UNITED KINGDOM PILOT ROB DAVIES bailed out of his P-51 Mustang Big Beautiful Doll at Duxford’s Flying Legends air show last July 10. He had little choice.
During a break-to-landing maneuver, the right wing of a Douglas Skyraider from Rob’s formation slammed into the underside of the rear fuselage of his Mustang. The midair collision damaged the control cables, so after what he described as a violent crashing sound,
Rob suddenly found himself slewing side to side without pitch control. The airplane was 500 feet above the ground when he decided to get out, jettisoned the canopy, unfastened his harnesses, and jumped. His emergency chute opened at about 200 feet, just 15 seconds after the collision. Davies suffered only bumps and bruises. The Skyraider made an emergency landing, missing a large section of its right wing, but the Mustang was destroyed. The whole event took 25 seconds, from initial impact to Davies touching down in a field next to the wreckage of Big Beautiful Doll—it was likely the longest 25 seconds of his life.
Have you ever considered what it would feel like if one of your flights came down to that last, heart-pumping option?
First, you need an airplane from which you actually can bail out. Unless yours is designed for it, or has a sliding canopy (or a rear-cabin airstair door or hatch), it’s just not reasonable to expect to bail out. Aerobatic aircraft have canopy- or door-jettisoning mechanisms that will open a wide pathway to egress with a single pull.
In the case of a door, cables yank out the hinge pins, allowing the door to fall away in the slipstream.
Who should consider flying with a parachute? Warbird pilots seem to prefer emulating the original occupants of their airplanes’ cockpits, and many warbirds are most fun to fly when turned upside down every now and then. Aerobatic pilots-in-command carrying non-crewmembers (this would include the “other half” of an instructor/student combination) have little choice if they want to comply with FAR 91.307. It requires everyone on board to have an approved parachute whenever pitch or bank angles exceed 30 and 60 degrees, respectively. The regulations do not require solo aerobatic pilots to wear a chute, but most agree it’s a splendid idea. “Approved parachute” means not only one that is manufactured under Technical Standard Order (TSO) C-23, but also one that has been inspected and packed within the last 180 days (assuming it’s made from synthetic material; if you’re still packing actual silk from the 1940s, you’re braver than I am). According to a quick Internet search, depending on where you live, expect to pay about $50 to $75 twice a year for a Part 61-certified parachute rigger to inspect and repack your chute.
At this point you might be wondering, “How about flying with an out-of-date parachute?” If your airplane catches fire on Day 181 (as you’re on your way to the rigger, no doubt), I will go on record here as advising you to leap at this impromptu opportunity to take up sky diving. But before getting too lax about staying legal, know that every rigger has a story or two involving chutes they’ve inspected that were compromised by mice, fuel or oil stains, or some other unexpected (and potentially well-hidden) damage. Material that has been folded, creased, and sat on for extended periods of time develops fatigue in the fibers along the crease lines, and that’s where you can expect it to rip, especially after a violent, high-speed opening. Yes, the FAA’s time interval is conservative (though in 2008, it was increased to 180 days from 120 days). But most would agree, this is not an area to be pushing the envelope, so to speak.
There are some pretty clear scenarios for when you should bail out. And some that are not so black and white. The range includes structural failure or severe control problems, in-flight fire, midair collision (which often causes structural failure), and engine failure over inhospitable terrain and/or low IFR conditions. The first two are no-brainers. The latter two have some wiggle room. In Rob Davies midair, for example, the Skyraider pilot was able to regain control and land safely despite an uncommanded 360-degree barrel roll right after the collision caused by losing a large portion of the right outboard wing. His safe landing was arguably even more incredible than Rob’s bailout.
With or without power, a pilot might need to decide whether to bail out of an intact aircraft because a safe emergency landing is doubtful due to any combination of darkness, inhospitable terrain, or cloud cover. That choice involves a wide range of variables—including any risk of endangering people on the ground. Most pilots would probably take their chances with a blind crash landing rather than risk that their airplane would plunge into a populated area after they bailed out.
It’s up to the pilot to decide if the damage to the aircraft is bad enough that bailing out is a better option. If there’s a passenger, the drill is for the pilot to announce, “Jump!
