Cirrus Nails The Jet

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I'm just back from a few days at the Cirrus factory in Duluth, delivered back home via the company's new SF50 Vision Jet, and I'll immediately unpack this first impression: It's no exaggeration to say that the Vision Jet is a fugitive from the law of averages. It's not much to be impressed with how well Cirrus executed the airplane so much as it is to be awed that the thing exists at all. In case you've forgotten the history, the Vision Jet's gestation was long—most of a decade, depending on when you hack the start point—and it survived a downturn that did in a long list of would-be competitors, including the Eclipse 500, Diamond's D-jet, the PiperJet and to name a few you can't even remember, the Safire, the AdamJet, the Vantage and the Sport Jet. To be accurate, the Great Recession wasn't necessarily the accelerant that burned all these projects, but it didn't help. Not all those airplanes were necessarily competitors either, at least as Cirrus sees it.

What resurrected the Vision Jet from an uncertain future was an infusion of Chinese capital in 2011 and, maybe, the fact that sliding the project to a rear burner for a while kept it from eating the company alive and allowed Cirrus to focus unerringly on exactly what the SF50 was supposed to be: a kerosene-burning step-up from the popular SR22 that goes faster, flies higher and carries more but isn't so fast as to likely kill a pilot unblessed by Sully-on-Hudson reflexes. Commendably, Cirrus didn't stray from that design brief and although the SF50 is the most technologically advanced airplane I've encountered and probably in the entire light end of the GA fleet, the company seems to have resisted larding the thing up with features that don't serve its primary mission of transporting owners who need to go places with as much safety, efficiency and comfort as possible. The airplane does exactly that. And having hung around the factory for most of two days shooting video for a feature on Cirrus aircraft production, my fellow editor Larry Anglisano and I both sensed that even though Cirrus has 600 orders for the Vision Jet, there's a discernible wariness about getting too greedy and over-expanding the factory, only to have the next recession knock the pins out again.

I'll have a long-form video report on the SF50 in about a week, but my initial impression of the airplane is that it's about as well executed to do the job it's supposed to do as is possible. Unrelated to how it flies, it has one overarching feature that drives a favorable impression: cabin size and accessibility. The single-entry door is biased aft, although it's not really a mid-cabin entrance. That makes the two center-row seats easily accessible and the cabin is so high, it's easy to get into them. The two front seaters can squeeze through an aisle or slide the pilot's seat all the way to the mid-door line and enter that way. It's the first small airplane I've seen to creatively address in detail the fact that small airplanes are a pain in the ass to ingress and egress. There's a huge amount of open floor space between the front and rear seats. While Larry was flying one leg, I had all my camera crap in piles on the floor and there was room to spare. This capaciousness accrues from the airplane’s bulbous, egg-shaped profile. Paraphrasing Meghan Trainor, this ain’t no stick-figure-Barbie-Doll of an airframe.

The cabin has good climate control, nice courtesy lighting and USB charging ports. The windows are enormous and well-placed, so the views are spectacular. And spectacular doesn't begin to do justice to the view from the left seat, whose windshield wraps well past your shoulders and is only restrictive for a windshield center post. I can easily see how pilots could miss radio calls for being enthralled by the view. I sure did.

As airplanes have gotten faster and more sophisticated, a fuzzy line has emerged between flying and operating. I first heard the argument during the 1980s when pilots who came up on piston airliners were typing in the 757/767, the wedge that led to the modern automated cockpit. Flying was feeling the air, operating was programming that had the machine do most of the work and some of the thinking. Cirrus has embraced that ethos with the highly automated SR line and the Vision Jet advances it further with Garmin's G3000 suite. It doesn't exactly think for itself, but seems to. When the G1000 arrived, some pilots were so dazzled by it that it seemed like they were viewing the airplane merely as a means to move the avionics around to see how the magenta line danced over the scrolling virtual terrain.

