Back in February 2009, I went to the Cirrus Aircraft HQ in Duluth, Minnesota for two reasons. First, to fly the latest version of the company’s hugely successful SR22 single-engine piston aircraft. Second, to interview whoever we could, on video, about the Cirrus Vision SF50 jet, then into its third year of development.
We ended up talking to Mike Van Staagen, then Chief Designer at Cirrus (and now working on a two-seat amphibious aircraft called MVP). Mike was really open about how the design of the Cirrus Jet came about, how it was built around the pilot, the different experiences pilot and passengers would have, and safety, the all-important factor in aviation.
An awful lot has changed at Cirrus since then. The two brothers who started the company, Alan and Dale Klapmeier, have fallen out, the details of which have never been publicly revealed. Alan, always thought to have been the driving force, left the company and Dale stepped up to front Cirrus – and has made a success of the role ever since.
An injection of fresh money followed acquisition by the China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA) company in 2011, and since then development of the Cirrus Vision SF50 Jet has continued apace. Now, a decade after the idea was first floated by Cirrus, the Vision Jet is at the end of the long and winding road known as type certification.
The all-important US Type Certification was awarded to the Cirrus Vision SF50 jet on 30 October 2016, on the eve of the annual NBAA business aviation show in Florida, USA. Type certification will enable Cirrus to start delivering the US$1.96 million production aircraft to more than 600 back orders.
Seven months later, at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) held at Geneva each year, Cirrus received the European Type Certificate from EASA for the Vision Jet. The first one for a buyer in Europe was flown over especially for EBACE and was on display.
It’s no mean feat Cirrus has pulled off getting this far. Back in the mid-2000s, several manufacturers announced single-engine ‘personal’ jet aircraft projects including Diamond Aircraft, Piper, Eclipse and Epic. All have walked away from the idea in the intervening years. Too hard, too much money needed, uncertainty over the market potential… all sorts of reasons. Only Cirrus has stuck with the idea.
So what is the Cirrus Vision jet and why is it such an important aircraft? It’s been designed from the outset as a ‘personal’ jet, one that could be flown by ordinary private pilots, albeit ones who have been through the type-rating course and who will have a fair amount of experience in high performance, complex piston aircraft – such as the SR22.
The single jet engine is a Williams International FJ33-5A turbofan producing 1,800 pounds of thrust. It is located towards the rear of the aircraft’s fuselage, angled slightly downwards and aiming the jet thrust between the V-tail.
Final performance figures include a maximum cruise speed of 300 knots (kt) and a maximum range of 1,250 nautical miles (nm). The maximum operating altitude (commonly called ‘ceiling’) is 28,000 feet which is nowhere near the cruising altitude of airliners, far below the latest bizjets, and less than one of its rivals, the Daher TBM 930 single-engine turboprop. However, 28,000ft is pretty high for anyone coming from a piston aircraft! The point about altitude is that up where the air is thinner, the aircraft flies faster for less fuel, and hopefully will be above the worst weather.
The Vision jet is also a decent short-field performer meaning it can operate from smaller airfields. Takeoff distance is 620 metres and it can land in 525 metres. Both figures are down to the slow-ish stall speed of 67 knots when the wing flaps are fully deployed. Flaps change the shape and area of the wing for slow speed flying, such as takeoff and landing. The Cirrus Vision jet will also climb at a decent 2000 feet per minute, better than most piston aircraft.
From the videos I’ve seen, and demo aircraft at shows, the Vision Jet appears easy to land. It has chunky trailing link undercarriage which should flatter most pilots with its ability to soak up a thump or two, and keep it tracking straight.
Inside, the Vision Jet is a masterpiece of design. The pilot has the best position of course with the instrument panel and flight controls angled towards him or her. It has the very latest cockpit based on Garmin’s G3000 flightdeck which has two large screens, one called the Primary Flight Display (PFD) and the other a Multi Function Display (MFD). The PFD has all the main instruments required for flight such as the Artificial Horizon (also known as the Attitude Indicator), airspeed, vertical speed, and Turn and Slip indicators.
The Artificial Horizon is not only right across the display, making it easy to understand what’s happening, but it’s also overlaid on what Garmin calls Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT). SVT has been around a few years now but every time I fly behind such a display, I’m amazed how good it is. Simply, the flight deck has a database of every detail of the terrain and produces a synthetic view of that terrain. GPS tells it exactly where the aircraft is so even if cloud is covering a hilltop, you can see it on the display.
Cirrus has long used side sticks, mounted on the window sill, and the advantage is the room they free up in front of the pilot. No yoke (as in Cessnas and Pipers), no central control stick between the legs (as in Diamond and Robin aircraft). Having said that, I do prefer a central stick – it’s a more intuitive way to fly. Also, the idea of side sticks to free up space dates back to when pilots needed paper charts for navigation – these days, Cirrus pilots have amazing electronic moving map displays.
The Vision jet has the ability to be a family aircraft, with seating for a total of seven – five adults plus two little ones – though filling all the places will compromise the aircraft on how much luggage and fuel can be carried. Weight and balance (ie, where the weight is located) is still a vital pre-flight calculation. With a full tank of Jet-A1 kerosene, all 1120 litres, there’s only enough payload left for the pilot and one passenger. With five seats filled with adults, you can carry enough fuel for a flight of 600nm at 300kt, ie two hours in the air.
That kind of payload compromise has always been a part of aviation, and doesn’t distract from what promises to be an extraordinary aircraft.
Oh, did I mention the Vision jet has its own all-aircraft emergency parachute system? Cirrus has always included this on its aircraft and the company says it has saved around 130 lives so far. That figure is open to some debate because pilots have successfully been making forced (emergency) landings without the parachute system for years.
However, there’s no doubt the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) is a great extra tool for the pilot to have. Faced with engine failure over difficult terrain or, say, part of the wing coming loose (yes, it has happened), then being able to pull the ‘chute and float down, knowing you and your passengers will be safe if a bit shaken, is priceless.
Bring it on Cirrus. Can’t wait!