Flight Test

Perfect Vision

After ten years of development, the first deliveries of General Aviation’s first single-engined personal jet have begun. It was definitely worth the wait…

Back in February 2006, I was shown around the Cirrus factory by co-founder Alan Klapmeier and PR Manager, Kate Dougherty. The tour through the SR assembly line was interesting enough, but the industry buzz was all about the company’s rumoured jet and, like everyone else, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

I can’t remember if I had to sign an NDA or just agree not to divulge anything, but eventually Alan and Kate led me into a small room where there was a very, erm, rustic looking cabin mock-up. I’m not sure I’d even go that far – it was essentially an enclosed space with seats on rails.

So there it was, a huge (by small-jet standards) cabin with seven cleverly arranged seats, massive windows and two entry and exit doors. Before too long, the Jet was announced publicly with a promise of it being the slowest, lowest and cheapest available. Numbers-wise, Cirrus said it’d cruise at 300kt at FL250 and cost around $1.4m.

“I’m not sure that anyone expected it to take over ten years to develop, certify, manufacture and deliver the SF50”

 

I’m not sure that anyone expected it to take over ten years to develop, certify, manufacture and deliver the SF50. But then I’m not sure many people foresaw the global financial crash, troubled times for GA manufacturing, a much reduced Cirrus workforce and, ultimately, its change of ownership.

Before the world went a little crazy, Cirrus’ other co-founder, Dale Klapmeier, told me that they would be first to market a single-engined personal jet. I don’t know if it was perseverance, bloody mindedness, the lack of any better options or just a belief in doing the right thing but, towards the end of 2016, the FAA certified the SF50 (EASA followed this May) and the first examples were delivered.

During the intervening decade, the SF50’s windows got a little smaller (although they remain huge), one of the doors didn’t make it through, bluntly, neither did Alan or Kate, both of whom haven’t been with Cirrus for a few years now.

Early adopters

There were, of course, people who lost faith and asked for their deposits back, a process which must have caused more than a few sleepless nights at Cirrus, when times were at their hardest. But the early adopters who ponied up $100k all those years ago are now reaping their reward. So what are they getting, and how closely does it match the early claims of the SF50 being the slowest, lowest and cheapest jet available?

A few weeks ago, we finally got the call, so we headed for Knoxville, Tennessee, to Cirrus’ new customer experience and delivery centre, to fly the much anticipated aircraft.

The first thing that strikes you is its size. Externally, the SF50 isn’t that much bigger than the SR22 – in fact, it’s just 1.5m longer, 62cm higher and the wingspan is only 11cm more. But with that extraordinarily spacious cabin, the big windows, the large ruddervators and its modern, curvaceous looks, it punches well above its weight when it comes to ramp presence. To the majority of non-aviation people, most business jets look very similar but that isn’t a mistake they’re going to make with the SF50.

While the outside looks nothing like an SR22, there are quite a few intended similarities inside. The CAPS handle is in the middle of the ceiling – it’s between the two emergency oxygen masks, and hopefully doesn’t get mistaken for them in a panic – and much of the switchgear is in the same place, as are the side sticks, flap lever and throttle, all of which has been done to ease the transition from the SR22 to SF50.

The seating’s clever and both of the front ones can be moved along their tracks while you’re standing outside the aeroplane, by using a secondary latch release at their backs. This makes access and egress pretty easy, no matter which seat you’re heading for. Behind them are the two main cabin seats and, further back, a row of three – the middle one being full-sized like the front four, while the others are only for children and each have a max weight limit of 90lb/40kg.

For flexibility, those five rear seats can be removed/reinstalled easily by the pilot, and the new layout can be configured in the SF50’s avionics, for weight-and-balance purposes. In addition to flying the aeroplane for a few hours, I spent some time sitting in the back, where the experience is significantly better than in all but the biggest single-engine turboprop, and most of the small jets too.

