Plastic Planes, Part Two: The Cirrus SR20

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.


In 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 whisper.

Sure, 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 better?

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 AReason

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.

Ultimately, 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

Several 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.

For 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.

My 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 flying in.

The 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.

Ditto 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 alternative.

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

Cleared 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 please.

At 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 would attest.

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.

First, 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 touchdown.

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 missing.

Going Places In Comfort, With Style, Efficiently

In 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 reserves.

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.

Editor’s Note

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. Stay tuned!