We Fly: Cessna Citation X+

Cessna Citation X+

Since its entry into service in 1996, the Cessna Model 750 Citation X (it is not the letter "X" but the Roman numeral 10) has occupied a special place in the bizjet world. It put its number in the books as a sleek ­midsize jet that could rocket coast to coast in the United States at high subsonic speeds, delivering a remarkable value to its operators, combining world-class speed, 3,000-plus-mile range, good comfort and excellent runway performance, all for the price of a more conventional midsize jet 70 knots slower.

Cessna Citation X+ at a Glance

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When Cessna launched the airplane in 1990 the company was famous for its reliable and famously docile-handling straight-wing jets (though the X was not the first sweptwing model). Yet the Citation X was the opposite, and its introduction was an earthshaking event in relatively staid Wichita, Kansas. It was aggressively styled and built for raw speed — it was the ­fastest non-Concorde civil airplane in the world for most of its production life and has recently reclaimed that crown. Even its pedigree was un­usual. Unlike most previous Citations, it was built from a clean sheet instead of being derived from an existing model. Moreover, it was seemingly designed for a new kind of customer, one who wanted style, power and presence while still banking on Cessna's award-winning service.

The X was a big hit and immediately started setting city-pair speed records, most of which have yet to be surpassed. In 1997, the design team for the Citation X won the Collier Trophy, the most prestigious award in aviation at the time.

The secret of the X's speed is really no secret at all. Its design combines low drag with powerful engines and a great wing. The wing is extraordinary, a highly swept supercritical airfoil whose sweep is rivaled among civil airplanes only by that of another very speedy model with a slightly greater payload, the Boeing 747.

There's little competition for the airplane, but then again, the Citation X doesn't fit a niche so much as a need. That need is of course for speed, but with comfort, range, sophistication and more thrown in to sweeten the deal. The X offered a good cabin, though it was tight in some respects. Legroom in the club seating areas could be less than ideal.

Headroom, on the other hand, was (and is) quite good. The wing of the X passes underneath the cabin and not through it, as is the case with many Cessnas and competitors, so the cabin floor can be lower. The cabin height is what I'd call stand-up, though that is a subjective term, of course. I find it the perfect height.

Over its 18 years of producing the airplane, Cessna has delivered 330 of the original Citation X models.

New X

When Cessna announced plans for the new Citation model at the National Business Aviation Association convention in Atlanta in 2010, 20 years after it first announced the Citation X, the company put on an impressive show, revealing the new plane in front of a big crowd at the Georgia Dome.

The flashiest news was that the new X would get up to Mach 0.935, edging out the Gulfstream G650, aiming for Mach 0.925, a speed it would indeed achieve. By hitting 0.935, the Citation X would reclaim the "fastest bizjet" title from Gulfsream. It was, in effect, a friendly game of leapfrog products that were not remotely competitive. It was simply good publicity for both.

But the substantive news was that the new airplane would really be a new airplane and not a quick makeover of the former model. Among many changes, it would have winglets manufactured by Winglet Technology of Wichita, a new glass cockpit manufactured by Kansas neighbor Garmin International, and autothrottles again built by Garmin. There would also be a fuselage stretch, which for the folks in back was the biggest news of all. The new airplane would get 14 additional inches of cabin length, which would create a lot of extra legroom for the front club grouping, which would get eight of those inches.

Typically configured, the X is a double-club-plus-one configuration.

Lighting was also improved, with LEDs throughout offering mood and brightness options. There are two-layer window shades to let some light through or none at all. New entertainment, information and connectivity options are available, and each seat has an individual portal for entertainment, lighting and flight information. If the cabin of the original X was a weakness, the passenger section on the new model is a selling point.

The huge Rolls-Royce Allison engines help define the X+'s iconic look — it was featured by Flying magazine as one of our Top 100 Airplanes and named as one of the 25 Most Beautiful Airplanes. While not technically new, the engines are improved, with a new blade design and additional thermal capacity that give the X+ better hot and high performance. This is great news in any airplane, but in a bizjet it can make possible certain trips in the summer, to Colorado, for example, while also affording improved flexibility on departure times, more payload and better runway performance.

