Paul Bowen

We Fly: Cessna CJ3+

This airplane is more than attractive. It is amazing.

“With the CJ3, Cessna got it right.” So I was told when I embarked on a life of flying this attractive airplane. Some 1,200 hours of CJ3 flying later, I can tell you that the airplane is more than attractive. It is amazing. If you put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how to improve it.

Cessna is now producing the CJ3+, and I was eager to see what could possibly have been done to make it a better airplane. A great deal, it turns out.

In a way, the introduction to the CJ3+ is a little like going to your high school reunion and finding that the place has been completely renovated. The exterior looks pretty much the same. They still teach algebra in there. But once inside, the sensation is disorientating. About the only thing that’s left where it used to be is the cafeteria.

So it is with the CJ3+. With the exception of “CJ3+” on the engine cowling, the exterior, beautifully finished, pretty much looks like any CJ3. Exterior preflight is basically unchanged. Baggage compartments fore and aft look the same and have the same weight limits. The engine oil and hydraulic fluid sight gauges are right where I left them.

Cessna CJ3+
The CJ3+ improves upon its excellent predecessor in several important ways, most notably in the cockpit.Paul Bowen

Once in the left seat, there are a few familiar sights remaining. The airplane still has the same parking brake lever, the same emergency gear extension handle and the same emergency braking system. There is a control wheel that is fancier than before and the throttles are slightly more impressive feeling, but they are right where they used to be. The flap handle feels the same. The gear control switch is in the same place, though the panel is now angled, not flat.

When it comes to performance, which is the reason for the quote about getting it right, the engines are still Williams FJ44-3As (we had to memorize that fact at CAE’s training facility), producing 2,820 pounds of thrust. The full-authority digital engine controls are the same, but you don’t have to swap channels anymore; the airplane does that for you. Max takeoff weight is still 13,870 pounds (also memorized many times). Max speed is 416 knots, or about Mach 0.73 plus a small amount of change. Here’s the amazing part: You can still take four people and a pilot 1,800 miles. That’s a long way in a light jet. (I have personally flown a CJ3 from Oakland, California, to Charlottesville, Virginia, a straight-line distance of 2,058 nm, with only a modest tailwind.) These numbers are similar to those published for the first CJ3 sold.

But that is about it for the similarities. The avionics have morphed from the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 system to Garmin G3000. Many of the switches have been moved. The rotary test knob is gone; its function is now managed by the Garmin GTC 570 touch controllers. These are perched forward of the throttles, shortening the pedestal and making cockpit ingress and egress easier. To eyes accustomed to the airliner look of the Collins FMS, these colorful displays are talented boxes masquerading as video games. The two PFDs are huge, and so is the MFD, which makes it feel like you’re watching the news on TV. All three screens have split-screen capabilities.

Cessna CJ3+
Paul Bowen

Most pilot reports emphasize a litany of facts and figures, arcane acronyms and technical jargon. Rather than recite all the particulars, let’s discover the airplane by actually flying it. And more than just doing some stalls, climbing to altitude and then returning to the same airport, let’s go someplace.

On a hot July day, Parker Madill, Ben Nofziger and I were to take a new CJ3+ from the Cessna factory in Wichita, Kansas (KICT) to Chicago Executive Airport (KPWK, known to many as Palwaukee), just northwest of Chicago’s city core. Here’s what I saw, though I’m sure I missed a lot.

I jumped into the left seat, and Parker slid into the right. With the battery switch on, the cockpit glass was already lit up — there is no separate avionics power switch. There are now two batteries on board, and avionics pretty much stay on all the time, even during engine start. Immediately obvious were the ergonomic improvements. The autopilot, yaw damper and associated controls are now positioned, airliner-like, just under the glareshield. The GFC 700 autopilot is a marvel. It even has an EDM, or emergency descent mode, which will automatically take the airplane down to 15,000 feet at Vmo/mmo should the cabin altitude exceed 15,000 feet when the airplane is above 30,000 feet. So, even if we were all passed out from a sudden depressurization, we’d get down to breathable air automatically. The descent will happen faster if I have the sense and the conscious time to retard the throttles and deploy the speedbrakes. The anti-ice and de­icing switches are still green but grouped in a more sensible way. The pitot and AOA heats are relocated to the right side of the cockpit and cannot be mistaken for, say, windshield heat.

Programming the flight plan was easy and intuitive. Good thing, too, because our clearance was completely different from the route Parker had filed. Performance calculations were a breeze. Once the weight of the passengers and cargo are added, the airplane weighs its own fuel load. The weather is automatically uploaded, so all you have to enter is which runway you plan to use and up pop your V speeds and takeoff distance. Ours were customarily low and short (101, 102, 114 and 3,200 feet). These numbers were automatically applied to our airspeed tapes on the PFDs. Pressurization management is a snap. The destination field elevation is automatically plucked from the flight plan and is set in the landing field elevation window, and the system takes care of the rest.

Cessna CJ3+
From the outside, the CJ3+ looks nearly identical to the original CJ3, belying all that has changed.Paul Bowen
Cessna CJ3+
The CJ3+ is a top-flight light jet with the range to provide nonstop coast-to-coast legs.Flying

The engine start buttons are in the pedestal just aft of the throttles. Push the start button and the anti-collision beacon comes on automatically. You don’t have to wait for 8 to 10 percent N2 before bringing the throttle out of cutoff. You just bring the throttle up and the airplane will know when it is safe to introduce fuel and energize the igniters.