Jump! Jump!” Most pilots tell their passengers to expect to hear the last “Jump!” as the pilot is on the way out.
How low is safe to jump?
Though most advice indicates that 1,000 feet is the minimum, that wisdom becomes highly subjective if you’re at 800 feet and find yourself “along for the ride” in a broken airplane. In that case, your options are limited, and doing your best to get out is probably at the top of the list. Your chances for success have a lot to do with the angle and rate of descent. The shallower the airplane’s descent angle, the better your chances of a happy landing.
More common is the question of how long to wait to try to break a flat spin or some other loss of control in an otherwise intact airplane.
Aerobatic performers have a “hard deck” imprinted in their minds based on their particular aircraft and/or their comfort level. A limit of 3,000 feet is common, but it could be substantially higher. Allen Silver, of Silver Parachute Sales in California (he’s probably heard all the jokes about his products being “second best”), conducts bailout seminars around the country, including annual sessions at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and the Sun ’n Fun International Fly-In and Expo. As part of his presentation, he drums into his audiences that, upon passing through that hard deck, you need to accept the fact that the insurance company has just assumed ownership of your airplane.
Allen described the sequence in four stages: First is the “Oh [you-know-what]!” stage; then “What do I do?” “How do I do it?” and then, finally, actually doing it.
Once past stage one, training and drills can shave the time to complete the other three stages by as much as 50 percent, Allen said. He’s convinced that’s what saved Rob’s life.
“From stage one, it should be C-B-B: canopy [or door], belts, and butts,” he said. “In that order. Never undo your safety belt before jettisoning the door or canopy.” The harness is keeping you secure in your seat. If the airplane is spinning and tumbling, you might not be able to reach the lever if you’re being tossed around inside. Once the path is clear, remove the safety belt and ditch the headset. Hopefully, you’ve rehearsed this and you can do it with one motion. As far as the third element (butts), the general wisdom is—do whatever it takes. That can vary a lot depending on a number of factors, including the attitude, speed, and degree of damage to the aircraft.
High-wing, strutted aircraft are not easy to get out of, and diving headlong through the vacated door opening is the best bet. Byron Hamby teaches aerobatics in a Citabria Champion at Somerset Airport in New Jersey. He’s also a veteran of the 82nd Airborne (15 jumps) and has made a couple of sport parachute jumps to further familiarize himself with the practice. He explained about briefing and practicing with students flying in his airplane: “If you’re in the front seat of a tandem airplane such as a Citabria during a low-level emergency, this is not the time to be concerned with me in back. If I give the command, just jump! I can’t leave until you do, and the second or two it takes to check on me could cost both of us the chance to survive.”
At very high speed, there is some concern about stuff you’re wearing staying with you, including the parachute. Your body will slow to its terminal velocity of around 120 mph within a few seconds, so there’s not much need to worry about opening the chute at too high a speed. But if you start out at 250 or 300 mph, this deceleration could be unbelievably violent. Clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc. might be ripped away in the slipstream. That’s one reason you need to ensure before take-off that your parachute harness straps are snug, every time. You can worry about modesty once the chute opens.
Based partly on his military experience, Byron mentioned the shock of what it feels like leaving the cockpit. There will be an assault of noise, wind, and cold. It’s one of the reasons he has taken some sport parachute jumps over the years to supplement his military static-line jumps. “There’s no question that it would help, having done it before in a controlled environment, should I ever need to bail out in an emergency,” he said.
Once clear of the aircraft, find the rip cord, never take your eyes off it, and pull it with both hands. It might have shifted as you fought to free yourself, and if you’re just feeling for it, you might not be able to locate it, or you could pull the wrong thing. Painting the rip cord bright red is also a good idea. Allen said, “Right about now, pulling that cord is the most important thing in your life, and you need to pull it in the direction of the cable housing as if your life depended on it.” Allen also suggested that you hold on to the rip cord after the parachute opens—so you don’t have to buy a new one. In the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, losing your rip cord after bailing out of a burning Spitfire or Hurricane meant you had to buy the rest of the squadron a round at the local pub.