Not so much with the SF50. The airplane itself is no afterthought and anyone who's paying attention will understand there's more going on here than glittery touch screens. Small and light as it is and with 1800 pounds of thrust from a Williams FJ33-5A, a ramp view of the Vision Jet may convey a sports car fantasy. That would be misplaced. It's heavy on the controls, especially in pitch, and takes concentration to hand fly well. I bumped the autopilot off for a while and hand flew it at FL270. That's imminently doable, but I wouldn't want to do much of it. Similarly, a few hundred feet into a 400-foot overcast out of Duluth, Cirrus SF50 program director Matt Bergwall had me engage the autopilot and thus flying transitioned to operating. I'm sure owners will fly the airplane this way because that's the way it's designed to be flown. I might change that view of hand flying after more hours in the airplane. Initial impressions fade with familiarly. The properly trained Vision Jet pilot will have to be immersed comfortably in the G3000's guts and Cirrus aims to make sure they are with a training program steeped in nearly two decades of experience with SRs, much of it acquired through a difficult early accident history.

The Vision Jet does what Cirrus says it would do. When it was first announced, the company playfully said it would be the lowest, slowest and cheapest jet. It is. But now the promotional copy says “you can fly farther, faster, higher, carrying more people and cargo.” So which is it? That first description was minted when there were a dozen contenders and Cirrus saw marketing gold in anchoring the bottom of the range with a modest everyman’s jet. They’ve since inverted the solution, refocusing on the SF50 as a logical step-up for SR22 owners hungering for more performance. That it’s cheaper to own and operate than a Phenom or a Cessna Mustang is a given no longer worthy of bold-type mention, but I won’t be surprised if Cirrus finds quite a few buyers for the Vision Jet stepping down from larger jets just as some LSA manufacturers find some step-downs from the SR22. By now, the TBM, the PC-12 and Piper Meridian have proven that fears of single-engine reliability and safety materially affecting the accident rate have mostly been misplaced. And the Vision Jet can at least offset that with the CAPS option. On the bizjet ramp at Pontiac, Michigan, the Vision Jet got a lot of admiring attention, including one bizjet pilot who actually knocked on the cabin door after we’d buttoned up to depart on a second leg.

How fast, they always ask. Cirrus says 300 knots in standard conditions and that’s about right. On an ISA +15 day at FL 270, we saw what the book said we should: about 270 TAS flowing 57 GPH. Leaving at least an hour reserve in the tanks (296 gallons usable), the Vision Jet is a 1000-mile still-air airplane, carrying 400 pounds with full fuel. With four or five people and stuff, it’s obviously less. Back the throttle off and it will go another hundred miles or so. Two people trades for nearly an hour of fuel and 250 to 300 miles of range. Cirrus figures most owners will fly the airplane with one or two aboard, just as they do with the SR22. With the same hour in reserve, the SR22T will fly just over 800 miles, but nearly 100 knots slower, 8000 feet lower and with 100 pounds less in the cabin. So there’s your step-up Delta. It’s not that much in raw numbers, but on many trips it will mean one leg instead of two and four hours door-to-door instead of six or seven. And topping weather rather than slogging through it or just not going at all. But the raw numbers don’t account for raw emotional allure; it’s a jet peeps, a jet.

So the Vision Jet is certainly a survivor, but is it a great airplane or just a good airplane? If the measure of greatness isn’t defined by absolute speed, pure efficiency or herculean payload, but of how well the design resonates with the intended buyer, the Vision Jet is both a great airplane and a significant one. It’s great because I think SR22 owners will swoon over this thing and significant because it represents a class of its own, expanding practical (if not cheap) jet ownership downward. At a typical invoice of $2.1 million, the Vision Jet is the least expensive jet out there and on a speed vs. dollars matrix, it more than holds its own against whatever competition it has in the low-and-slow tier, and that’s basically nothing in the turbojet category. Piper’s M600 turboprop comes closest, I’d guess.

The more intriguing question is what comes next for Cirrus. Aircraft companies never prosper without expanding the model line and that will be a trick with the Vision Jet. I’m not sure making it bigger or faster will achieve much and adding another engine would defeat the Cirrus claim of affordable accessibility. My guess—and no one suggested this either on or off the record—is the obvious. Somewhere on a whiteboard in Duluth, I’m guessing, is a plan to add autoland and eventually semi-autonomy, manned autonomy or whatever the hell you want to call an airplane that flies itself with minimal human intervention. As we’ve reported, Diamond has already tested this concept and I can’t imagine others aren’t looking at it.

