Three all-new composite, four-seat, IFR singles are available on the U.S. market: The Diamond DA40 Star, the Cirrus SR-20 and the Lancair Columbia 300. Other than the composite materials from which they are made, each is different: Different powerplants, different equipment and different markets. AVweb's Dave Higdon managed to put the three through their paces — all in the same week. In this second pilot report of a four-part series, he tackles the Cirrus SR20.
November 13, 2000
many ways, watching Cirrus Design Corp. evolve into the two-model company it
is today felt similar to watching a child mature from adolescence into
adulthood. From its roots in the experimental community, Cirrus evolved from a
niche airplane-kit maker into an advanced manufacturing firm. From serious
airplanes for people with money and building ambitions, Cirrus became a
populist planemaker that launched an all-new design with the ultimate in
safety systems: an integral emergency parachute.
Company progenitors Allan and Dale Klapmeier, who bought out the concern
that developed the VK30 kitplane, carried Cirrus forward through the embryonic
stage of design and initial finances during struggles even stumbles in
development that made for tight financial times. After something of an
aerodynamic regrouping, they delivered a machine equal to the promise of its
parents. Since my first glimpse of the mock-up at Oshkosh 1994 through my
first flight in a 2000 SR20 this year, the project never failed to intrigue
me. If this child had been born human, it's hard to imagine the youngster
receiving much social acceptance you know, she's different, neighbors would
there's that daring decision to use a composite airframe daring because not
a year before development began, Raytheon Aircraft confirmed the demise of the
groundbreaking Starship I. Then there was the brave-new decision to equip the
new Cirrus SR20 with "side-mounted yokes." Huh? Real planes have
sticks or, better, good-old one-on-each-side ram's horn-style control wheels.
And it looks too much like a car inside; airplanes should look like, well,
airplanes. And that big computer screen? Maybe put it in the rear seat row,
for the smaller family members. All these deviations from the norm just didn't
fit well with the so-called "conventional wisdom" of what a new
light plane should be.
Had the differences ended there, maybe the SR20 wouldn't have had so many
people worrying that, well, it was just too different. The one thing that
shows that those Cirrus people aren't really like the rest of us goes beyond
the skin, even the color of the panel screens. But how can you accept
something with an integral emergency parachute system when all the voices
of wisdom and maturity mouthed the same arguments against pilots wearing
parachutes in the 1920s.
It's never been done, people said; pilots won't want it, veteran pilots
said. Better to save the weight for payload, the costs for production, and the
hassle for all those others that will come along. Besides, isn't riding around
with a parachute in the back an admission something could go wrong? Or, that
you're afraid of dying? Won't having a parachute make it too tempting to bail
out of a tough situation? Won't pilots be pulling them at the smallest hint of
a problem? Oh, and while we're at it, don't ya really think metal would be
Personally, I don't think the Klapmeier's really listened, a common trait
to entrepreneurs and other rebels, alike. As a pilot, I'm glad they didn't.
The Executive Summary: People Flock To Winners For A
Not only does the SR20 stand out because of its parachute, it also stands
out because of its size, its comfort, its equipment and its value. Add in the
parachute, the composites, the moving map, the avionics, and the airplane's
value really stands out. Perhaps even more pilots than the 700-plus committed
today would have signed orders had Cirrus made the SR20 from metal, deleted
the parachute and stuck with a conventional avionics package. Perhaps. Maybe.
For sure, the payload would be better.
But Cirrus expects to solve the payload complaint late this summer, and
give everybody owners of delivered airplanes and buyers of ones to be
delivered alike a big boost in that department. And payload issues aside,
Cirrus' SR20 doesn't need any of that high-tech stuff to sell.
of course, merely flying the SR20 should sell most pilots on all of these hot
four-seaters Cirrus can ever build. In my view, Cirrus created the
best-handling, best-harmonized flying machine to come along since the Bonanza
for decades a benchmark for gauging the handling and harmony of
single-engine airplanes. The SR20 nearly matches Walter Beech's classic,
benchmark design in overall performance for less than one-third the money.
