Happily, the days of a dealer tossing the keys to a new owner and wishing him luck are gone, at least for most of the industry. The delivery process today, even for light airplanes, is extremely involved. Before a new owner leaves the factory with his brand-new, shiny flying machine, he'll have to sit down with several delivery team members to go over a number of safety, legal, contractual and operational issues. And that's not to mention the type-specific pilot training that manufacturers, along with the insurance companies, are more and more requiring pilots to take before it's time to fly away.
I recently had the opportunity to take delivery of a brand-new airplane-a Cirrus G3 Turbocharged-at the Cirrus Design factory in Duluth, Minnesota. The airplane was one of four initial G3 Turbos delivered in August to PlaneSmart, the shared ownership company I fly with out of my home base of Austin, Texas. The company has an extended order for a large number of additional Cirrus aircraft, the full details of which haven't been released yet, but the aroma of kerosene will likely be part of the plan.
PlaneSmart President Jeff Cullen set it up so that I would take delivery of the airplane for his company. Cirrus saw to it that I would get the complete delivery experience, even though it wasn't technically my airplane, only a small piece of it.
In the end I was able to get the real-deal experience of how a new owner takes delivery of an airplane and just what that entails. It also gave me a new perspective on just what kinds of new techniques manufacturers are employing to improve what is unquestionably the most important single event airplane makers will ever share with an owner, and one that they hope will repeat itself in the future with those very same satisfied customers.
I also got the chance to see firsthand just how innovative Cirrus is in how it approaches the delivery process, and though I knew a lot about Cirrus' different programs already, because I'm an aviation writer, I didn't realize just how comprehensive a program the company has developed to touch every aspect of the delivery process for every customer who writes that big check.
I headed up to Duluth in late August to go through the delivery and training process, flying up in 108TX, one of PlaneSmart's SR22 G2s, to pick up the new airplane. The good news about the flight was that the first half, from Austin up to Olathe, Kansas, was really uneventful. The second half of the trip was nonstop thunderstorm dodging for several hundred miles. Thank heavens for XM.
I tied down the airplane in howling winds, got a car and drove to my room near the airport and passed out. It was an exhausting day.
The next morning was the big day, the day I picked up my brand-new airplane. I'd like to say that it was bright and sunny, but the airport, which sits on top of the plateau that rises above the southwest shore of Lake Superior, was low IFR. I figured I had plenty to do before it was time to start flying.
I was excited about the training. I would have been much more excited about the whole thing had the airplane I was picking up really been mine. But I played along. (To their credit, the folks at Cirrus and University of North Dakota were much better at make-believe than I was.)
When I arrived at the headquarters, my name was in lights on the electronic marquee in the lobby. I was greeted by the receptionist, who called Judy King, the customer service coordinator/manager and my ultra-savvy guide for the delivery process. I needed the help. And, luckily, there was lots of good coffee.
Checking Out "My" New SR22
The first thing I figured out about taking delivery of my new Cirrus was that it, like any big purchase, involved a lot of paper work, detailing the terms of the contract, the equipment purchased, the standard and extended warranties on the airframe, engine, avionics and program options chosen, matters relating to sales tax, registration, insurance, training and much, much more.
Because "my" new airplane wouldn't be ready for a couple of days, I used a stand-in for the inspection and delivery ride. As chance would have it, my delivery pilot was Kevin Kortuem, the pilot I flew with in my first G3 flight back at Sun 'n Fun last year. Kevin took me through the process as he would with any new owner, carefully and slowly checking that every tiny thing on the airplane was up to my expectations. And it wasn't. Because it was somebody else's airplane I was inspecting, I was brutal, spotting every little paint irregularity and out of alignment baffle. What surprised me was that Kevin wouldn't have it any other way. He duly noted every irregularity and marked it on the airplane with bright blue tape so it couldn't be missed.
Cirrus's interest in getting it right is twofold. Of course they want to make the customer happy. That's obvious. But the other motivation is much more selfish. It's a lot cheaper for Cirrus to take care of a fix at the factory than it is to have it repaired in the field under warranty. This kind of selfishness, of course, works out great for everybody. By the time I was done with the inspection, I'd found six different squawks, and with the exception of a twisted seat belt, they were tiny; bad paint spots inside of seams and things like that. Kevin pointed out, too, that the inspection process helps improve quality control, as the necessary fixes get fed back into the system, so the production bosses know where to make needed corrections.
The Delivery Ride
After getting done with the inspection, it was time to go flying. As I mentioned, it was a gray morning with a low overcast, but the visibility below the ceiling was good, and it was VFR on top above 4,000 feet, with good VFR just 20 miles west of the field.
The delivery flight is a short, to the point affair. You're just seeing if everything installed in the airplane, the engine, avionics, environmental controls and every other mechanical system you can test, is working. We conducted the checks in the clear on top of the layer, and there was an issue with the heading mode on the autopilot, which was bad going to the left, of all things. And the fuel gauges needed tweaking. Everything else checked out, and I got to fly a nice low approach just above minimums on a silky smooth morning. It was fun.