When that happens, we can have another round of hand-wringing about how piloting skills are going to pot and that things just aren’t the way they used to be. But then the Vision Jet sort of proves that’s already true.

Comments (20)

"Cirrus Nails The Jet" (and ,01% of .01% will be able to buy it). As much as I like the design and the execution; reality is that $2+ million puts it out of the realm of General Aviation. Honestly, if I had $2 million I'd buy a B-25H and a few spare engines and have $500K left over.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 20, 2017 8:58 PM    Report this comment

Price started at $1.3 million now it's $2.1 million. Wife won't go for it.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 20, 2017 11:22 PM    Report this comment

Mark, I could never afford an aircraft carrier, but I'm sill impressed by the newest Ford-class. Progress is progress, sometimes it's trickle up and sometimes it's trickle down. If nothing else, Cirrus has made it clear to other aircraft companies that you can't just keep stamping out tired, uncomfortable, user-unfriendly models and expect everyone to buy them. Bringing DESIGN to general aviation is an important step in aviation's evolution.

And anyway, Sonex will put you behind the controls of a jet for less than 10% of a SF50!

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | August 20, 2017 11:33 PM    Report this comment

There are some aviation journalists - Peter Garrison is one, Paul Bertorelli is another - whom I just love to read. It's not just their insight, but the way they put it across. This is the best summary of the Vision Jet I've read. I don't have $2m to spend either, but I'm thrilled that Cirrus has pulled this off so well.

Posted by: Bob Gilchrist | August 21, 2017 2:01 AM    Report this comment

"Autoland," ... "Semi-autonomy" ... "manned autonomy" ... "minimal intervention" ... Yars, did ya read THAT? Get your checkbook out and calm yourself down!

I saw the thing at Airventure ... it does look kinda egg shaped and has out-of-the-ordinary dimensions ... reminded me of a Questair Venture and Spirit on steroids. I can't afford one either (ADS-B was bad enough) but it's fun to let my Walter Mitty alter ego run rampant imagining myself a widely followed aviation journalist who got a free ride home on one. No wonder it was a week in between blogs this cycle.

So what kind of penalty in cost and performance does CAPS add to the thing?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 21, 2017 6:35 AM    Report this comment

"So what kind of penalty in cost and performance does CAPS add to the thing?"

If it's anything like the success of CAPS in the SRs, it doesn't matter the technical cost and performance, since the "non-pilot factor" (or the less politically-correct "wife factor") more than makes up for it. I'm sure it does incur some sort of penalty, but being designed from the start with it in mind, it could also be a case like the SRs where they would actually be slower with retractable gear (since it wasn't originally designed that way).


All jets and turboprops are way outside of my reach for ownership--and in fact, so is any new aircraft, let alone an SR22T--but seeing the SF50 finally making it to market still impresses me. I sat in mockups of the SF50, Diamond D-Jet, and PiperJet at an AOPA convention and have pretty much been following them from the start. The SF50 (only it wasn't called that at the time) certainly was the inferior one on paper (I liked the D-Jet the most), but when the other ones started dropping out, I suspected Cirrus might still be able to pull it off, because they weren't trying for the moon with it.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 21, 2017 8:10 AM    Report this comment

If Cirrus has any sense the next thing will be a new flight school (with or without a new plane). The way to sell more planes is to create more enthusiasts who, even if they can't afford to buy, become members of the community. If manufacturers want to keep watching the buyer pool shrink, they should just keep the school experience exactly like it is.

Posted by: Eric Warren | August 21, 2017 9:20 AM    Report this comment

The CAPS weighs about 125 pounds. That's 19 gallons of fuel or 20 minutes endurance. It does help with CG because it offsets the engine weight aft.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 21, 2017 10:16 AM    Report this comment

The CAPS is three times larger than on the SR22s and it is optional for the SF50. I assume that the engine would have to be shut down prior to deployment - what is the procedure?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 21, 2017 10:40 AM    Report this comment

Just pull the handle. Whether it's engaged or not, the autopilot has limited autothrottle authority to idle the throttle and slow the airplane to the 143-knot deployment limit, if isn't already at or below that. Then the system deploys.