Yes, it flies that well. So well, in fact, that my only negative
recommendation centers on its use by primary students. Sure, raw novices
should be able to master the relatively mild rigors of flying a fixed-gear,
high-performance airplane. But and you knew one was coming getting the
hang of basic airmanship while trying to manage an extremely slippery bird
makes for more work than most students need to face early in their training.
In fact, even some veteran pilots may find themselves a bit behind the SR20
until they log a couple dozen hours adapting to a bird that hates to slow down
without a bit of advanced planning and a coordinated touch. Even with the
simplicity of a single-lever power control which some veterans may find a
bit awkward or even clumsy to use this simple airplane is still somewhat
more demanding than other fixed-gear competitors.
From Panel To Parachute, The SR20 Does It Differently
years ago, some of general aviation's best and brightest marketing brains
realized that clinging to old ways of finishing airplanes wasn't playing well
to potential pilots. Most coveted were the affluent students-to-be who arrived
at the airport in a luxury sedan or sports coupe finished out in what auto
designers believed airplane cockpits looked like. Well, imagine how easily
confusion and disillusion soon came into play: "Yessir, Mr. Brown, the
driver's seat of our new luxury sports sedan puts everything in view and all
controls within reach in an environment more like a modern airplane than any
competing car..." Yeah, right.
Planemakers have tried to focus considerable attention on modernizing the
look, utility, fit and finish of their airplanes; manufacturers of the three
plastic planes flown for this series started their designs with that
luxury-sedan goal in mind. In my view, Cirrus hit it the mark close as you can
get, without throwing in a steering wheel, at least. And, far beyond the
crash-worthy seats, above the bar of three-point belts, past the logic of the
padded panel, is CAPS: the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.
the first time, the pilot in command of a certificated airplane controls a
life-saving option that continues resisting gravity even after an airframe
failure. CAPS provides a new option in all potentially life-threatening
situations, save fire: an engine-out event, a mid-air collision; even fuel
starvation. It provides an option in the bluest VMC to the worst night IMC.
It's not an extra-cost option, but standard equipment that's helped attract
newly minted pilots, old hands, professional and recreational pilots alike in
droves. CAPS also is something an owner cannot eschew at a later date at
least, not without opting for new certification tests. Cirrus avoided some
certification tests by designing, testing and certificating CAPS as an
integral part of the airplane.
Now, with my roots in hang gliding and ultralights, on-board emergency
airframe-recovering parachutes are old hat. The first hand-deployed
hang-glider systems showed up in 1978, followed in short order by systems for
ultralight craft. In the early 1980s, deployment technology moved from the
side-arm spinning toss to ballistic systems, which were first based on a
shotgun-like charge that launched a weighted deployment line and progressed to
small, high-energy rockets to drag out a canopy. It's that technology that
dominates hang gliding and light-plane systems today, and no one knows it
better or applies it more widely than Ballistic Recovery Systems, or BRS.
Based in South Saint Paul, Minn., BRS made history back in 1993 by earning the
first FAA approval for a recovery parachute and installation in an aircraft.
BRS's General Aviation Recovery Device, or GARD, earned the company a
supplemental type certification to install a proportionally-sized parachute in
Cessna 150s and 152s.
SR20 Balances Payload, Speed, Fuel And Range Well
Of course, the SR20 would gain 50 to 60 pounds of payload without CAPS
and the Cirrus isn't exactly a payload prize-winner: Models that carry more
are easy to find. But the SR20 is also no slouch. For the record, put full
fuel in the SR20 and you've got 614 pounds of payload remaining. Compare the
SR20's full-fuel payload to the six-seat A36 Bonanza: 688 pounds. How about
the New Piper Saratoga II HP another six-seat single and its 585 pounds?
Or to the four-place Cessna Skylane, at 700 pounds. Maybe Socata's TB20,
another four-seater, at 804, or Mooney's four-place Ovation 2, with 609? These
are all high-performance singles with engines 50 percent larger in
displacement than the SR20's IO-360 Continental. Yet the SR20 falls near the
middle in speed and in the upper half in range. In fact, buying decisions
typically become questions of balance. Bigger doesn't always mean more
payload, even when it means more useful load.
bottom line is this: Anyone who thinks 614 pounds is light needs to remember
that this machine makes its 160-knot cruise on only 75 percent of its 200
horsepower. Would more payload be exciting? Absolutely. That's like asking
whether we'd like more dessert, more sex or more money.
