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.
Cirrus began putting flat-panel displays in its airplanes, starting with the short-lived Arnav multifunction display in early-serial-number examples. The company quickly progressed to the excellent Avidyne Entegra system with both primary and multifunction displays shortly thereafter and eventually to the Perspective by Garmin cockpit in today’s SR22s. Cirrus’ courageous decision to go with such bleeding-edge technology in a Part 23 airplane was huge, and it gave the company a big competitive advantage. It also led to the widespread adoption over time of flat-panel avionics systems — mostly in the form of the Garmin G1000 system — in tens of thousands of light airplanes the world around.
While Cirrus has over the years touted versions of its SR20 as training airplanes, the bigger issue for Cirrus has always been developing high-quality training programs for people learning to fly in its airplanes or simply transitioning to them. Working with a number of partners, from the University of North Dakota to Jeppesen, Cirrus has developed training curricula and computer-based tools to address big safety challenges. When you fire up a Cirrus, for example, you have to check off a series of safety questions addressing the potential risk factors of the flight before the system allows you to proceed. To some, the apparent reason for this emphasis on safety was the early poor safety record of the type. Examination of the record, however, leads to the conclusion that most of those accidents had much to do with the pilot flying the airplane and very little to do with the airplane itself.
7 Safety Utilities
From the very beginning Cirrus has put into its airplanes whatever safety features the current technology would allow. Along with partners Avidyne, Garmin, L-3 and S-Tec, among others, Cirrus gave buyers the option of getting instrument approach charts, remote-mount lightning detection, satellite weather, traffic awareness and GPS steering. It also developed nonhazard and, later, approved flight into known icing deicing systems into its airplanes, along with infrared vision and synthetic vision systems.
Power-plant innovation is one area in which Cirrus did not meet its own high standards, though that being said, it has a fairly impressive record of trying new engine approaches nonetheless. While Cirrus would have loved to adopt a fadec engine from the start, it settled instead for Continental engines that had mechanically integrated prop control. (Ironically, this was a long-existing Continental product that Cirrus made innovative by adopting it on its airplanes.) The introduction of the Turbo model was nothing new. Beech, Piper and Cessna had turbocharged models by the dozen as early as the 1960s. But the adoption of the Tornado Alley engine, which was a high-compression IO-550 with an aftermarket turbocharging package, was well outside the mainstream. And the Turbo, a 200-knot fixed-gear single that could fly legs of around 1,000 nm, depended on the lean-of-peak operation you can get with that engine.
9 Customer Care
Cirrus studied the premium automobile industry carefully and established a number of programs designed to give its customers that same kind of high-end experience. I went through the acceptance process at Cirrus a few years ago (without actually buying an airplane) and saw the breadth of the services that Cirrus offers, everything from standard and extended warranties to customized training packages to mentor pilots.
10 The Demographic
Almost everyone acknowledges that Cirrus has been a pioneer in bringing new kinds of owners to aviation. Again, nothing that the company did in this regard was brand-new. It simply succeeded at putting a lot of existing aviation sales theory into practice. In this case, the coming together of the company’s innovative design approaches — the company wasn’t called “Cirrus Design” for nothing — with the advent of a new breed of high-tech-savvy prospects made for a fertile sales environment. Cirrus went to boat shows, NASCAR races, PGA tournaments and computer shows in search of new prospects. And it worked. There was, of course, criticism that these new pilots shouldn’t be cutting their teeth on fast-glass airplanes. It didn’t stop the company’s competitors from trying the same sales tactics, however.
For more on the SR22, see 10 Years of the Cirrus SR22.