Matt Bergwall, Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Jet Product Line Manager, offered us the chance to test the Vision Jet over a couple of days’ flying, with an overnight stop. Matt had already done a thorough pre-flight, so before we climbed in, all that was required was to load the bags for four of us into the unpressurised rear baggage compartment, take a look at the oil level – there’s a sprung flap you push open to check a sight gauge on the starboard side of the engine nacelle – remove the chocks and have a good look to make sure there’s nothing lying around on the wing, fuselage or nearby floor which might get sucked into the engine.

Big windows

While FLYER’s Ed Hicks and Thomas Borchert of the German mag Flieger are settling in the rear cabin, I take a little time to think about the Vision Jet’s journey from mock-up to certified reality, and about how its development sometimes took place ‘at the speed of cash.’ I’ve waited a long time to sit in the front, left-hand seat of the SF50, in fact there were occasions when I thought it’d never get finished, but it’s real, I’m there and we’re about to go flying.

Right, back to the job in hand. I know I’ve mentioned the big windows before, but they make a huge first impression, so much so that the dual, 14-inch avionics screens, which would dominate any other cockpit, look well-proportioned in here.

“The dual, 14-inch Garmin Perspective Touch screens would dominate any other cockpit but look well-proportioned in here”

The avionics system, known as Perspective Touch by Garmin, is basically the company’s G3000, tailored to and integrated with the SF50. Underneath the PFD and MFD, are three GTC580 touchscreen controllers, to their right there are the environmental controls and underneath them the autopilot control head. The throttle – sorry, thrust lever – sits on a pedestal, alongside a manual trim wheel and the fuel tank selector. Above your head is the big-boy jet stuff – emergency, quick-don oxygen masks, a guarded cabin pressure dump switch and a guarded engine fire toggle switch with two push-to-discharge buttons. Oh, I nearly forgot, unlike any other Cirrus, the SF50 has a landing gear lever right in the middle of the two main avionics screens.

Both batteries go on and the avionics start to come to life and initialise. I split the left-hand PFD, bring up the before-start checklist and start to work my way through it, acknowledging every item with the push of a button.

You can imagine my hands moving fluidly between the controls – master of all that I survey. I can imagine it too, but I’m buggered if I can do it for real, so instead I clumsily and laboriously make my way through the list, one painful item at a time, until I get to the interesting bit: starting the engine. By my left hand there’s a rotary dial with just two positions, Off and Run. I turn it to the Run position and listen to check that the fuel pump’s going – it is – so all I need to do now is to briefly push the engine Start/Stop button and the FADEC does the rest. There’s a gentle whine, a whoosh and engine instruments with such expensive-sounding labels as N1, N2 and ITT come to life.

As a pilot you have no real input into the start sequence other than pushing the button. If there’s a problem or it exceeds limits, the FADEC should shut everything down – if it doesn’t then you have to – but that’s about it.

Huge windows provide stunning view. Cabin pressurises to a 6.4psi differential, so at FL280 the cabin altitude is 8,000ft

The avionics system, known as Perspective Touch by Garmin, is basically the company’s G3000, tailored to and integrated with the SF50. Underneath the PFD and MFD, are three GTC580 touchscreen controllers, to their right there are the environmental controls and underneath them the autopilot control head. The throttle – sorry, thrust lever – sits on a pedestal, alongside a manual trim wheel and the fuel tank selector. Above your head is the big-boy jet stuff – emergency, quick-don oxygen masks, a guarded cabin pressure dump switch and a guarded engine fire toggle switch with two push-to-discharge buttons. Oh, I nearly forgot, unlike any other Cirrus, the SF50 has a landing gear lever right in the middle of the two main avionics screens.

Both batteries go on and the avionics start to come to life and initialise. I split the left-hand PFD, bring up the before-start checklist and start to work my way through it, acknowledging every item with the push of a button.