The additional payload poundage Cirrus executives expect ultimately will be
worth as much as another person though it won't come until the company gets
the more-powerful SR22 certificated, a feat expected by the end of 2000. At
the same time, Cirrus expects to get approval for a two-step change. Step one
is simply a paperwork change to the SR20's documentation, flight manual and
placards. A second, larger gain will involve physical changes to the airplane.
Cirrus will make the change on its production line and field retrofits will be
available. But even without a gross weight increase, the sum of the parts of
the SR20 put it at the front of a small-but-growing pack of new planes with
increased utility, efficiency and capability.
With the latest-technology Garmin GPS navigation systems, advanced engine
instruments and the Arnav multi-function display (MFD), the Cirrus comes from
a generation of panels our granddaddies wouldn't recognize. Couple the flight
deck and a roomy cabin to a high-efficiency airframe design and fuel-thrifty
powerplant, and you have the makings of a breakthrough in light airplanes: One
with Bonanza-class handling and control harmony, with Mooney 201-level fuel
efficiency and speed, and Skylane room and comfort. Throw in the unique
recovery system, and it adds up to a singularly outstanding package with
capabilities unmatched in general aviation today.
Features Unique In Its Class
Let's take her for a tour along the Florida panhandle between Pensacola and
Tallahassee and you'll see the point. Thanks to Gary Black's flexibility and
Cirrus' generosity, N119CD, the Millennium Edition SR20, awaited me at
Destin/Fort Walton Beach upon my touchdown there, parked adjacent to an empty
tiedown spot for my Comanche. When the lineman pointed me toward that parking
spot, it was easy to 180 into the empty slot next to the Cirrus. Starting my
walkaround of this finely finished flying machine helped me limber up after
SR20 takes no more walking than most; getting to know an airplane through the
preflight inspection gives me a sense of what it's like. You can sense how the
designers and engineers and marketing executives looked at this plane and the
results of their collaborative efforts. One sign of those team decisions is
the few stops it took to complete the preflight. For example, the general
look-and-touch checks revealed fewer requirements than many airplanes because
fewer fasteners and linkages exist. Under-wing inspection ports are covered
with only one quick-turn fastener. Another wise idea: eschewing the use of
composites in every piece of structure and sticking with aluminum on simpler,
more-wear-and-damage-prone areas; that's why the SR20 sports metal flaps,
ailerons and rudder with weights comparable to composite parts.
One wholly conventional aspect of the SR20 was starting the engine if
you've started a TCM IO-360 in one application, you pretty much have it down
for all of them and the SR20 is no exception. A shot of boost pump, throttle
in slightly, mixture to idle cutoff. Engage the starter and the Continental
lights off almost instantly; bring up the mixture, throttle back to idle and
let the engine warm. Simple. Compared to other installations of this engine,
the IO-360-ES Continental in the SR20 seemed louder until after powering up
the acoustically-matched LightSPEED ANR headsets Gary provided for the flight.
You've got a checklist to read, so on comes the avionics master, lighting
up the Arnav MFD and starting its power-on test cycle. The avionics master
also launches the STEC System 55 autopilot and the Garmin GNS 430 GPS/Nav/Comm/ILS
receiver. The combination gives the pilot display options and redundancy that
new and old airplanes increasingly are getting. As we ran through the Arnav's
checklist, we toggled between screens that let us see graphs of the
Continental warming. Pretty slick.
You can load your flight plan, make your radio calls, and by the time
you're done the engine is ready to taxi to takeoff position. The Cirrus's
castering nose gear requires differential braking to steer, a trait shared
with the Diamond DA40 Star and the Lancair Columbia 300. On the Cirrus, the
nose-gear geometry and main-gear track make for easy steering; once rolling,
the SR20 needs little power to move, so the differential braking need not slow
the plane's progress just nudge it from one direction to another.
