The Cirrus Life: Three Remarkable Days at the Cirrus Vision Center in Knoxville

The Cirrus Life. Now at jet speed. That's the tagline Cirrus Aircraft created after the market introduction in late 2016 of the SF50 Vision Jet, a product that is positioned as an ideal step-up airplane for a competent owner of a Cirrus SR22 and who already well understands and embraces all that life entails.

The Cirrus Life, if you’re unaware, is about using your airplane to enhance your lifestyle — in other words, to live a better, more fulfilled life because of it.

You can decide for yourself whether you think a Cirrus can “fulfill” you on an emotional level, but the concept certainly isn’t lost on the legion of fans of the Cirrus brand who proudly live that lifestlye as often as they can.

There's no denying that a Cirrus appeals to a buyer in an emotive way as well as an analytic one. A Cirrus is "cool" in a way that a Cessna Skyhawk is not. A Cirrus says something about its owner that a Piper Cherokee never will. The Cirrus approach to aircraft design and marketing, in this way, is reminiscent of, say, Apple with the iPhone. When a new Cirrus is introduced, the airplane isn't merely announced, it is revealed. It's a big deal, in part, because Cirrus does a good job of making sure it is a big deal.

Yet while Apple has the advantage of being headquartered in uber-awesome Cupertino, California, Cirrus Aircraft is based in Duluth, Minnesota — a decidedly out-of-the-way city that for a good time offers visitors the opportunity, say, to tour the Lake Superior Railroad Museum or perhaps go ice-fishing or snowmobiling during its seemingly perpetual winters.

I jest. Duluth has been called the hippest city in Minnesota, and for good reason. But it’s cold and dark half the year and, let’s be honest, for most people, you really have to want to go there to get there.

A few years back, Cirrus realized that to truly rep the image the company was working hard to cultivate, a new customer-facing aircraft delivery and training center was needed.

The big surprise to many came when Cirrus chose Knoxville, Tennessee, as the site for its slick, modern Vision Center, a campus of buildings and hangars that house the brand new multi-million-dollar Vision Jet full-flight simulator and classrooms, a world-class service center and a delivery “experience” unlike any other.

Though it was probably seen as a roll of the dice to outsiders, it turns out Knoxville was the perfect location for the Vision Center. Home to the University of Tennessee, the picturesque Tennessee River, pristine lakes and mountains, and a downtown area that is in the midst of a remarkable revival, there’s much to see and do here. Plus, the weather is amenable and flyable year-round, and it’s within two hours’ flight time for most Cirrus customers — and “on the way” to other destinations for many others.

When I visited Knoxville for three days to live the Cirrus Life and experience what buyers will when they take delivery of new airplanes at the Vision Center, I began to understand how Cinderella must have felt at the ball. I’d had a miserable time getting to Knoxville because of crummy weather in the Northeast. As soon as I got back home, my truck promptly blew a radiator hose that dumped all my coolant on the highway and necessitated an Uber ride to an auto parts store and a hasty roadside repair by the light of my iPhone’s flashlight.

The intervening time I spent in Knoxville was pure magic. Upon my arrival, I was met by Cirrus SR22 product-line manager Ivy McIver, who handed me the keys to my ride for the week — a brand-new Audi Q7 SUV.

We headed to my home away from home, the sophisticated, boutique Oliver Hotel overlooking Knoxville’s bustling Market Square, where Ivy directed us to the bar — a re-creation of a speakeasy with a sliding wall instead of a door. The hotel restaurant graciously stayed open late to accommodate us, for which I was grateful after my delayed arrival to town.

The Cirrus and Flying teams take a break from wakesurfing on the Tennessee River. Cirrus Aircraft

The next morning, I hopped into the Audi and headed to McGhee-Tyson International Airport, where I toured the Vision Center and had the chance to sit down with Stephen Deuker, vice president of owner experience and manager of the facility. He was hired not from within the aviation industry, but instead from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, where he held a senior executive position.

His job is to make the Vision Center something truly special. “We don’t just want to be a great company,” he told me, speaking to the foresight that went into the center’s development. “We want to be world-class.”

That philosophy extends to providing all new buyers of Cirrus planes — whether it's a piston model or a jet — with an unparalleled aircraft delivery experience in Knoxville. The Audi wasn't offered to me because I am the editor of Flying magazine; it's what Cirrus buyers who purchase certain special models get when they arrive. Over the next three days, I would be treated to incredible experiences, including a stay at the renowned Blackberry Farm luxury resort nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains; dinner at one of the top-rated restaurants in America; wakesurfing on the Tennessee River; and lunch in Asheville, North Carolina — after I got to fly myself there in a Vision Jet.

It’s all normal and expected for these select Cirrus customers, Deuker explained. “We want to push it right to the limit of being obnoxious without crossing that line,” he said of the experience customers can expect when they come to Knoxville to pick up a new airplane. “It’s a big deal in people’s lives. We want to make sure it’s unforgettable.”

All new owners who take delivery of a Cirrus at the Vision Center in Knoxville are treated to unforgettable experiences. Cirrus Aircraft

It certainly was for me. The next order of business was a visit to the Vision Jet simulator for a two-hour training session with Cirrus instructor Travis Wellik I’d flown the Vision Jet previously for our cover story when the SF50 gained its type certification and was eager to get back in the left seat. The most difficult part of the transition was trying to recall where to access certain features in the Perspective Touch avionics system, which includes three touchscreens that take a little getting used to.

My time in the sim included a deadstick landing after a simulated engine emergency plus a surprisingly convincing parachute pull that gave us a hearty jolt in our seats — but it was a mere prelude to the main attraction: hopping into the real thing for an afternoon of flying to Asheville and beyond.

