High to Low
For the past few years I flew a Cirrus SR22 G3 Turbo with shared ownership company PlaneSmart out of Austin, Texas (KAUS). The airplanes it operated were fully decked-out models, the top of the line in the day, with the last of the Avidyne Entegra PFDs that came off the Cirrus production line before the manufacturer went with the Garmin G1000-based Perspective cockpit as standard equipment. The G3 Turbos were also a throwback in one other way: They were outfitted with the Tornado Alley-modified Continental IO-550 engine. The conversion takes the normally aspirated engine and turbocharges it, while adding Tornado Alley’s GAMI fuel injection system. The engine was smooth, powerful and fuel-efficient — at 17,000 feet and 205 knots true, my fuel burn was about 17.5 gph or less when I had to reduce power to keep the engine cool.
One of the big attractions of flying in the midteens was the hoped-for opportunity to enjoy some big tailwinds when heading east. I had a couple of days when I was seeing 230- or 240-knot groundspeeds, but those were rare events. I usually saw light tailwinds heading east and light headwinds heading west. It seemed as though the headwinds were more common, but it’s human nature to more clearly remember the bad times.
The real advantage of flying just below the flight levels is the fact that there’s very little traffic there, which makes it easy to overfly Class Bravo airspace without getting vectored all over heaven’s half-acre. It also makes it easier to get an altitude change for turbulence or friendlier winds.
These days I’m flying a new airplane, a late-model Cirrus SR22 with the Garmin cockpit. It has synthetic vision, WAAS and an excellent autopilot with extensive vertical-navigation capability, including coupled WAAS approaches.
Perhaps the hardest difference to overlook is the price. The nonturbo model without flight into known icing, outfitted like mine, goes for almost $200,000 less than a fully decked-out bird. You can buy a lot of avgas for that price difference.
One of the things the new airplane lacks is a turbocharger. It’s been a while since I’ve flown an ambient air-breathing airplane very much, and I have to tell you, I kind of like it.
The other thing my airplane lacks is ice protection, which sounds like a bad thing but isn’t. My previous Cirrus rides were outfitted with TKS ice protection — the no-hazard kind as opposed to the FIKI variety. My new ride consistently delivers from 182 to 185 knots true at around 7,000 feet at 75 percent power, which you get at 2,550 rpm (with the prop rpm mechanically linked to the throttle position) and around 16.5 gph. I don’t have to mess with the cost or the hassle of the oxygen, and the climbs are quick.
With the nonturbo airplane I get to pick in most cases either 7,000 or 8,000 as a cruising altitude, where I know I can get 75 percent power out of the normally aspirated engine. The downside is, of course, when it’s time to fly very high, which I need to do when I head up to Colorado or the Northwest, or when I travel out to California and hop over the tail end of the American Rockies. The choice comes down, finally, to where pilots live and how they most often fly. For the majority of my flights, the naturally aspirated airplane does the job very well, and, as it is with cars and vacation homes, it makes sense to buy an airplane that fits your needs most of the time and to come up with a different plan those rare times it doesn’t.