The great news is that nearly every one of Cessna's promises four years ago came true, and the Citation X+ is certificated and already being delivered, a testament to the way things work at Cessna, where on-time certification seems to be core to the DNA. In fact, the airplane earned its FAA approval the day before I arrived in Wichita to fly it, and the first delivery was to a business owner that very day.

World's Fastest Civil Airplane

The weather the week I was slated to fly the X+ was terrible, with really active convective weather systems peppering the map all along the I-35 corridor from central Texas to Kansas. Even after getting to Wichita a day late, the weather was still a factor. After a relatively calm night, the next day's regional map was yellow and red with active cells popping up everywhere, including a couple just west of Wichita and heading our way.

After a briefing on the product and the flight, I headed out to the X+ with Cessna flight-test pilot Jeff Tibbitts and reserve pilot Curt Epp. We'd be flying a company demonstrator with an Experimental designation, but only because it lacked a few software updates. For all outward ­appearances, the airplane was what customers would be getting.

From the big carbon brakes to the big baggage compartment to the ­single-point fueling system, the walk-around gave me a chance to see firsthand the kind of brilliant engineering that went into the original X. Make no mistake about it: The X+ is a beautifully enhanced version of an already great airplane.

We climbed aboard, and while Jeff consulted with the dispatcher I toured the cabin with Curt. He pointed out the stretch in the fuselage, making a special point to demonstrate how the forward club seats are much more comfortable than in the original X. We sat in facing seats and stretched our legs. There was room for both of us. Nice. It's a remarkable improvement. We checked out the new seats too. Lighter, more comfortable and with greater travel in all directions, the new in-house-designed seats give passengers the ability to get comfortable whether the trip is a 6.5-hour hop form Teterboro to London or a shorter jaunt.

Rocket Ship to Ponca City

The weather was looking dicey, with a big cell moving our way but taking its time, so we had a good window for takeoff so long as we were gone within the hour. By the time we'd be heading back, however, the cell would very likely be over KICT with possibly severe weather.

I climbed into the front left seat. The cockpit has been completely redesigned, and despite the fact that I'd never flown an airplane outfitted with the G5000 cockpit before, I felt comfortable with the setup, thanks in part to my relative familiarity with G2000 in a couple of airplanes, including the Cessna TTx, and G3000 in a couple more, including the M2 and CJ2+ Alpine Edition.

The layout of the cockpit was remarkably clean for such a sophisticated jet, and the avionics suite was designed to funnel the focus of the many chores a pilot has to do to fly such a marvel into a single point. Everything you need to do, pre-start to shutdown checklists, landing/takeoff data, weight and balance, systems monitoring, flight management, radar, satellite communications, audio, environmental, emergency management, charting and much more, is all accessible right in front of the pilots' eyes on the big, bright Garmin displays. There are still a number of physical buttons, knobs, switches and levers, but that number is very small. The panel is an absolute work of art, and the system walks the pilots though the preflight checks, prompting them to run checks on the various systems and warning them if any check has not been completed or if the airplane is not properly configured for any phase of flight.

One of the least beautiful parts of the picture — the autothrottles — are arguably the most beautiful from a design perspective. Cessna took a bit of a risk and signed Garmin to supply the autothrottles for its new lineup of airplanes, including the Sovereign+, the Latitude and the Citation X+. It paid off. Garmin came through with a product that is a perfect fit for the mission of the X+.

After firing up the big Rolls engines, we taxied out. Like its predecessor, the X+ is taxied with a tiller mounted on the left sidewall ledge, though you can make small turns using the rudder pedals to steer the nosewheel. Once on the runway, you can forget about the tiller and just fly.

The plan was to head up to altitude, do some speed checks (yeah, I wanted to see how fast it would go too), and then head over to Ponca City for lunch while waiting for the weather to move through Wichita.

After we were cleared for takeoff on Runway 19L, I taxied into position, took my hand off the tiller and got ready to rock and roll. Jeff had warned me earlier that everyone on a first flight in the X rotates a little, gets surprised and then "corrects" by pitching back down. His advice was to rotate, and then instead of pitching down, pitch up some more. I was committed to being the guy who didn't do the wrong thing, so I channeled the steely nerve of aerobatics star Sean Tucker and readied myself for the cool angle of attack Jeff had warned me about.