My right-seat companion for the trip was Matt Bergwall, Vision Jet program manager. The plan was to have a burger and iced tea at the Sierra Nevada brewery near the Asheville Airport, but it was closed for a private event. Bummer. We found another excellent restaurant with the help of Yelp, and before long we were back in the air, dropping in on other area airports just for the fun of it.

On my original Vision Jet flights for my report in the magazine, I brought my wife along, which meant I couldn’t wring the airplane out with any aggressive maneuvering as I normally would have liked to do. With just Matt and me aboard, I was free to throw the airplane around. I found it responsive, balanced and just a good-old-fun time to fly. By the time we landed back in Knoxville — flying the approach at a grin-inducing 89 kias — I confirmed my earlier impression that the SF50 takes off, flies and lands very much like an SR22 — if an SR22 had trailing-link landing gear, that is.

Pilots can obtain a type rating in the SF50 sim with minimal flight time in the airplane. Cirrus Aircraft

No sooner had we powered down outside one of the Vision Center’s hangars than I was hopping into the Audi to head to Blackberry Farm for my stay there and dinner at The Barn, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant on the property. I checked into my “room,” which was actually an entire villa on the property complete with a kitchen, huge bathroom, massive fireplace in the main room and an enclosed porch with its own fireplace and chaise lounges. When I entered the restaurant, I was immediately impressed by the turn-of-the-last-century, bank-style barn, which I learned was transported piece by piece to Tennessee from a farm in Pennsylvania.

Dinner with several of the Cirrus folks was fabulous, and we honestly lost count of how many of the delectable courses they served.

The next morning I had breakfast at a table next to a famous television news anchor and his family as we all enjoyed the stunning panorama of the steamy valley below, which gives these mountains their famous name. Afterward I hopped in the golf cart that came with my room and toured the property, which includes a stream for fly-fishing, archery and clay shooting area, a world-class spa and even a private paintball field.

Cirrus customers are afforded the opportunity to stay at Blackberry Farm for multiple days, all included in the purchase price of their planes. I was there for just one night, which made checkout difficult. I took solace in the knowledge that the fun wasn’t over yet. That afternoon I headed over to the Concord Marina on the Tennessee River with McIver, Wellik, Ben Kowalski, senior vice president of sales and marketing, and other Cirrus employees, family and friends for an afternoon of wakesurfing on the Mastercraft boat Cirrus makes a part of the delivery experience.

I'd never wakesurfed before, and hadn't even tried water skiing since I was a kid, so I was a bit apprehensive about being a first-timer. Luckily, I was able to cause a diversion that took the focus off me. One of the sales representatives for Flying, Ben Greenwood, is the former publisher of Wakeboarding magazine, a sister publication of ours, as well as a former professional wakeboarder. I invited him to Knoxville to put on a show for us.

My attempt at wakesurfing went about as well as I expected but the Cirrus folks did great and I enjoyed watching them having so much fun.

Next it was Ben’s turn. He started out wakesurfing, but that was a little too dawdling of an activity to suit his style, so he slipped onto his wakeboard for the show we all anticipated. As Ben Kowalski gunned the Mastercraft’s throaty engine to bring him out of the water, the pro put on a performance worthy of the advanced billing, pulling off impressive big-air 360 and 540 grabs and bringing the house down as he completed a number of inverted flips with a trick called the Indy Tantrum. It was a different kind of flying, to be sure, and turned what would have been a fun day on the river into an experience we wouldn’t soon forget.

Back at the airport, I was given a taste of what the aircraft delivery experience is like. Cirrus had arranged for a “mock delivery” of a gorgeous monarch-blue SR22T that was destined to go to a buyer in the Czech Republic. I was driven into a large, darkened hangar in the Audi as a bright spotlight shone on the only aircraft in the place — “my” airplane — and high-energy music played. It certainly was an impressive way to introduce buyers to their new plane.

Later I had the chance to observe an actual owner take delivery of his new airplane. Russ Thomas was driven into the hangar in the Q7 as his personal favorite music played and the spotlight illuminated his new SF50. For a long time he merely stood before the airplane, seemingly overcome by the weight of the moment.

On this trip I had the chance to wring the Vision Jet out in a way I couldn’t before. Cirrus Aircraft

When the lights came up and the door to the airplane opened, he climbed inside and got comfortable in the left seat. Without anybody noticing, Cirrus co-founder Dale Klapmeier had walked into the hangar and was observing the scene from a few feet away, the same as I was.

Dale turned to Ivy and me and smiled. “He doesn’t know anybody else is here,” he said. “Right now, it’s all about the airplane.”

Indeed, Russ didn’t realize he was being observed, and by none other than the company founder, until Dale approached to shake his hand and wish him well with his new jet.

I introduced myself, and before I knew it, the hangar door was opening and I was being invited to climb aboard to fly as a passenger on the shakedown flight. Russ did a great job, especially for his first time flying the jet after moving up from a number of piston SRs he’s owned.

Reluctantly, I had to give the keys to the Audi back to Ivy and bid Knoxville farewell far too soon. My golden carriage had turned into a pumpkin. It was the end to three remarkable days, a small taste of what the Cirrus Life truly is all about.

The print version of this article indicated that all buyers of a new Cirrus receive a delivery experience similar to that described here. Cirrus has reiterated that the stay at Blackberry Farm is reserved for buyers of certain special edition airplanes. Cirrus says a stay at Blackberry Farm and other special experiences can be arranged for Cirrus buyers at an additional cost.


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