Run-up brings me to another one of the SR20's unique touches: an
interconnect between the throttle and prop controls. Cirrus nodded yet again
at demand for more-modern equipment and newcomers to general aviation. Instead
of three engine controls throttle, prop and mixture the SR20 uses only
two, just like an airplane with a fixed-pitch prop up front. The system works
well enough, as I'll address in a moment. For now, let it suffice to say that
anyone used to three will probably adapt quickly.
for the "side-mounted yokes" Cirrus' engineers designed into the
SR20. They are a little different. They extend from the lower left and lower
right corners of the panel and at first glance look like side sticks. They're
not. They rotate left and right, like conventional panel-mounted yokes.
Likewise, they slide fore and aft, in and out of the panel. Again, adapting
should prove no problem, unless getting used to a completely unobstructed
panel and seat area proves tough on some pilots. Not for me.
As different as the SR20's panel is, sitting in front of it brings none of
the sobering sense that accompanies a remaining step on the checklist, one
that is singularly Cirrus: opening a transparent overhead cover and pulling
the safety pin from the red parachute-deployment handle. The process of
unsafetying the CAPS forces something of a mental confrontation with the
attitude with which we generally fly, one that whispers to the pilot,
"nothing will go wrong." It's an attitude that flies in the face of
the very real and deep understanding that things sometimes go awry. And for
anyone who has tried to carry on a conversation with me between the drive to
the airport and leveling at cruise altitude can testify, my focus is usually
on the various steps required to ensure a safe flight, not on the unpleasant
Taxiing the SR20 out of its parking spot and to the departure point gave me
just enough time to develop a solid feel for controlling direction with the
toe brakes and the castering nose gear. Although the Diamond DA40 and the
Lancair Columbia 300 also sport a castering nose gear, the geometry of nose
wheel and feel of the brakes differ enough to make each an individual learning
experience. My expectation is that some pilots may trick themselves into
thinking differential braking is an inferior system to nose-wheel steering;
for me, it's a mental matter: Just remember how this one steers. Practice, of
course, helps. The SR20 made it easy; the low taxi power needed should be easy
on the brakes if you're concerned about budgeting for brake pads.
SR20 Gives Top Performance, Demands Some Attention
for departure, the toe brakes locked, the IO-360-ES spools quickly to its
2,700-rpm redline and settles into a roar slightly audible through the
LightSPEEDs. When the brakes came off, we fairly leaped forward with a slight
tendency to wander left. Between engine torque and a quartering right
crosswind, who could expect less. As it worked out, the SR20 needed less right
brake than my expectations, largely because the SR20's powerful rudder came
into play before we hit 40 knots indicated. The rudder became effective in
time for me to slide my feet off the top of the rudder pedals and rest my
heels on the floor, making steering corrections with my toes alone. Less than
20 seconds into the roll, with a little more nose-up trim than Gary
recommended, the SR20 fairly flew itself off the runway. As the airspeed
settled at 90 knots, the rate-of-climb needle ran quickly up to the 1,200 FPM
mark. Less than a minute and already the SR20 feels aggressive, muscular even.
Hitting the two-axis trim switch on top of the port-side single-hand yoke
displaced the yoke proportionally. You can watch the trim setting move, thanks
to reference marks embossed into the yoke's push-pull shaft. Applying aileron
trim similarly displaced the yoke handle in the roll axis. In under a minute,
the SR20 allowed me to trim for a cruise climb of 900 FPM at just over 100
KIAS and to hold heading against a crosswind with the aileron trim.
The SR20 showed itself an eager mount within the first five minutes,
anxious to fly, to get high and move on down the road. In the time the SR20
needed to gobble up the runway, it responded easily during my first attempt to
trim it out and level off at 5,500 MSL. If the Diamond
DA40 Star responds like a compact car and the Columbia like a luxury
sedan, this SR20 responds like a sports coupe less than a fighter or
out-and-out akro mount, but much lighter in its feel than I expected for our
2,700-pound weight (200 pounds under the 2,900 maximum gross weight). Roll
reversals, 45-degrees to 45-degrees, happened in under four seconds ... with
enough yoke feed-back pressure to know you're overcoming the bird's natural
dynamic stability. Likewise, slowing to and flying through a stall let you
know you were pushing the envelope a bit by the work your wrist performs.
