Jets to be fitted with parachutes

Parachutes could be fitted to commuter jet aircraft in five years’ time, the result of a NASA-backed research project.

Parachutes could be fitted to commuter jet aircraft in five years’ time, as the result of a NASA-backed research project.

Jet aircraft that suffer engine failure will be able to deploy a two-stage parachute system to slow the plane and float it to the ground. Similar parachutes are currently only available for ultra-light aircraft, kit planes and other small single-engine planes such as the Cessna.

The parachute system is being developed by Minnesota-based Ballistic Recovery Systems, which has produced systems for aircraft for 20 years.

BRS vice-president Don Johnson revealed the purpose behind the research: ‘We’ve sold 16,000 units for ultra-light aircraft and kit aeroplanes over the years and saved 148 lives in the process. The NASA contract is meant to lead to an actual product. ‘That would initially be for a small passenger jet aircraft and then we would scale up the technology. We would hope to see a system for commuter jets in about five years minimum. But we will need a business partner.’

The first stage of the NASA project, a £50,000 feasibility study, will be completed this autumn. The second phase, costing £455,000, will be to create a prototype for a six-seater jet aircraft.

This new parachute would probably have two stages and be fired from a chute pack on the hull of the aircraft using rocket motors similar to those used in military ejection seats.

The company said the chutes could be used in a number of situations including mid-air collisions, pilot incapacitation, structural failure, emergency landing deceleration and engine failure.

In the event of a problem, the pilot, co-pilot or passenger would pull a handle to release the first stage, which slows the faltering craft to a speed that enables the second chute to deploy. The second chute would be much larger and would carry the aircraft to the ground at a rate of between five and 10m per second.

The two-stage system will operate in a similar fashion to existing products. Once the handle is pulled, the rocket motor accelerates to over 100mph in just 0.1 seconds, extracting the chute and ‘inflating’ it with the help of the airstream.

Shortly afterwards, and depending on the forward speed of the aircraft, the canopy will become fully inflated and will decelerate the aircraft.

Tests carried out by the Federal Aviation Authority have shown that full parachute inflation could occur as low as 300ft, and lives have been saved in light aircraft at below 150ft.