The Arrow and Archer are dead. Some Mooneys may have to go on life support. The Socata singles are soon to be driven from the market.
Now that Cirrus design is delivering its new composite SR20, some people are actually beginning to believe that. Allowing for the usual level of hype surrounding any new airplane, our guess is theres more than a shard of truth to the claims. The SR20 looks good on paper, flies well and, most important, its in production.
If Cirrus makes it through the first year of production without major disasters, continues to deliver airplanes and develops a support organization, were hard pressed to see why anyone would see much value in any other airplane priced over $175,000 in the 180 to 200 horsepower class. The Cirrus order book seems to reflect that, with more than 350 firm buyers claimed.
When we first flew the Cirrus prototype more than two years ago, we thought it had promise, with a good combination of speed, good looks and range. We had reservations about the SR20s payload-it looked heavy to us-and the asking price has since ballooned from $144,500 to north of $200,000.
Nonetheless, in its production form, the SR20 will cruise at well over 145 knots without trying hard and will probably deliver on the advertised 160 knots. Its handling and stability is a cut above anything else in general aviation. Loadwise, its respectable, if not stellar.
Strong selling point: Safety. The ballistic parachute is standard equipment and some pilots are buying the airplane because of it. Furthermore, as in the Lancair 300 we reported on in the July issue, the SR20 is highly crashworthy.While were not ready to roll over entirely on our junkyard dog attitude, Cirrus has got this thing mostly right.
While developing what became the SR20, Cirrus Design ran a series of ads picturing a building it called Hangar X, not so modestly claiming that the future of GA was under wraps inside.
It predicted certification no later than 1997 and finally won the FAAs approval in October of 1998. Cirrus still needs to obtain an airworthiness certificate from the FAA for every airplane built until it gets a production certificate from the FAA, which should occur within months.
As noted in our previous report, the airframe is all composite save for the control surfaces, which are aluminum. Due to the seeming inability of the FAA to understand composites-despite what it learned after Beech poured staggering sums into the Starship-both the Cirrus and Lancair composite structures arent lighter than comparable aluminum. But they are significantly stronger.
The current FARs require a composite structure to be equal to aluminum in strength, even with the maximum number of undetectable voids in the composite material after curing. Assuming these guys know what theyre doing, few voids will exist so the composite structure is heroically strong, a fact confirmed by static structural tests of both the SR20 and Lancair Columbia.
The use of aluminum for control surfaces was appropriate, even though a Cirrus rep claimed aluminum was used because it holds a compound shape better than composite. Thats nonsense, of course. Cessna has used compound-curved composites on the swept-wing Citation for years.
Having seen some crashes of composite aircraft that we would generously describe as ugly, we have serious reservations about composite crashworthiness. But the Cirrus shows the most thoughtful attention to crashworthiness that weve seen in any airplane. The structure of Cirrus SR20 (and the Columbia 300) are more sophisticated and are reputed to remain in one piece during a crash. Cirrus, working with NASA, did full-scale crash testing of some prototype fuselages at NASAs Langley facility, where a number of other manufacturers airplanes have also been smacked into concrete and dirt.
The films showed that the composite fuselage absorbed impact loads in a manner similar to an aluminum structure. The cabin roof didnt spring downward so the integrity of the upper portion of the cabin space was preserved. The cabin structure includes a roll cage so its very rigid, reducing the risk of injury to occupants in the event the airplane flips after scooting off the runway.
The cabin has two doors, something we applaud; however, they curve well into the roof and open forward and up. Kind of a cross between a gullwing and conventional door. With the cabin inverted, they cant be opened. With that in mind, Cirrus prints rescue instructions upside down on the fuselage, a good idea.
As with the Columbia 300, Cirrus provides a hefty hammer to allow occupants to batter their way out of a window. The hammer is stored in the center console where it can be reached from all seats, or taken out of the airplane for other chores and forgotten, which was the case with the test airplane we flew.
As with the Columbia 300, Cirrus also had a diminutive woman chop her way out of an inverted fuselage, a task she accomplished in less than 90 seconds. Good under ideal conditions, but in a real accident? Service history will tell.
The seats are designed to absorb impact by stroking slightly and also have hard foam to attenuate vertical loads. Theyre supposedly capable of withstanding a 26G impact, although which direction that loading can be accommodated isnt clear. Four point, inertia-reel restraints are standard for all seats. Further, the shoulder harness is attached to its respective seatbelt to help minimize the moronic practice of some pilots to wear the lap strap but not the harness.