You can imagine my hands moving fluidly between the controls – master of all that I survey. I can imagine it too, but I’m buggered if I can do it for real, so instead I clumsily and laboriously make my way through the list, one painful item at a time, until I get to the interesting bit: starting the engine. By my left hand there’s a rotary dial with just two positions, Off and Run. I turn it to the Run position and listen to check that the fuel pump’s going – it is – so all I need to do now is to briefly push the engine Start/Stop button and the FADEC does the rest. There’s a gentle whine, a whoosh and engine instruments with such expensive-sounding labels as N1, N2 and ITT come to life.

As a pilot you have no real input into the start sequence other than pushing the button. If there’s a problem or it exceeds limits, the FADEC should shut everything down – if it doesn’t then you have to – but that’s about it.

Cleared as filed

If you’re familiar with Garmin’s AERA or 795 handheld GPS units then you’ll be au fait with the symbology and architecture of the Perspective Touch system. That said, the addition of three touch-control screens – one of which is also a backup PFD display, if you’re having a really, really bad day with multiple system failures – makes things a little less intuitive and slightly more complicated.

With the engine running, we get the air conditioning on and call for our clearance. This being the USA, we’d filed IFR DCT at FL280 and, thankfully, the clearance was essentially ‘cleared as filed’ so loading the flight-plan didn’t require too much button-mashing. Having the flight plan in the system and setting things like the departure runway makes a couple of things happen – Garmin’s Surface Watch keeps an eye on you, making it harder to depart from the wrong runway or taxiway – hey, it happens, particularly in low ground visibility – and the pressurisation system picks up the altitude of your landing airfield and runs automatically. In fact, apart from an emergency cabin pressure dump switch in the ceiling there’s nothing you can do to control the pressurisation anyway.

I taxi to the runway, and pull up the before-take-off checklist for the departure briefing, the interesting part of which revolves around CAPS usage. If things go seriously wrong below 1,000ft agl, we’re landing straight ahead. If it happens between 1,000ft and 2,000ft, we’re immediately activating CAPS. At any altitude above 2,000ft, we’re taking the time to troubleshoot the problem. Interestingly, the SF50 has a glide ratio of about 14:1, so getting on for fifty per cent better than most piston singles.

In the calm, hot conditions of the day, and at max weight, the book suggests we’ll need just under 3,000ft of runway to get airborne, and just under 5,000ft to clear the mythical 50ft-high obstacle. Knoxville has 9,000ft available so no problem, but it’s something that transitioning piston pilots will need to watch, given that, for most SEPs, runway lengths tend not be a limiting factor at many of the airports we use.

Cleared for take-off, I move the thrust lever fully forwards, to the stop, and through a slight detent that’ll come in handy later. The FADEC commands the Williams FJ33 engine to deliver its maximum thrust of 1,846lb and we accelerate along the runway. At this point, transitioning piston pilots are going to be thinking ‘wow’, as the smooth power increasingly accelerates the SF50 towards the 90kt rotate speed. Pilots more used to flying twin jets are also going to be thinking ‘wow’, as speed gathers much more slowly than they’re used to.

Without the self-centring springs of the SR series, the aerodynamic forces bring the side stick alive as we gather speed. It feels normal up to about 70kt, but I’m not used to still being on the ground as we accelerate through 80kt and towards 90kt, where it takes a positive movement to rotate.

The technique is to pitch for 5º nose up, retracting the gear when you have a positive rate of climb and flaps up at 115kt. The controls are a bit heavier than you’d get in a piston aircraft, but the aeroplane responds nicely and is very easy to hand-fly.

Remember that detent I mentioned? Full-power is only available for five minutes, so without the urgency of a looming chunk of terrain the thrust lever comes back into the detent, and from then on the FADEC manages things, to give me Max Continuous Thrust (MCT).