We got back, Kevin sent the airplane off to the shop to get the fixes done, and we were through. If it were actually my airplane, I would have had the chance to verify that the repairs had been made, as I would be flying it in training and for my trip back home. As it was, I'm sure the actual owner would appreciate the time and energy I spent on it. Nice plane.
Crossing All the T's
After a nice lunch courtesy of Cirrus, it was time for more delivery activities. I listened in on a subscriptions training session another owner was getting, and it was actually pretty complicated. With the databases for the 430s, the Avidyne Entegra MFD, the XM Satellite Weather and entertainment-and I might be forgetting a couple-the subscription picture is complicated. Cirrus wants to be sure new owners are ready to take off by giving them all the specifics of how to maintain their subscriptions and how to physically update them on the units in the airplane. It's not as simple as you might think.
Following that, I went through the customer briefing with concierge Amanda McGovern. As crazy as it might sound, we discussed such things as keeping the airplane maintained, complying with ADs and making sure the airplane is properly registered. It occurred to me part-way through the process that a good number of new Cirrus owners are also new pilots, so a lot of the institutional knowledge we longtime pilots have just isn't there. Cirrus, very sensibly, doesn't leave the learning process to chance. We covered the subject of approved engine oils and engine break-in procedures, tire and brake care, winter operations, the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, and the Amsafe airbag seat belts. We even covered how to clean the airplane, which, again, isn't as simple a subject as you might think.
Training: The Centerpiece
It used to be-and this is no exaggeration-that an owner would pick up a new airplane, get tossed the keys (literally!), climb aboard and head home, often without even a rudimentary familiarization of the instruments or equipment. No more.
Cirrus partners with the University of North Dakota to provide its training, which is conducted right there at the Cirrus headquarters in Duluth. There are several different programs that Cirrus offers its new owners, depending on their experience and the type of airplane they're picking up.
Since I have a good deal of experience in the SR22, and even a little in the G3 Turbo, we decided that the turbo differences course would fit the bill best. Differences courses are common offerings in the jet world. A pilot transitioning between two airplanes that have much in common, say a Boeing 757 and 767, would-instead of taking the entire course with most of the material being simply repeated-take an approved differences course that trains pilots on the things that aren't the same. In the Cirrus, for example, it wouldn't make sense to spend time teaching me how to work the Garmin 430s. The difference in this airplane was, obviously, the turbocharger and everything that this affects.
Typically, an owner is teamed with an instructor for the duration, and that was the case with me. I trained and flew with a talented and patient young UND instructor named Chris Kehr, who has flown hundreds of hours in Cirrus airplanes since he began instructing in the program a couple of years ago.
The turbo differences course entails a few days of training, both on the ground, using study guides and computer-based learning aids, and in the air.
Cirrus' training program is very good, and it's only getting better as the company adds new tools, like the fine web-based training program it has developed in conjunction with Jeppesen.
During our ground training we went over in great detail how the turbocharging system works, and we covered in detail what operational and safety issues it presents. By the time we were done, I had a good idea of how to operate the airplane-it's a whole different set of procedures than you use to manage the normally aspirated IO-550 in the nonturbo SR22. Because the airplane regularly spends time at altitudes in the mid-teens and low-to-mid-20s, we also spent a good deal of time talking about how to safely operate the oxygen system, as well as general safety concerns about high-altitude flight.
It was, in short, a good, basic introduction into the world of turbo SR22 flying, an introduction that set the stage nicely for my transition into the actual airplane.
Differences training in the SR22 turbo requires only a couple of flights, but a cross-country, flown at oxygen altitudes, is key to the course.
Our final flight during the training was the cross-country, and it got scratched twice the day we tried to complete it. First, a bank of fog moved across the airport as we were running the airplane up. Later that day, after the fog had mostly lifted, on preflight I found that the left strobe was inoperative. On the Cirrus, that's a no-go problem, so we waited for a few more hours while that problem was fixed.
By the time we went out to fly it was late afternoon. We departed Duluth and headed out to the sparsely inhabited western part of the state, where the weather was pretty good and the scenery spectacular in the late evening light. We landed at Bemidji, where there was one other airplane, a Mooney heading out, and from there we made our way up to International Falls, famous for often being the coldest place in the entire lower 48. That early evening, it was anything but, and as we approached the newly paved runway, descending over ancient woodland waterways hundreds of miles from the closest real city, it occurred to me just how cool it was to be there. The training was great, but it was this kind of flying that made the training-and the airplane buying-worth doing in the first place.
Heading Home, and Beyond
The next morning, heading home to Austin in a brand-new SR22 G3 Turbocharged, I had the same feeling, and I'm certain that this is what new owners feel as they're bringing their new bird home-that the beautiful new airplane they've worked hard for is something incredibly special and worth every penny.
Airplane makers today-and Cirrus is especially impressive in this regard-are working hard to make that delivery experience not only a special one, but one that helps new owners get the most out of their airplanes while cutting out as much risk as possible. The bottom line is, Cirrus, and its competitors, want to get those same customers back in a few years to take delivery of another brand spanking new airplane.
See also related article: Cirrus SR22-G3