Using full-aft pitch trim relieved most of the control forces, but not to the
extent that anyone should ever accidentally stall an SR20.
In fact, the Cirrus provides quite a nice wide margin of aerodynamic buffet
prior to stall plenty enough to feel what's about to happen even before the
warning horn sounds. The same applies equally during stalls in turns as well
as stalls straight ahead. Either way, the slightest relaxation of aft pressure
brought the wings back from stall, power-on or power-off. Between the precise,
tactile handling and the pronounced stall-warning envelope, mastering this
machine should hardly be less taxing physically, nor more so mentally.
More than any of the 60-odd planes I've flown in the past six years, the
SR20 challenges the Bonanza's claim as the handling and control-harmony
standard-bearer. You want to fly a specific bank angle and pitch setting? Dial
them in and relax; up to 30 degrees, at any speed or power I used, the SR20
clung to the turn, as eager to please as it was to change what it took to
this point, a careful reader might wonder at the reason for my earlier
comments about a slippery airplane and the need to stay ahead of it. It's
fairly simple: Not only will the SR20 change direction with little more than a
deliberate thought, it also accelerates quicker than most other machines in
its horsepower class or power-to-weight class, as well, for that matter.
The SR20 also seems anxious to accelerate, moving quickly beyond an indicated
160 knots at 75-percent power and 5,500 feet. That's not 10 knots off the
cruise speed of a 300-horse Bonanza. Conversely, the SR20 seems a bit
unwilling to slow down. Of course, airplanes that resist slowing are hardly
new or newsworthy, as a class. But this is one airplane that likes to go fast
and it shows, as anyone observing my first arrival in a traffic pattern
Few of the aerodynamically clean singles fall into anything approaching the
entry-level bracket and none that come to mind are fixed-gear machines like
the SR20. Though also prone to staying fast, the Columbia 300 slowed with more
urgency but mainly because of its speed brakes. The Diamond, fast though it
is for its power, demanded much less planning for descents. Other planes known
for their slippery nature generally suffer that problem only while their
wheels are tucked up inside their wings. Once below gear-extension speed, you
can throw out the "air brakes" by throwing down the gear handle.
Not so on fixed-gear planes, as the SR20 was showing dramatically. My
misjudgments could have made for a tough spot for Gary, who warned me about
over rotation on takeoff, about slowing down, and about blowing the first
landing. "Just about everybody gets 'em wrong the first time the plane
just flies so responsively," he warned me. After pleasantly surprising
Gary with a near-perfect first launch thanks to an old trick taught to me
by a production test pilot my goal was to earn equal respect with the
quality of my first landing. Things didn't look good with that misjudgment in
slowing the SR20.
On my first descent for landing, the SR20 and me pretty much blew our
target altitude as we arrived at the entry to the downwind leg. Part of my
judgment problem stemmed from not yet understanding the single-level
throttle/prop control set-up. To help you get a feel for the system, let me
try this description.
at full throttle, the linkage sets the prop governor up for full rpm; as you
retard the throttle, the governor keeps the rpm maximum until, that is, the
throttle comes back to about 24 to 25 inches of manifold pressure. At that
point, the governor brings rpm down to between 2,400 to 2,200. To produce 75
percent power for the manifold pressure; pull the throttle back more and rpm
raises toward redline, until the throttle comes back to closed, manifold
pressure drops and rpm falls to idle.
For that first approach, 500 feet high though we were, my solution was to
practice one of my favorite maneuvers: the slip. Nothing helps correct excess
altitude better than a slip, and in the SR20, the slip was particularly
effective, giving me a descent rate of 1,000 FPM at around 75 KIAS. In the
short distance between turning final and the runway threshold, the SR20 let me
slip away about 1,300 feet with no sense of excess speed, excess descent rate,
or insufficient control. Gary seemed anxious to take back the airplane, but he
resisted the urge and let me dig myself out of my hole.
