Flights of fantasy

IT SOUNDS LIKE a fantasy from the pages of a Tintin cartoon. Aircraft carrying intrepid reporter is hit by missile over the volcanoes of a Pacific island. Plane begins to fall. But wait . . . injured pilot jerks emergency lever and - whoosh - a huge parachute goes up from a hatch in the fuselage. Like a feather, plane and passengers, Snowy included, float harmlessly to the ground, writes David Usborne in Cincinnati.

It's another lucky escape for Tintin - butnot such an improbable one as it seems. Such parachutes, designed to save not just the pilot or passengers but also the entire plane, have been in production for more than a decade.

Previously, US regulations had restricted their application to recreational aircraft, such as microlites and hang-gliders. But the pioneers of the technology, Ballistic Recovery Systems Inc (BRS), based in St Paul, Minnesota, recently received certification to attach their parachutes to one class of small propellor plane, the Cessna 150 and 152. The first sale to a Cessna owner was made last month.

'At first, there was disbelief when we came up with the product, but after 10 years we have made significant inroads,' said company spokesman Dan Johnson. The rather unromantically named General Aviation Recovery Device (Gard) is fitted to the outside of the plane. In the event of unexpected trouble - say, engine failure, a mid-air collision or sudden illness - the pilot pulls a lever in the cockpit, the parachute is fired a safe distance from the fuselage by a small missile (hence 'ballistic'), and opens up. From that moment, the plane and passengers should be secure for a gentle, if unscheduled, landing.

The company has already applied for further certification for a slightly bigger category of propellor aircraft. And even the notion that full-size passenger liners may be protected from crashing to earth is not beyond the bounds of possiblity, according to Mr Johnson.

'We think that that is still in the quite distant future, but it absolutely will happen, because it is just too good an idea not to,' he said.

Certain technical difficulties will have to be overcome. Jet planes travel far too fast for the current Gard designs to work. In essence, the strings holding the parachutes would snap on release.

There is also the simple factor of weight. BRS calculates that forevery pound of weight, a square foot of parachute material is required. A fully loaded Boeing 747-400, the biggest passenger plane currently in use, weighs about 1 million pounds; and 1 million square feet of cloth would equal the area of 24 football pitches.

Still, if such a contraption could save the lives of 500 passengers and crew, who is going to care about a brief eclipse of the sun?

(Photograph omitted)