Especially if you’re at low altitude, don’t worry about arching your back and stabilizing before pulling the rip cord, Sergei Boriak said. That’s for sky divers. Sergei knows the difference. He’s a sport parachutist with more than 300 jumps, and in April 2000 he bailed out of a Velox aerobatic airplane after a structural control failure while practicing for the Sun ’n Fun air show in Lakeland, Florida. His emergency occurred at 3,000 feet. “My reaction was spontaneous,” he said. “I had no elevator control, but I rolled the airplane inverted, released the canopy, and dropped out.” Sergei said he didn’t wait to stabilize, but pulled the rip cord right away.
Almost all emergency chutes are old-school round ones, and they will snap you upright and open safely no matter what position you’re in. Larry Krueger, president of manufacturer National Parachute Industries, said, “The saying goes, ‘Round is sound.’
A square ram-air chute may be fine for sky divers or BASE jumpers, but most emergency chutes are round.” Jim Culler, production and design manager at para-chute-maker Para-Phernalia Inc., manufacturer of SOFTIE parachutes, said, “Square chutes take longer to open, and you should be stable in free fall. A round one will snap you up pretty quick.” And emergency chutes are packed to open quickly.
Since the 1970s, riggers have incorporated spring-loaded pilot chutes (the small parachute that deploys first to pull out the main canopy). So don’t get cute. This isn’t the time to experiment. Just pull the rip cord right away.
A few emergency parachute wearers have their rip cords connected to the aircraft with a static line to ensure the cord will be pulled even if they cannot do it themselves. Jim said ParaPhernalia frowns on doing this, believing the chances of fouling the bailout are greater than the chances you’ll be saved by the static line. “You’re better off relying on yourself,” he said.
To be certified, an emergency chute has to open within three seconds. Most open in two seconds or less. Of course, the altitude you lose in that time depends on your downward velocity, which could ary significantly—at its greatest if the aircraft is pointed directly at the ground as you get out. Once the chute is open, Allen said, “That’s as slow as you’re ever going to go. If you’re only 6 inches off the ground, consider yourself very lucky.”
If you have the luxury of a more leisurely descent, you can enjoy the view (meanwhile, hoping the airflow has some time to dry out your pants). Your round chute doesn’t have the maneuverability of a square ram-air canopy, but you do have some control. Forward airspeed will be about 5 knots, and you should try to turn to land into the wind. The steering handles or rear risers can help you turn left and right. Expect to land between 45 and 60 degrees of your direction of drift. And do not try to flare to a stand-up landing like sport parachutists do. The round canopy was not meant for it. Keep your feet and knees together and land with your knees slightly bent, then roll to the ground to absorb the energy.
Use your controllability to avoid life-threatening hazards. Power lines are deadly and should be avoided at all cost. If you need to land in trees, use your arms to cover your head and face. And especially guys, be sure to cross your legs. In the unlikely event of a water landing, resist the temptation to unbuckle the harness before hitting the surface. Land downwind in this case, so the wind will carry the chute away from you rather than falling on top of you. Do try to swim away from the risers once you’re down and unbuckled to avoid getting tangled, and if you have flotation gear, inflate it quickly after you hit the water. Except to avoid life-threatening obstacles, avoid any turns within the last 200 feet of your descent. Landing on open turf can still be dangerous if the wind is brisk and there are sharp rocks that you could be dragged over. In high winds, try to spill the chute quickly by reeling in the risers of one side hand-over-hand. Remove your harness quickly, starting with the chest straps. If you remove the leg straps first, the chest straps could rise up to your neck and choke you.
In all the movies that involve emergency parachute descents, it seems there’s an attractive love interest running up as soon as the hero’s feet hit the ground. But don’t count on that. In fact, you might come down in a remote area. And even if you’re only a few miles from the airport, a town, farmhouse, or other civilization, you could be injured and unable to walk out on your own. It would help to have a small survival kit attached to your parachute pack with a first-aid kit and signaling gear, even a small handheld radio.
Personally, I’d include a flask of brandy in case of snake bite—and a small, lightweight rubber snake in case there aren’t any real ones.