Probably the most positive aspect of impact survival is the absence of control wheels. With side sticks, the area in front of the front occupants is unobstructed, offering the additional advantage of placing instruments and switches where they can be seen.
Fuel is stored between the spars and well outboard from the fuselage. The fuel lines in the wings are behind the front spar, providing significant protection in a crash. The landing gear was designed to flex into the wing inboard of the fuel cells on a hard vertical impact.
The most controversial aspect of the SR20s crashworthiness is the ballistic parachute (Cirrus Airframe Parachute Systems or CAPS), which generates strong opinions pro and con. The system is now fully certified and a standard feature in every SR20. Yet its capabilities remain misunderstood.
In the POH, Cirrus is blunt about the effects of deployment: Occupants may be injured or killed and the airplane will probably be destroyed. Those hard facts must be balanced before yanking the handle and relinquishing your destiny to a parachute over which youll have no control.
The POH does describe the best seating position for occupants for the landing following deployment, sitting erect and placing arms on the armrests to spread the impact load over the maximum amount of body area. Still, were not convinced that the vertical loads will always be survivable. Because the power off, full flap descent rate with the stick full aft was only 800 to 900 FPM during our flight-essentially half the parachutes 1600 FPM descent rate-we would do some serious soul searching before using it.Having the parachute option in the event of structural failure is attractive, if the airplane can be slowed to the maximum deployment speed of 135 knots after parts of the airplane depart.
Then theres the maintenance issue. The repack/overhaul cycle on the CAPS is 10 years, with replacement costing about $3000 to $3500. In addition, a pair of pyrotechnic line cutters also have to be replaced every three years for about $1000. Getting at the 58-pound CAPS requires chopping plastic; the line cutters are accessible from inside the aircraft.
If the parachute proves to be a bona fide safety improvement, were all for it. If it sells airplanes by providing a sense of security for buyers, were all for that, too. And kudos to Cirrus for having the courage to be innovative.
But at this juncture, its impossible to judge the value of the parachute. Only field experience will shed light on this.
In keeping with a philosophy to make the airplane as user-friendly and safe as possible, Cirrus designed it with a single-lever power control which combines manifold pressure and RPM. Push the power lever full forward and you get maximum MP and 2700 RPM. Once power is reduced, the system commands 2500 RPM, where it remains until reduced below the prop governing range.
While we like the simplicity, most pilots seem able to learn how to operate conventional power controls and, given the choice, that would be our desire, to offer more flexibility in operating efficiency. We found that setting power requires squinting because of the small power gauges.
The exhaust system on the 180 HP Continental IO-360ES is tuned, something current research shows does improve power output. It also means the two exhaust stacks on the SR20 are unusually long. Theyre flexibly mounted to guard against damage, with springs holding them in place.
We like the fact that the flush-type fuel caps lock but we have a concern. The wing has substantial dihedral, so its likely that water leaking in through a cap will flow to the low point where it can be drained by one of the two quick drains in each tank. However, the flush caps may encourage water inflow and the cap seals will bear watching.
Payload wise, the airplanes utility is comparable to most four-place singles. Gross weight is 2900 pounds. We looked at the paperwork for a number of airplanes on the line and used an empty weight of 1970 pounds as representative for our weight and balance calculations. (To be fair, those airplanes were equipped with most available options.)
The Cirrus Web site claims a standard empty weight of 1875 pounds and a useful load of 1025 pounds. The resultant 930-pound useful load in our calculations allowed full fuel, three people and some baggage.
Given that full fuel is 60.5 gallons-56 usable-theres significant flexibility when trading off fuel for cabin loading. Working some weight and balance problems, we discovered that with just two in the front seats and full fuel, the airplane is not at the forward CG limit.
Adding about 50 pounds of baggage puts the airplane in the center of the envelope. With four 170-pounders, 100 pounds of baggage and fuel to gross weight, the airplane is one half inch forward of the aft CG limit. When we showed our calculations to Cirrus engineers, they smiled and said thats the way they planned it.
Gross weight is also maximum landing weight. Theres no zero fuel weight. In general, if youre under gross weight and put the heavy stuff forward, youll be in CG. Cirrus told us that gross weight will shortly be bumped up by at least 100 pounds without an increase in empty weight.
Forgive our cynicism, but weve spent too many years watching manufacturers work hard for tens of pounds of useful load, so well wait and see on that claim. Payload is not bad now, any improvement is icing on the cake.