And what I wouldn't have given to have video of this one. As the altimeter
unwound to within 75 feet of the runway, my right foot eased off the rudder
pedal and my left hand brought the left wing up to level all while trimming
the nose up to 60 KIAS with landing flaps deployed. Continuing to add nose-up
trim while resisting the trim change with my left hand let the SR20
descend to within 10 feet of the runway. That's when I eased off the yoke and
let the nose gradually rise toward the full-up trim setting applied. With
little more than the rumbling of wheels in pants, the SR20 squeaked to a
touchdown, right wheel slightly ahead of the left to counter a right
crosswind. The nose stayed high until time came to ease it to the pavement.
On my second attempt at a pattern, my feel for the throttle/prop linkage
improved and the SR20 delivered me to pattern altitude right on target. Flying
a slightly longer downwind leg allowed me to play with a slower approach speed
using a bit more power. It seemed possible to drag the SR20 down the entire
glideslope at 60 knots without suffering any mushiness in the controls or
any tendency to wander around its longitudinal axis. This one worked out with
a touchdown point just beyond the threshold marks. On the third approach, my
feel for the SR20's throttle-prop combo control improved to the point that I
could manage my descent angle with power alone, allowing me another smooth
Cirrus' control geometry and the SR20's harmony keeps the pilot connected
to the airplane at all speeds, power settings and flight attitudes. For many
buyers, though, ones who won't hop from plane-to-plane-to-plane like some
airplane bums we know, adapting to the SR20 will pose no more long-term
challenges or problems than those faced by Bonanza, Mooney and Malibu pilots
and they have two extra controls that the SR20 lacks: Propeller and landing
gear lever. No one should have trouble never learning what they're not
Going Places In Comfort, With Style, Efficiently
between the highly manageable challenges of launching and landing the SR20
comes the most fun of flying fast getting from some Point A to a distant
Point B. Whether the distances between are 55 nm to a monthly fly-in
breakfast, or 955 nm to a business destination, the SR20 fairly coddles its
users. The seats, whether standard cloth or the upgraded leather, support
firmly and evenly. Even after well over an hour aloft, no gnawing discomfort
ever prompted me to shift around in the 26-G seat they're that comfortable.
The belts don't interfere with reaching all the important controls, mostly
because the circuit breakers and controls are well placed and easy to find.
The view out the SR20's generous windows nearly matches that of the Diamond
DA40 Star and easily beats the Columbia's, which is handicapped by frames
and posts far thicker than those on the other two plastic planes.
Still, while I've addressed payload and range comparisons, I owe you more.
Consider this: 200 HP, a cabin nearly 50 inches wide and 160 knots on just 10
gallons an hour. That's very high on the efficiency scale these days. Thank
the efficiency of the SR20 design; the match of the prop and powerplant, the
cleverness of the exterior fittings and access hatches and the cleanness of
the finish. Understanding Cirrus' teamwork is the only way to explain how the
SR20 can cover 800 nautical miles on only 60 gallons of fuel minus
Regardless of a pilot's feelings about flying something with its own
second-chance system, the SR20 provides the sort of value and performance that
warrants the attention of anyone interested in flying at the fastest speed
possible for the dollar. After clearing that bar, you can just consider the
CAPS installation a value-added bonus, or icing on the cake.
What Hath Cirrus Wrought?
Consider this final, more-interesting question: Will a general aviation
industry that questioned whether Cirrus was up to the task of creating from
scratch an all-composite, fuel-efficient traveling machine catch up to what
Cirrus has proven possible? If past practice proves true, my money's on the
industry turning toward the same heading as it's done every time someone
else proved the impossible possible. Just look at Raytheon's return to
composites for its newest business jet designs, at the adoption of more and
more composite parts at other factories and at the industry's history of
co-opting the best of what its participants develop. Clearly, the industry
continues to mature. The talent is out there; ditto for the ideas and the
interest. Ultimately, it's down to waiting on someone else with the will to be
as daring as Cirrus. And, eventually, little of the state of the art that
Cirrus advanced will seem different only smart.
This AVweb Pilot Report on
the Cirrus SR20 is the second in a four-part series on three
new-production, all-composite IFR single-engine airplanes. In
addition to the SR20, AVweb has flown the Diamond
DA40 Star and the Lancair Columbia 300. AVweb will
publish the articles on the other airplanes two weeks apart, then
conclude this series with a wrap-up piece another two weeks later.