The POH talks more about off-airport or emergency landings than it does deploying the CAPS as a high-priority choice.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 21, 2017 11:36 AM    Report this comment

An honest assessment of the weight of the CAPS includes all of its associated airframe accommodations, which include drag-surface tear-aways and c-channel beds for the lanyards; hard-point reinforcements; consequent increases in the weight of the affected pressure vessel; associated hatches and fasteners; and the mounting structure for the deployment airbag and the canopy.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | August 21, 2017 11:46 AM    Report this comment

Oh gosh, I'm not even a pilot really, unless you count my lapsed student certificate. I can't afford a Vision, like most people out there. But I'm reminded of one thing: define the mission before you buy the plane. My guess is that most people's missions would preclude buying a jet in the first place. But maybe what Cirrus has done has been to create a product that advances the, so to speak, "Vision". Personally, if I had the need (and I don't) or the mission (and I don't her either), but if I did, I think a Beech Premier 1a would be just dandy.

Posted by: Richard Katz | August 22, 2017 6:29 AM    Report this comment

Paul - DC3 flights one day, SF50 the next... I'm green with envy!

Great write up. Thank you. Looking forward to the videos.

Posted by: Jim Hausch | August 22, 2017 8:51 AM    Report this comment

With regard to the weight penalties for the CAPS system, the same issues were addressed in the SR-20 and 22, and it does not seem to have affected their performance or popularity. If it is designed in from the start, much of the additional weight can be minimized. Cirrus took the system and made it a marketing tool which has helped their sales, rather than being viewed as a payload penalty issue.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 22, 2017 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I don't know what the weight penalty of my car's airbags, crumple zones and seat belts are... but I happy to pay whatever price they impose! Honestly, I think the FAA should be MUCH more stringent on safety and noise requirements for GA: things like airbags, BRS and fire-resistant fuel tanks should be mandatory at this point. If stall/spins are still killing people, the FAA should just require stall and spin resistant designs.

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | August 22, 2017 1:27 PM    Report this comment

Part 1

Like many, I have followed Cirrus' Personal Jet program progress from its publicly-announced beginning. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm actually a willing candidate to buy and operate one of these things - IF my engineering firm's latest software spinoff gets picked up by the VCs (I'm expecting that NOT to happen).

By and large, Cirrus' ultimate product retained a remarkable degree of fidelity to their original design objectives, statements, and decisions - both for the better and for the worse.

I'm both opinionated and open-minded. The former may be a consequence of more than 40 years of successful design engineering, mostly on bleeding-edge projects. The latter comes from my acknowledgement that what I know is outweighed 100-to-1 by what I've yet to learn.

IMWO, the Vision's number-one virtue is its unrivaled cabin comfort. I'm 6'-3" tall, with a 30" inseam, so headroom is a necessity for me. In most GA birds, headroom comes courtesy of being forced to sit on a cushion on the floor. The Vision cockpit is the most comfortable one I've sat in, this side of a C-5 - and I've sat in just about everything from a Galaxy to a Skycatcher.

The air-stair entry door is pure genius! Haven't looked at the seals yet...

The cockpit visibility is excellent - except for that ugly windscreen center post. I would have elected to take the plastic straight up the two sides and over-the-top, but I wasn't on the project, so...

There's a fine line between stubbornness and prudence. Early decisions-with-a-capital-D can provide discipline-via-constraints. Or they can box you in and force you to make consequent compromises that you really could do without.