In terms of range, the SR20 doesnt have long legs. On full tanks, it will outfly an Archer but finishes second to the Lancair and Mooney Eagle, to name two examples.
The SR20s interior is what youd expect in an aircraft a year and change before the end of the century (yes, we can count). Its car like and spacious (49 inches wide) and entry should be no problem, even for women in skirts. Theres no need to step on the seat, as in the Lancair. The rear seat has more-than-adequate leg and headroom for tall occupants, even with the pilots seat in its rearmost position. The rear seat occupants can see whats going on upfront and dont suffer the feeling of sitting in a hole.
Like the Lancair, the panel is uncluttered with instruments and switches well at hand. The circuit breakers are by the pilots knee, but are well-labeled and can be identified easily, despite the awkward location.
The side stick, while readily at hand, is not quite as elegant as the Lancairs, in our view, although its positioning is a bit better. Pitch and roll trim is controlled with a coolie hat switch on the stick with only 180 HP, the SR20 lacks and doesnt need rudder trim.
The trim is only controllable only electrically, with no manual reversion. Failure of the trim system means you cant move a miss-set trim and even though the control force needed to overcome out-of-trim isnt excessive, a diversion to land would be a must. Were not sure we like this trend toward electric-only trim, given how often trim servos and switches fail.
Handling during taxi is similar to the Grumman Tiger. The nosewheel is free swiveling so some brake is needed to make turns and taxi straight in a crosswind. At taxi speeds, full rudder deflection didnt cause the airplane to turn at all, so the brakes have to work. Well see how they hold up in service, given that a high percentage of pilots carry too much power and ride the brakes while taxiing. On runup, the single power lever system self tests when the power is run up to a detent, about 2000 RPM. At that point, RPM drops by 100 to let you know its working.
Takeoff acceleration is comparable to the Cherokee Arrow. As test pilot Gary Black told us, most new pilots over rotate on takeoff and landing. He explained that the secret is to simply raise the nosewheel barely clear of the runway, la Grumman Cheetah, at about 65 or 70 knots indicated. The SR20 rolls on the mains before lifting off on its own.
The airplane is optimized for cruise speed on 200 HP and while its climb rate is acceptable at about 700 to 800 FPM, its neither a STOL machine nor a rocket. We wouldnt hesitate to base one on a grass runway of modest length if the pilot is willing to fly the airplane precisely on takeoff. En route climb rate is satisfactory, directly reflecting the power available at about 700 FPM.
In cruise, we averaged about 147 knots TAS at 7500 feet at about 65 percent power on a substantially warmer than standard day. The book calls for 160 knots at the optimum altitude at 75 percent and it looks like the SR20 is in that range. Its really quite close to Mooney J-model performance, on 20 fewer horses but with a larger, more comfortable cabin. We would plan for 150 knots.
Cirrus publishes performance for some higher power settings; the highest we noticed was 83 percent, which at 6000 feet promises 163 knots at 12.3 GPH. Because of the tuned exhaust, the engine can be operated lean of peak at power settings of 65 percent or lower. However, we suspect that the Continental IO-360ES would benefit from GAMIjector performance nozzles. Might trim the fuel flow some.
The SR20 handles quite well; its among the nicest flying airplanes we have ever experienced, on par with the Cessna 208 Caravan or T303 Crusader, two Dave Ellis designs. Theres no dead spot in roll or pitch and stick forces are well harmonized with linear elevator force. Bonanza pilots will be right at home.
The control circuitry is equipped with spring cartridges that reduce drag by physically positioning the control surfaces, rather than moving a trim tab. The result is that when you release the stick, the ailerons and elevators move back to their trimmed position, quickly and positively, and stay there.
This means that if trimmed correctly, the airplane will stay in the bank attitude the pilot last commanded, even in a steep bank. This is somewhat startling, for few airplanes are capable of this hands off stability. We liked the effect, however.
Slow flight seems to be without vice. Stalls with power off at mid-range CG have no discernible break. The ailerons are effective through the stall and rudder input doesnt induce a break or incipient spin. Handling is so pleasant, in fact, that we worry that some folks may attempt aerobatics. Parachute or not, we hope they resist the urge.
The SR20 is not approved for spins and hasnt been tested in that regime. Says the POH: The only approved and demonstrated method of spin recovery is activation of CAPS. If the aircraft departs controlled flight, CAPS must be deployed.
