(AP) - The plane that crashed into the side of a high-rise apartment building Wednesday comes equipped with a parachute designed to be triggered by the pilot in case of an aerial mishap, but there was no evidence the feature was used.
The Cirrus SR20 is the first production aircraft to have as standard equipment a Ballistic Recovery System parachute, which a pilot can activate if the engine fails or if the plane is involved in a collision. It also has energy-absorbing features meant to reduce impact in a crash.
The parachute, if triggered, should shoot out above the plane, allowing it to drift to safety belly first rather than crash.
"These airplanes are just absolutely cutting edge in terms of how modern they are, and they ought to be extremely safe," said Mike Radomsky, president of the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, which conducts safety classes for Cirrus pilots.
The single-engine private aircraft can carry up to four people. It is steered by a joystick on the side of the cockpit rather than with a steering wheel in the front.
About 2,900 SR20s or its successor, the SR22, are in service around the world, and the 3,000th one is in production, said Kate Dougherty, spokeswoman for the Cirrus Design Corp. of Duluth, Minn., which makes the plane. She said she could not discuss the planes' safety record or provide any information about the one that crashed Wednesday.
New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle was killed in the crash, along with a second person.
It was the second fatal accident involving an SR20 within a month, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. On Sept. 15, a private pilot was killed after reporting icing conditions. The NTSB is still investigating.
There have been a total of 12 accidents involving the Cirrus SR20, though one happened while the plane was still in an experimental stage. NTSB records indicate that six accidents were fatal, killing 13 people.
People that drive BMWs and Lexuses want to have a plane that's a similar experience.Luke Lysen, SR20 flight instructor
In two accidents this year, pilots reported engines losing power.
There are about 600 Cirrus SR20s registered to the Federal Aviation Administration. The plane was first flown as a prototype in March 1995, according to the Web site Airliners.net.
Safety problems related to the SR20 have figured in about a dozen lawsuits, some involving design and mechanical issues, some pilot error and some a combination of both, said Brian Alexander, an aviation lawyer for the New York-based firm Kreindler & Kreindler.
Several cases involved the parachute, which has deployed successfully sometimes and unsuccessfully other times, Alexander said. Problems generally had to do with the explosive mechanism, triggered by the pilot, that pushes out the parachute, he said.
The low-wing aircraft sells for about $280,000. Its 200-horsepower Teledyne Continental six-cylinder piston engine produces a maximum cruising speed of 160 mph. It has a roomier cabin and larger windows than many of its competitors.
"People that drive BMWs and Lexuses want to have a plane that's a similar experience," said Luke Lysen, a flight instructor in Seattle who teaches on the SR20.
Cirrus made flyable kit aircraft until 1993. Its original kit model, the VK30, was the basis of the SR20. The SR20 is made of a composite glass fiber and foam-core material, instead of the riveted aluminum of more traditional planes.
Instead of traditional instruments, Cirrus planes use an LCD screen with electronic instruments designed to be easier to read. Features like that, combined with the joystick control and extra speed, have led some to wonder if they attract careless pilots.
"We're particularly concerned about pilots with low flight time, low hours, who maybe feel that the airplane is so capable that it can make up for a lack of expertise on the pilot's part," Radomsky said. "Obviously, that would be an irresponsible attitude, perhaps akin to someone thinking they ought to drive a very fast car because the car is very capable."
Bruce Landsberg, who runs the Air Safety Foundation for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the SR20 is about as safe as other small planes.
"We haven't seen anything relative to the Cirrus aircraft that would make it any more or less prone to failure than anything else," he said.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)