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Will commercial planes have parachutes? (part 1): questions

Click on the words or phrases in the article that answer these questions. The answers are not in the same order as the questions.

  1. What changes did the parachute designer have to make?
  2. How quickly does a parachute open?
  3. What gets broken when the parachute is activated?
  4. What is the probability of being killed in an aeroplane accident?
  5. What does the inventor think is possible?
  6. How heavy can planes with these parachutes be?
  7. When did the company start putting parachutes in planes?
  8. How is the parachute made small enough?

Statistically speaking, the chance of dying in a plane crash is one in about 11 million. Yet, despite significant safety advances that make the likelihood of such a nightmare scenario ever more remote, there’s always that looming fear. But what if passenger aeroplanes were equipped with parachutes that, during an emergency, allowed them to float safely towards a soft landing?

Ballistic Recovery Systems is the one of the few companies to show that such an idea is indeed plausible. Beginning in 1998, the Saint Paul, Minnesota-based firm has outfitted several small, lightweight aircraft with backup parachutes designed to support as much as 4,000 pounds. Tucked in the rear of the fuselage, the BRS system is activated simply by pulling a red lever that releases a rocket-launched capsule containing a large canopy chute. Once deployed, the suspension lines expand at a controlled rate, allowing the canopy to open fully as the plane’s speed slows.

For inventor and BRS founder Boris Popov, adapting something that’s used mainly by skydivers and military personnel for flying objects that are several times heavier meant that he had to first come up with a much wider design. He then had to reduce the parachute’s bulk and weight without sacrificing structural integrity. His $16,000 rescue parachutes, found in personal aircraft like Cessnas and the entire line of Cirus planes, are comprised of an ultra-lightweight composite material that is five times stronger than steel, but 100 times lighter. The 30-pound parachute is then condensed into a compact package using an 11-ton hydraulic press. The "ballistics" part comes in the form of a rocket motor with about a pound of explosive material, enough to blast the parachute through a fibreglass panel in the rear of the plane so that the canopy can deploy within seconds. At last count, the company claims their technology has saved nearly 300 lives.

Inevitably, the question becomes whether the technology can be applied to larger commercial aircraft, such as Boeings and Airbus models, to assuage the fears of the billions of airline passengers that travel every year. Well, Popov believes it’s definitely doable if the public wills it to happen.