Continued in Part 2

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | August 22, 2017 5:51 PM    Report this comment

Part 2

Single-engine? Good choice. The Williams FJ-33? Maybe not. It's a good engine, but with Cirrus' selection of its biggest (dash 5) variant, there's no available or contemplated within-family growth path. Remember, the biggest FJ-33 originally was supposed to offer just short of 2,000 pounds of thrust; the ultimate certificated version delivers just over 1,800. Employing the smallest FJ-44 would have addressed this self-imposed constraint, albeit at a slight penalty in weight and cost, but it would have provided a lot of step-up options within the FJ-44 family of tested, reliable engines. Disciplined constraint, or needless box-in?

S-ducts? They're common and very well-understood. But they were "eliminated" as a design choice, quite early in the process, in favor of a simpler straight-through design. But then came the consequences, which included a series of limited thrust-vectoring schemes to address the unfortunate degree of non-parallelism between the as-mounted thrust axis of the straight-through design and the longitudinal axis of the vehicle.

Tail configuration? I know that the design team considered several options - each of which had to provide immunity from the exhaust of the single turbofan engine. A bias (no pejorative intent) for composites in lieu of metals also influenced those design decisions. And there was an early desire/decision to constrain the overall shape of the vehicle so as to allow it to fit - barely - in a standard 40-foot T-hangar. Ultimately, a "sexy" V-tail configuration (think Bonanza or even YF-23) won out over a "stodgy" H-tail one (think Ercoupe). But V-tails can have unhappy handling characteristics (read: "Dutch roll") as a consequence of less-than-wonderful de-coupling of pitch and yaw authorities. Depending on the span and the included angle of the two members, roll behavior can be affected, too. Then came the ventral fins...

Typically, ventrals are employed to address high-alpha flight behavior issues. The Vision's original ventral fins were re-designed in time for the three C-series test birds. In the videos that I saw, the Dutch roll behavior of the new design was FAR worse than that of the original configuration. Ultimately, Cirrus added active control surfaces to the ventrals, which has the result of giving the Vision an X-tail design.

Continued in Part 3

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | August 22, 2017 5:52 PM    Report this comment

Part 3

By way of serendipity or camouflage, the ventral control surfaces are ceded to the yaw damper; the V-tail surfaces are the domain of the pilot and autopilot proper. All I know is, the X-tail configuration adds weight, complexity, and cost. I suspect - but can't know - that an H-tail configuration would have been superior.

The free-castering nosewheel? I suppose that "if it's good enough for the SR-2x birds..." Let's hope that the Vision's brakes don't suffer from the same shortcomings that befell the Eclipse. "Can't stop" is bad enough. "Can't steer" arguably is even worse.

The avionics are a singular achievement. If only Cirrus/Garmin had put half as much effort into an autoland ("electronic parachute," as Diamond likes to call it) capability, as was invested in the Marketing-mandated CAPS... My original comments about the SF-50's parachute system can be found at www.regulations.gov/document?D=FAA-2016-3462-0012

I'd gladly trade the CAPS for its (real) weight in jet fuel. I've learned that there are headwinds out there...

FL280? Not sure where that came from - we've already seen G3000-equipped vehicles attain RVSM certification. Is it thrust limitations? Pressure-vessel critical-altitude limitations? As I recall ( ? ) the quick-don mask requirement doesn't kick in until FL 350. In any event, another 13,000 feet of altitude would be a good thing.

I'm somewhat concerned that the ground clearance of the main gear doors is insufficient for some snowy conditions. I know - the Vision was birthed in Duluth...

The Vision is an amazing value. I can't figure out how they can make a dime at the published selling price.

Will the Vision be a success? I think that it will, although the 18,000-foot limitation of BasicMed (thanks, ALPA!) can't be helpful. It really is in a class by itself. Given that it currently is priced at not much more than 2x the cost of a new SR-22, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Vision cannibalize sales of those piston-engine birds. Seriously.

If my need emerges, I'll gladly buy one. If not, I won't. I doubt that many who do will be disappointed. This bird is worthy of a Collier. Seriously.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | August 22, 2017 5:52 PM    Report this comment

Collier award. I agree Tom, I think the SF50 is a good prospect for it. It is an exciting aircraft.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 22, 2017 10:33 PM    Report this comment

Awesomeness is rare, especially when you're a journalist...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | August 23, 2017 7:33 AM    Report this comment

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