At 1,000ft I turn the autopilot on, select its Flight Level Change (FLC) mode and use the dial to choose the airspeed we want to climb at, 159kt, which gives us 1,200fpm down low. Some 25 minutes after rolling down the runway in Knoxville, we’re in the cruise at FL280 with a true airspeed of 277kt, which is shown on the speed tape as M 0.451 – it changed from knots to Mach as we passed through 18,400ft or so. This is a bit slower than the 300kt we were hoping for, so we pull up the system page on the MFD and see that the OAT is 16° higher than ISO and, in a jet, that has consequences for both speed and fuel burn.

The impeccable slow-speed handling is backed up by both a stick shaker and stick pusher

Fuel burn

Actually, now is a good time to talk about fuel burn. If you’ve spoken to people who fly turboprops and jets, you’ll know that they tend to talk about fuel in terms of weight rather than gallons, but Cirrus has chosen to stick with the latter. I guess that’s because gallons are a more familiar unit for piston pilots, so it’s the consumption number rather than the units which take a bit of getting used to. For starters, the fuel consumption on the ground, when idling, is eighteen gallons per hour, about what an SR22T will do in high-speed cruise.

In the SF50, because it inevitably starts on the ground and climbs through thicker and warmer air, the first hour of every flight will consume 80 to 85 gallons of fuel, and subsequent hours when you’re at or close to FL280 between 65 and 70 gallons an hour. The tanks take a total of 298.5 U.S. gallons, but we had something like 220 gallons on board (obviously, thanks to Ed’s heavy camera bag, rather than my big frame) so we tended to think in legs of about two hours, which gave plenty of reserve.

Heading north, we knew that we’d need to cross some weather, so we started looking at our plan early on. The avionics give you access to ADS-B weather, Nexrad weather (U.S.-only) and, thanks to the Garmin GWX 70 in the nose, weather radar. All three paint a slightly different picture, which is understandable, given the time delays and technology involved, so we’re tending to use the Nexrad for longer-range strategic route planning, and a combination of the weather radar, looking out of the window and agreed deviations with ATC for more tactical weather avoidance.

Descent calculations

The SF50 may not fly as high or as fast as other jets, but it still takes a bit of planning to get down from FL280, particularly if you’re covering five miles of ground every minute. Most of the time, ATC takes care of the problem for you, and there are various rules of thumb you can use to work things out for yourself, but it’s easier to set up the avionics to do the sums for you. Just decide when you want to be at a particular level and the rate of descent required, and it’ll calculate the top of descent (TOD) and mark it on the navigation screen for you.

Before starting our descent, we briefed the approach, loaded it into the flight-plan and discussed target airspeeds. Prior to reaching the TOD mark on the nav screen, the controller started our descent. In some aeroplanes it’s a job to get down and slow down at the same time, but the SF50 makes life easy in this regard.

With good VFR at the airfield, we were given a visual approach so I disconnected the autopilot at 5,000ft to get some more hands-on time. The Vision Jet is a delight to
fly in these conditions – speed control is easy, flap and landing gear extension speeds are high (190kt and 210kt, respectively) and the visibility, as you can imagine, is excellent. The avionics provide you with a Vref doughnut on the speed tape, and you basically fly Vref + 10kt speed on final, slowing further to land which, thanks to the trailing link gear, is generally flattering.

So how does the Vision Jet measure up to the company’s performance targets? Pretty well. In ISA conditions, it’ll do 300kt at FL280 (FL250 was originally planned) and if you don’t have too many ‘Go large on my Big Mac’ people on board, you can take enough fuel for 1,000nm + IFR reserves. A lot of effort has gone into designing a jet that’s an easy step up from a high-performance piston aircraft. The cockpit design is neat, welcoming and logical, and the flying characteristics won’t surprise anyone.

However, there are some challenges for the aspiring Vision Jet pilot – things happen quickly at 300kt, more so if there’s a hefty tailwind, so staying ahead of the game is important. We all brief instrument approaches in advance, but jet pilots tend to do a bit more, working out where they might leave the runway and may go after that.