Once we were lined up, and not before, I armed the autothrottles, stood up the levers and felt them come alive and move forward. We were out of there, and it was the best ride I've ever had in a bizjet. It was simply cool. Keeping the X+ on the centerline was easy, and as Jeff called out rotate, I did, focusing on keeping the pitch right there. At the point where the nose went skyward, I could see why he'd warned me, but I just added a little more up elevator and peeked over to see Jeff smiling.

Gear and flaps up and we were climbing to heaven. It's not a fighter jet, but for us civilian types, it sure felt like it. With an initial rate of climb of better than 3,500 fpm and an unrestricted normal climb speed of 300 knots, it gets it done. The X+ is capable of climbing directly (that is, without an intermediate level-off) to 43,000 feet in just 23 minutes.

Hand-flying the X+ as we climbed through cloud and murk and a bit of light to moderate turbulence was great fun, and the passengers seemed to be doing fine. Slow to fast, the control feel is very consistent. It's a very pleasing airplane to hand-fly.

How Fast?

Because of the big cell to the west, we headed south for 50 miles, climbing in steps up to 40,000 feet in order to get an idea of the speed of the X+. I set the power for max continuous and watched the airspeed climb ever higher. We were looking for 0.935 on the true airspeed indicator, but it wasn't to happen that day. We only saw 0.921 on Jeff's right-hand display. So while the X+ is certificated to 0.935, which means lots of pilots, including many in the FAA, have flown it to that speed, I missed out. (Maybe that means I'll get to try again?) At that speed we were burning 800 pounds per side and still getting a bit of chop (which can cut down on the airspeed at such high numbers very substantially).

After a few minutes we asked ATC for an altitude that Jeff tells me always gets a "say again" from the controllers and other pilots on frequency: 51,000 feet. The nice thing is that, once they get their head around it, the request never takes long to get approved, because there's seldom any conflicting traffic.

The unusual thing that day was that we didn't get above the tops of the surrounding weather until FL 490, so when we topped out at 510, it was a great sight. We were in the clear finally and seeing a dramatic curvature of the earth, so much so that we could hardly tell we were in Kansas anymore. At FL 510 we were seeing 200 knots indicated (a few knots "slower" than in my Cirrus at 15,000 on the way back to Austin later that day), but that 200 kias in the X+ translated to Mach 0.845 and just 700 pounds of fuel per side per hour. For the record, that's a lot faster and a lot more fuel than in my SR22.

Because of the weather still thundering on through Midcontinent we decided it was necessary to divert to Ponca City to wait out the storm at the only sensible place to do so, ­Enrique's, an on-airport Mexican food joint that is always packed and always worth the trip. Two tips: Don't fill up on the chips, and say "yes" to gorditas.

After lunch we took off from Ponca and headed out IFR at 8,000 feet — it was a short trip — I flew and kept it under 250 knots as we made our way to KICT. We got vectors around stubborn parts of the storm and eventually worked our way around to the northwest for the ILS for 19L. The autothrottles are smart, automatically reducing their target speed as you change configuration. With the first notch of flaps, the flight control system sets the speed to 200 knots, which the throttles maintain. At flaps two, that drops to 170, and then 145 with full flaps.

I let the autopilot fly the intercept and turned it off as we intercepted the glideslope, leaving the autothrottles on, hand-flying and letting them control my airspeed. The weather wasn't too bad, barely IFR, and we broke out with good visibility. At 50 feet the autothrottles automatically went to idle thrust and Jeff reminded me, "Don't flare." I didn't. I planted the airplane, put the nose gear on the ground and then got on the brakes, hoping the passengers had all listened to our pre-landing announcement so they wouldn't come suddenly forward for an impromptu cockpit visit.

If there's any doubt about it, it's clear that Cessna has a winner in the Citation X+. An airplane that was already a strong performer gets more room, a better, more sophisticated and advanced cabin, even more speed, a remarkable new cockpit with autothrottles, better fuel efficiency, more payload and greater range. The only question that remains is whether one plus sign is really enough for this airplane. After my flight, I think it needs at least three or four.

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