the airplane structure.

"BRS addressed a NASA program need with their innovative solution," said Robert Yang, head of Langley's Small Business Partnership Team. "The company had an excellent technical proposal and did significant homework in planning for commercial applications," he said.

The first award was in 1994. Phase I awards are usually under $100,000. Two years later, BRS was awarded Phase II funding for continued development of the Parachute Recovery System; these awards are up to $600,000.

Propelled by a solid-fuel rocket motor, the parachute is released from a special opening on top of the fuselage. Three Kevlar webbing straps connect the parachute to the airframe and help guide it through a level descent. BRS says aircraft, crew, and passengers can be saved from altitudes as low as 300 feet.

Although BRS has had 155 "saves" with its ultralight and experimental parachute systems, the October safe landing was the first in a certified general aviation aircraft.

"This technology has been successful on many levels," added Yang. "It will be part of the suite of innovations available to SATS (NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation System research program) that have been funded through the SBIR program. BRS has been able to take the concept and spin it back into NASA's program needs," he said. BRS won 2001 SBIR Phase I and II awards for the development of a larger parachute for the new generation of mini-jets.

Yang said he sees it as a quality-of-life improvement. One U.S. insurance company offers up to a 10 percent discount on premiums for a plane having such a system, while European aviation organizations are pursuing some mandatory requirements for systems on certain experimental aircraft.

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