Fuel-planning also becomes a little more complex – a fuel load that looks adequate when you start your take-off roll can become marginal en route, thanks to not getting cleared to your desired altitude, higher temperatures or stronger headwinds, and as you’re covering longer distances faster, your chances of encountering adverse weather increase. All of that will be thoroughly covered in the type rating, and while the SF50 must be one of the easiest jets to fly, it’s still a step up from a piston.

Happily, for Cirrus, the rewards for being the last single-engined jet standing look like they’re going to be considerable. There are 29 SF50s currently in production and an order book of 600 to be worked through, at a rate which should eventually ramp up to about 100 a year.

However, this is Cirrus we’re talking about, and there’s no way that whoever gets serial number 600, or probably even 200, will be flying the same jet that’s being delivered today. Buried in the Duluth factory is a team of engineers who can’t leave things alone and I’m sure that, like the SR series, the SF50 is going to be continually developed. Right now, though, the SF50 is the perfect jet for piston pilots, and I’m sure that it’ll only get better.

Light jet overcast

When Vern Raburn announced the Eclipse, he started one very expensive ball rolling. Cessna announced the Citation Mustang and Adams the A700 twin jet, before they’d finished the A500 push-pull piston, while Diamond Aircraft had the D-Jet project, Piper started work on the Altaire jet, I can’t even remember how many projects Epic’s Rick Schrameck announced and, of course, Cirrus also got busy. Regulators and ATC planners got worried, while men in white shirts with lots of gold bars wondered how the world would cope with a bunch of owner-flown jets sharing flight levels.

These companies must have burned through many billions of dollars, but the sky isn’t anywhere near being overcast with light jets – frankly, it struggles to make scattered, on a good day.

Vern’s company failed, was rescued and now exists as One Aviation (lead by CEO Alan Klapmeier). Cessna, now Textron Aviation, no longer builds the Mustang. Adams is no more. Piper’s Altaire was cancelled and the one prototype sits outside the Sun ’n Fun museum at Lakeland, Florida, while the D-Jet is either cancelled or suspended, depending on who you talk to. However, the Cirrus Jet, Vision Jet or SF50 – it’s been called all three over the years – is now in production and being delivered, with 600 deposits and a backlog that’s measured in years.

CAPS and energy

Fitting the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS) to the SR series of aircraft has worked out pretty well. It’s been a significant factor in the aircraft’s sales success and, more importantly, it’s returned 146 people to their families, having been used 71 times in anger.

So when news broke that Cirrus was building a jet, everyone wanted to know if it’d have a parachute. The company said yes, but over the last couple of years I’m betting a few people around the boardroom table have pondered the wisdom of that decision. There’s no getting away from the fact that there’s an awful lot more energy to worry about in a near three-tonne jet capable of 300kt than there is in an under two-tonne aeroplane doing about 180kt. Getting it right is both hard and expensive.

A lot of the drop testing was done using water-filled septic tanks, not for their aerodynamic properties, but because it made the clear up after a failed canopy deployment a lot easier. Eventually the right combination of variables was found, culminating in a test CAPS firing from manned flight in an actual SF50 (there’s video on the FLYER website).

Unlike the SR series, the CAPS in the SF50 didn’t provide an alternative method of meeting some of the certification requirements. So, in contrast to the SR series, an owner could, in theory at least, get an STC to remove the CAPS from the SF50, although I doubt that anyone will.

Even at the CAPS deployment speeds – 140kt IAS for the SR series and 135kt IAS for the SF50 – there’s over fifty per cent more energy to deal with. That means things in the jet don’t work in exactly the same way, should you need to pull the big red handle in the ceiling. If you’re at or below the deployment airspeed of 135kt IAS or 145kt TAS, pulling the handle will activate CAPS immediately. But if your airspeed is higher, doing so engages the autopilot in CAPS mode while reducing the thrust to idle. The autopilot will attempt to bring the SF50 under control and slow it to activation speed, then as soon as that number’s reached, the CAPS fires. Should things not go to plan, it’ll fire after thirty seconds, regardless of airspeed.

