NASA Spinoff

Rocket-Powered Parachutes Rescue Entire Planes

“One of our primary needs for working with NASA was to promote and encourage the concept of a ballistic parachute on aircraft,” Popov says. “There was a lot of skepticism that this system could even work. NASA was very proactive in creating a safety mentality in general aviation.”

Product Outcome

The BRS parachute system—first featured in Spinoff 2002—is deployed by a solid rocket motor activated when the pilot pulls on the cockpit handle release. The rocket fires at over 100 miles per hour and extracts the parachute in less than 1 second. Thanks to a patented shock attenuation device, the chute opens according to the speed of the aircraft; at high speeds, the chute opens only 25 percent for the first few seconds to reduce airspeed to the point where the chute can open fully and still sustain the opening shock. (The lightweight parachute material has to sustain the force of the rocket deployment, as well as the force of the aircraft.) At low speeds and altitudes, the chute opens quickly and completely to ensure rescue.

The system’s versatility makes it effective in a range of accident situations, from mid-air collisions and structural failure to a spiral dive or stall spin. The parachute arrests the descent of the entire aircraft and deposits the vehicle and its occupants on the ground with a typical impact force equivalent to falling 7 feet, which is largely absorbed by the aircraft’s landing gear and seats. Not only are lives saved, but in many incidents, expensive aircraft are preserved to fly again.

BRS has sold more than 30,000 systems worldwide since its founding. The parachute is now standard equipment on the Cirrus SR20 and SR22 planes, the Flight Design CT light-sport aircraft (LSA), the Piper Aircraft PiperSport LSA, and as an option on the new Cessna 162 Skycatcher. The company is projecting sales of close to $20 million this year.

“Our system is standard equipment on the world’s top selling single-engine aircraft, Cirrus. It’s standard equipment on the world’s top selling LSA, the CT. The number one producer of ultralights has our product as standard equipment. You can see a trend here,” Popov says.

BRS also produces parachute systems for military unmanned aerial vehicles, military cargo parachutes, and military training aircraft recovery parachutes. On training aircraft, if the pilot has to eject, “you basically have a 5,000-pound bomb that could go unpiloted down into a neighborhood,” Popov says. “We, however, can bring down the pilot and trainer aircraft safely to the ground.”

While parachutes for larger aircraft are still in the works, BRS does have a system designed for small jets, and its NASA partnership has provided the company with the technology that may eventually enable parachutes for commercial airlines and jets. In the meantime, Popov welcomes the role NASA has played in helping turn the promise he made to himself that day at the lake into a reality for the 246 people whose lives have been saved by the BRS parachute so far.

“BRS is a classic example of taxpayers’ money being spent on research that has translated into 246 lives saved,” he says. “That’s a justifiable and profound benefit.”

He tells a favorite story about a grandfather flying a Cirrus SR20 over the Canadian Rockies with his grandkids in the back seat. The grandfather lost control of the plane, which became inverted at night in the mountains. “You’re likely not going to recover from that,” Popov says. The grandfather deployed the parachute, and the plane settled gently on the side of mountain, where a rescue helicopter found it the next day. After being hoisted out by a helicopter and flown to a nearby airstrip, they put on a new prop and landing gear and flew the plane out.

“This grandfather thought he may have just killed himself and his grandkids, but when he pulled the handle and felt the parachute deploy, he knew he had just prevented that from happening,” Popov says.

“How many millions of dollars is that worth?”