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Duluth-based Cirrus Design Corp. remains the most successful manufacturer of technically advanced single-engine private airplanes, but a fatal crash in Crystal Tuesday and a $16.4 million lawsuit verdict against Cirrus earlier this month have again put the company's fatal accident history in the spotlight.
Bill King, vice president of business administration at Cirrus, said Wednesday that the company's overall accident rate has improved and it remains heavily focused on safety. Sales of the company's propeller-driven SR20s and more-powerful SR22s, which were depressed throughout last year, have started to pick up, and the company is recalling 50 furloughed workers, King said.
To this day, King said, no Cirrus accident anywhere in the world has been linked by government regulators to a design or manufacturing problem with one of its commercially sold airplanes. In report after report on Cirrus crashes in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined pilot error as the probable cause.
Since 2003, when Cirrus had a noticeably worse overall fatal accident rate than the rest of the private airplane industry, questions were raised about the company's training. The company began sales in 1999 and by 2003 it had more than 700 planes in the marketplace.
Some industry observers believed that Cirrus had developed the next "doctor killer,'' a nickname once associated with the V-tail Beech Bonanza, another slick, high-performance model involved in a series of fatal accidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The fast-for-its-day Bonanza was said to attract pilots who had more money than skill.
In a 2003 interview with the Star Tribune, Cirrus co-founder Alan Klapmeier dismissed the speculation.
"Our theory is that it's not whom the plane attracts, it's how they operate it once they have it,'' he said.
The pilot training issue at Cirrus was central to a jury trial that ended earlier this month in Grand Rapids, Minn. A jury ordered Cirrus and its flight training subcontractor to pay $16.4 million in damages in connection with a 2003 Minnesota plane crash that killed two Grand Rapids men.
Cirrus pilot Garry Prokop and his passenger died when Prokop's Cirrus SR-22 crashed in overcast conditions near Hill City, Minn., en route to St. Cloud. The suit alleged Prokop wasn't proficient in using the plane's autopilot system and lawyers for Prokop's family said after the trial that Cirrus would have to take a very hard look at the skill level of its customers and how they are training them.
New training approach
King said the company has taken an "appreciably different'' training approach in the past few years. Sessions today are tailored more strictly to the individual customer's experience level, learning style and flying ambitions.
Tim Barzen, a former naval aviator and retired Northwest Airlines captain who recently launched a Cirrus training business in Anoka County, said training will always be an issue at Cirrus as long as their are crashes. That is the nature of aviation, he said.
"It's been my experience that Cirrus's primary focus has been on safety,'' said Barzen, founder and president of Full Motion Flight Training LLC. "It is not a fault of the training program as much as it is that you are dealing with human beings.''
Barzen said his company's niche is add-on flight training to help pilots advance their skills and cope with adverse circumstances.
"One way to deal with tragedies is to learn from them,'' he said.
King did not provide a specific current accident rate for Cirrus planes, partly because it has become more difficult for the company to track how many hours the planes have flown as the fleet has grown.
The Cirrus SR22 -- the type of plane that crashed Tuesday -- is the world's top-selling, high-performance, four-seat piston-powered airplane with more than 3,300 sold since the model was introduced in 2001, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. Coupled with the less-powerful SR20, introduced in 1999, the company estimates there are 4,800 to 5,000 Cirrus planes now in operation.
According to NTSB statistics reviewed by the Star Tribune, Cirrus had its worst year for fatal crashes of the SR22 last year, when 23 people died in 10 accidents. The previous high for the SR22 was 13 deaths in seven crashes in 2006. That same year, New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, a flying novice, died along with his instructor when their Cirrus SR20 crashed into a building in New York.
Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been 11 accidents or incidents worldwide involving the Cirrus SR22, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Four of those were fatal accidents with a total of six deaths. That includes the death Tuesday in Crystal of Steven Case, 60, the founder and chairman of Golden Valley-based CyberOptics Corp. Case was an experienced pilot who was coming home from a long, solo business flight when his SR22 crashed on landing.
Safety record studied
The Cirrus accident record was scrutinized in a 2007 report by the Maryland-based Air Safety Foundation of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Compared to the overall fleet of newly designed, technically advanced private airplanes, Cirrus fared better in pilot-related fatal accident categories of takeoff and climb, fuel management, descent and approach and maneuvering.
But Cirrus planes fared worse compared to the overall fleet in the pilot-related fatal accident categories of weather and "go-arounds.'' A go-around is when a pilot pulls out of a landing approach and tries it again.
The report said 61.5 percent of all Cirrus fatal accidents in the 2003-2006 study period involved weather, vs. 16.4 percent for the overall fleet.
"Weather proved to be uncommonly deadly in the Cirrus,'' the report said. But the statistics largely reflect the pattern of usage "rather than a fundamental flaw that was missed'' in the regulatory process that certifies airplanes as safe, it said.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213