Learning to fly

The SF50 may have been designed to make the transition from piston SR to jet SF as easy as possible, but that engine on the back means that SF50 pilots will need a type rating before flying as PIC. Traditionally, manufacturers have turned to such third parties as CAE, Flight Safety or L3 for type rating training, but Cirrus took an early decision to keep complete control over the process, and provide it factory-direct, through both its facility in Knoxville and its European training partner, Aero Poznań in Poland.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Vision Jet on order, then a year to eighteen months before delivery you’ll get a flight skills assessment which, on the face of it, sounds a bit daunting (who likes to have their skills tested?). However, talking to Piotr Długiewicz, founder and chief pilot of Aero Poznań, the process is more of a friendly consultation and emphatically not a test. Following that process, an individual training programme has been developed which includes e-learning and training on the Perspective Touch avionics. Piotr’s view is that a tailored training programme, leading to a type rating, can be designed for anyone – from a very rusty, inexperienced pilot to a hot-shot skygod.

Right now, the flight training portion is done in the aircraft, but once the sim in Knoxville comes online it’ll be possible to complete zero flight-time type ratings. Both FAA and EASA type ratings will be available to deal with the upcoming EASA requirements, even if you’re flying N-reg (and that’s another story entirely). You’ll need a couple of things before being issued with an SF50 type rating: an Instrument Rating and either ATPL theory passes or a High Performance Aircraft (HPA) endorsement. Given the way that the course is individually structured, the HPA can be  completed during the type rating training and, if required, instrument rating training can also be included.

Piotr is now working through the EASA approvals and requirements, for both the type rating and the full-motion EASA FTD simulator in Poland, so you’ll fly ten hours over five sessions and then be required to go with a mentor pilot, for between zero and fifty hours, depending on your jet experience. In terms of costs, if you’re a buyer, you get one free type rating (on your own aircraft). If you’re a second pilot then, for an FAA type rating, you can expect to pay $15,900 if you supply the aircraft or $35,900 should you need to rent one from Cirrus.

Tech Spec

Performance

VMO/MMO 250kt IAS/0.53M
Max cruise speed 300kt TAS
Stall speed 67kt (full flap)
Rate of climb 1,200-2,500fpm
Take-off over 50ft 3,192ft (973m)
Landing groundroll 1,628ft (496m)
Range 1,000nm
Fuel burn 69usg/h @ FL280

Weights & loadings

Seats 5/7
Mtow 6,000lb (2,722kg)
Empty weight 3,572lb (1,620kg)
Payload 2,428lb (1,102kg)
Payload with full fuel 427lb (194kg)
Baggage 300lb (136kg)
Max usable fuel 296usg (2,001lb)

Dimensions

Wingspan 38.7ft (11.79m)
Wing area 195.7sq ft (18.18sqm)
Length 30.7ft (9.42m)
Height 10.9ft (3.32m)
Cabin width 5.1ft (1.56m)
Cabin height 4.1ft (1.24m)

Spec

Airframe Carbon-fibre
Engine Williams FJ33-5A
Thrust 1,846lbs
Undercarriage Nosewheel, retractable

Manufacturer

Cirrus Aircraft 4515 Taylor Circle, Duluth MN 55811 www.cirrusaircraft.com

Contact

UK agent Cirrus Aircraft UK Sywell Aerodrome, Hall Farm, Sywell, Northants NN6 0BN www.cirrusaircraft.co.uk

Price

Base Price approx $2m (2017)

European training

Aero Poznań www.poznan.aero

JetStream - Power by the hour

It’s common for jet owners and operators to subscribe to ownership programmes, which take the worry and hassle out of the equation. The Cirrus programme is called JetStream, and it works on two levels.

JetStream Plus takes care of all scheduled maintenance, while JetStream Concierge adds unscheduled maintenance, wear-and-tear items, a ten-year parachute repack and database updates.

The cost? Coverage for 300 hours over two years costs $99,900 for JetStream Plus and $107,900 for Concierge.

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