Cirrus Nails The Jet
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.