With both engines turning, we rechecked our flight plan and legs. We did not need to re-initialize the GPS. Standard generator tests were done, trims rechecked and the after-start checklist completed.

I pushed up just a half inch of power and easily swung the airplane into a 140-degree turn to get us started toward Runway 19L. We checked our ground flaps (used to dump lift and slow us upon landing) and ran the rudder bias check to be sure we’d get help with directional control should we lose one at V1. As we rolled along Taxiway Mike, I saw an annunciation for M6 on the PFD, alerting me that we were passing that intersection. Similar alerts for runway incursion are hugely useful, especially at unfamiliar airports in poor visibility.

Just as I was bringing the airplane to a stop at the departure runway, the tower asked if we were ready. After confirming with me, Parker radioed, “Affirmative,” and onto the runway we went, with the further instruction to turn right to a heading of 230 degrees. I brought the power up into the takeoff detent and searched in vain for the “TO green” indication that was my call-out on hundreds of previous CJ3 flights. This minor distraction unsettled me.

Cessna CJ3+
In the past several years, Cessna has done a great job of refining the CJ line's passenger compartments.Paul Bowen

I called 70 knots, then V1, and pulled back. Then it got unfamiliar. I looked up to the glareshield to search for the yaw damper and had a hard time finding it. Flummoxed, I was either early on asking for the autopilot or late asking for flaps up and finally had to be reminded to reduce to climb power. The 10-month layoff since my last CJ3 flight, coupled with the unfamiliar avionics and layout, had me performing poorly. It reminded me that, though I have a single-pilot type rating in this airplane, it would take some instruction and several hours to become proficient.

Soon, I was comfortable commanding the autopilot and reprogramming the flight plan. We got several reroutes. The airplane was RVSM-capable but not certified, due to paperwork, so Parker asked Kansas City Center if we could climb through the Class A airspace to FL 450. With various intermediate level-offs, that’s exactly what we did.

Quiet, serene and comfortable at 450 (cabin altitude was 7,800 feet), we were showing 411 knots true, 420 knots over the ground, and burning 360 pounds per side — a total of 107 gph. The temperature was ISA-4. These numbers were slightly better than book. “This airplane doesn’t read its own manual,” said Parker. With little to see on the Nexrad, I turned on the radar — again via the GTC 570 controller. The GWX 70 weather radar system is solid state — no magnetron is involved. Having bought a magnetron once, this seems like a really good feature. The radar and the Nexrad can be displayed next to each other on the MFD. I’ll bet that is great for working your way across thunderstorm-infested Florida on a summertime afternoon.

Cessna CJ3+
Power comes from a pair of fadec-controlled Williams FJ44-3A turbofan engines.Paul Bowen

Chicago Center noticed our RVSM limitation and started us down early. Soon, we were at Flight Level 270, burning 620 pounds per side. We had the metar and guessed we’d be on the ILS 16, but the ATIS was calling for the RNAV 16. This was easy to reload, but I inadvertently hit the “activate approach” button instead of the “load approach” button. This caused the airplane to think we were supposed to head to the final approach fix even though we were 179 miles from the airport. Parker quickly got us back on track, and I learned the hard way not to hit just any shiny screen button with the word “approach” on it. Pause a second before pointing, I thought. Landing numbers were just as easy to get as takeoff numbers. Vref was 104.

The approach was easy, we hit activate vectors to final, the airplane tracked inbound flawlessly and I slowed to 200 knots as we ducked under O’Hare’s Class B airspace.

Approach gave us a speed of 180 knots, cleared us for the approach and turned us over to the tower. “Slow to best practical landing speed. You are number three for the airport,” said the tower man. After consultation, I deployed the gear early to slow us down. We could see the traffic on the runway at 500 feet.

Cessna CJ3+
The CJ3+ cabin offers materials and amenities often found in much larger and pricier jets.Paul Bowen

Though I was 6 knots over ref and we floated a bit, the airplane’s trailing link gear covered all sins with a soft kiss. We made the turnoff at Lima and taxied in. Though I was reluctant to shut the airplane down, it didn’t make much sense to sit there with the engines running. After completing the after-shutdown checklist, I scrambled into the back to retrieve my coat.

Whoa, it is beautiful back here. The seats are redesigned with new armrests. The carpet is gorgeous. The cabinetry is flawless. It is easy, in a state of euphoria about the airplane and its capabilities, to overlook the fine LED-lit atmosphere that will envelope your passengers. You may have a better view up front, but owning an airplane like this means you will aim to please others. Whether it is your spouse and family or the CEO, this will do it. A new airplane is truly a magnificent sight.

At $7.9 million it might be a while before I can buy a CJ3+, but should I win the lottery, I’ll make a beeline for Wichita. I might be seduced by the CJ4, with its slightly longer range and higher speeds, but with the CJ3+ I’m saving a million dollars. That CJ3+ will look very good at that next high school reunion. I can’t wait to see the look on the face of that girl who turned me down for the senior prom.