The Cirrus SR series of single-engine airplanes has been controversial since the beginning. The beginning, as some of you might recall, came in 1995 when Cirrus, which had before then been a kit manufacturer, announced the existence of “Hangar X,” the secret facility in which it was building its mysterious to-be-certified entry. When the mystery airplane finally emerged from Hangar X, one smart aleck was quoted as wondering why, after all that marketing intrigue, Cirrus couldn’t have come up with something more imaginative than an Archer. While that first Cirrus, the SR20, did look pretty conventional with its engine in front and its tail in back, it was anything but the same-old-airplane thing.
A closer look revealed that the first Cirrus was remarkably innovative, sometimes in ways that pushed the comfort envelope for some pilots. Within its all-composite airframe it featured side yokes, a rocket-powered whole-airplane recovery parachute system, a remarkably roomy cockpit, advanced avionics for its time and impressive performance.
The successor airplane, the SR22, would soon eclipse the SR20 as the sales leader. Over time it became for a while the best-selling single-engine airplane in the world, largely because of its innovative blend of features and its excellent performance. The SR22 was a fixed-gear piston single that could cruise at right around 180 knots true and carry four people in great comfort on trips short and long.
Its impact and influence on the industry were impossible to miss. The SR22 adopted a number of cutting technologies — some that had a lasting influence on the small-airplane marketplace and beyond.
Surprisingly, it’s not hard to come up with a list of the areas in which Cirrus has innovated with the SR22. And while some will argue that the SR20 single, the ’22’s lower-power sibling, featured many of these same innovations, the more popular SR22 was so much more popular and influential that it is the model that should be given — and ultimately will be given — credit for ushering in a new way of building and selling light general aviation airplanes of many different descriptions.
1 The Chute
Perhaps more than any other design feature — and the chute is a design feature and not an accessory — the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) in the SR-series airplanes crystallizes the controversy behind the airplane. The chute, in case you’ve just returned from Mars, can be deployed from the cockpit and lowers the entire airplane, occupants and all, back to the ground in a highly survivable if not terribly comfortable manner. Now, the subject of the chute isn’t a black-and-white one. You don’t have to either love or hate it. Many owners and pilots of SR22s have nuanced views of the technology. In general, one distinction seems true, though. There’s a huge divide between younger and older pilots in how they view the very concept of the chute. It amounts, as far as I can tell, to the older pilots feeling as though having a chute to save the day when things go terribly wrong amounts somehow to cheating. Cirrus, to its credit, saw the controversy coming and, when it designed the original airplanes, made CAPS standard equipment. That means buyers couldn’t opt out; nor could the airplane remain airworthy without the chute. So, after 10 years in the SR22, what has been the legacy of the chute? For one thing, it has saved more than a dozen lives, which might not seem like much unless you’re one of those dozen people or someone who cares about them. But for the rest of the industry, the chute has not had a major impact. You can get one on a brand-new Cessna 182, but very few buyers avail themselves of that option. The aftermarket performance of the chute has been similarly subdued. But CAPS remains a signature feature of the Cirrus, and many Cirrus buyers report that it is a big part of the purchase decision.
2 The “Sidestick”
As though to prove that it never did anything conventionally, Cirrus put a sidestick on its airplanes that isn’t a stick at all; it’s a yoke. It is often one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects for pilots anticipating their first Cirrus flight, but the truth is, it’s a piece of cake. The side yoke is a combination of fun and funky, but it’s practical in a few ways. It cuts down on structure and weight; it provides more leverage than a sidestick; and, most important, it opens up the panel for big displays. While the side yoke concept hasn’t taken the industry by storm — it remains the only one in a production airplane — it has become so well accepted in the Cirrus that there’s essentially no controversy over it.
3 Fixed Gear/High Performance
It might seem strange to read that a light airplane having fixed landing gear is an innovation, but in this case it is because the fixed-gear SR22 is a seriously high-performance airplane. With a cruise speed of around 180 knots, it outruns many Bonanzas and Mooneys without tucking the gear. This is seriously good news on a number of counts. First, fixed gear is lighter and less mechanically complex, which means cheaper maintenance, especially in the long term. But the biggest savings are found when writing those insurance checks because a fixed gear eliminates gear-up landings, which are expensive propositions for insurance companies. Flying a fixed-gear airplane also allows lower-time pilots to get insured in a Cirrus when their providers might give the thumbs-down on a retractable-gear airplane of similar performance.
Cirrus doesn’t get much credit for being an innovator when it comes to composite construction, in large part because it wasn’t really first with anything. There were certificated composite airplanes before the SRs, and more to the point, there had been a great deal of advanced composite design done in the experimental market. But Cirrus deserves more credit on a couple of counts. First, it was the first company to produce large numbers of composite airplanes, more than 800 a year at one point. That had never been done before nor has it been done since. And with the introduction of the G3 model a few years back, Cirrus incorporated a lot of very light and super-stiff carbon fiber construction into its design, cutting weight, reducing production costs and making for a better, stronger and easier to service airplane at the same time.