The ride in turbulence is also best weve encountered since the Navion. No tailwagging at all and little displacement through the bumps. During our flight, the S-TEC autopilot seemed downright mellow, with a very soft ride and no tendency to slam into the commanded attitudes and headings. Passengers should like that, although pilots may forget the AP is engaged.
Returning to the pattern VFR or shooting an instrument approach are both low workload tasks. At the time of our flight, the flap extension speed was a pokey 100 knots, although Cirrus is working to up it to a more reasonable 120 knots. (The web site, www.cirrusdesign.com, says that flap extension speed is 120 knots. Engineering needs to give marketing a stooge slap to keep it from over-promising.) Given the tough certification requirements for flap speeds, its difficult to meet requirements for higher extension speeds. Approaching at 75 knots with full flaps gives good visibility over the nose and good control, even in gusty conditions. The sight picture is such that theres a tendency to flare too early and too much. Practice a bit and landings are much easier.
The SR20 is offered in three configurations with only a few additional options. Avionics are by Garmin, ARNAV and S-TEC. The basic IFR airplane sells for $179,400 and includes a Garmin GNS 430, the ARNAV ICDS-2000 multi-function display, which has a 10.4 inch monitor that does multiple duty as map, Stormscope and future datalink screen.
The step-up version offers more sophisticated avionics and a standby vacuum system for $196,500. The top of the line, with dual GNS 430s, dual alternators and the most sophisticated autopilot is priced at $217,200.
A handful of additional options, such as a leather interior and three-blade prop are available. Judging by what was coming down the line during our visit to Duluth, early customers are ordering all the options. In reality, this is an airplane that will go out the door, equipped, for at least $200,000 and most likely about $220,000.
The purchase price includes pilot transition training. We think it also ought to-but does not-include training for a mechanic, particularly in the care of composite structures in the field. Lancair is offering this and we think its a terrific idea.
The Assembly Line
Walking through the factory, we came away with the impression that the Cirrus SR20 is on a roll, literally and figuratively. It seems to have adequate financing and ignoring the sunny comments of the PR folk, we noted the wire-fence parts enclosures are chock-a-block with parts and pieces, with control surfaces waiting to be installed and other odds and ends. Theres adequate inventory for a lot of airplanes. We saw several fuselages complete and in the process of having the guts installed. About seven customer airplanes were on their wheels. Some of those have now been delivered, so Cirrus can not only design a certifiable airplane, it has demonstrated to the FAA it can build them to the type design.
The first year of production of any airplane is full of surprises for owners and manufacturers. The manufacturer tries to get all the glitches out and operates at least one airplane in as close to real-world conditions as it can prior to delivery of a customer airplane.
The clich isnt funny; its true. You cant build a foolproof airplane because fools are so ingenious. Some idiots will decide that the POH is nonsense and use partial power takeoffs then complain when the engine has problems; some will taxi at 1500 RPM, ride the brakes and beef about brake life. A few will get bit by something no one found during flight test.
The good news is that actual defects in airplanes are almost always found during the first year of service. The proof will be in how Cirrus handles these.
To date, it has been up front in disclosing details of the accident that killed its chief test pilot. The problem appears to have been design-related; Cirrus admitted it and fixed it. Theyre off to a good start, in our view.
The two-year warranty will cover airworthiness directives during that time. If theres a grounding that calls for a redesign or replacement of parts, what happens if the airplanes are down for weeks ? Cirrus says theyll deal with that when and if it occurs.
Buy Or Not?
If we were looking at a new four-place airplane in the $220,000 range, would we buy a Cirrus SR20 or one of its direct competitors? Not to take anything away from the airplane, but we would wait a year to see what shakes out. After all, whats the big rush?
Pricewise, this airplane is going where we always thought it would: somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000. No one believed its initial $144,000 price tag then and few believe it now.
That said, in the current market, the SR20 is an excellent value, far better than a New Piper Archer or Arrow, for example, or the Socata TB20, which is in the same speed range but costs far more.
Assuming the SR20 has a reasonable service history, and no fatal warts emerge, this airplane promises to be a major player in light aircraft GA. So all the hype aside, those early ads Cirrus floated may turn out to be closer to the truth than we care to admit.
-by Rick Durden
Rick Durden is a regular contributor to Aviation Consumer. Hes a partner in a Piper Aztec and prefers to fly and old and interesting airplanes when not practicing aviation law in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Contact: Cirrus Design Corp.,4515TaylorCircle, Duluth, MN 55811 218-727-2737, www.cirrusdesign.com.