Cirrus SR20

an owner's review by Philip Greenspun, ATP, CFII, in July 2005, updated May 2011

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Cirrus's SR20 is a low-wing four-seat composite airplane best known for its incorporation of an airframe parachute, which, in the event of a midair collision or other disaster, can float the plane and its passengers down for a 1,500 fpm landing on the ground. The plane was introduced in 1999, and within a few years Cirrus Design was selling more four-seat piston-powered airplanes than anyone but Cessna. The Cirrus is remarkable for its cruise speed of 150-155 knots on 12 gallons per hour of fuel through its six-cylinder 200hp fuel-injected Continental engine. The SR20 sells for just over $300,000 nicely equipped (Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, synthetic vision, Garmin autopilot with flight director, satellite weather, on-screen approach plates; basic terrain warning, basic (TIS) traffic warning, no Stormscope, no enhanced vision).

The things that distinguish the Cirrus from its competitors such as the Diamond Star DA40 and the Cessna 172/182 are the following:

This review is based on the personal ownership experience of the author, who took delivery in May 2005 of the 522nd SR20 built at Cirrus's Duluth, Minnesota factory, an "SR20-G2". The author has flown the airplane, christened N707WT, from Boston to Kugluktuk, Nunavut on the Arctic Ocean, down into Anchorage, Alaska, and then back to Boston. The plane has flown the Caribbean islands. The author also used the airplane for his CFII training and checkride. As of April 2009, the author has approximately 500 hours of SR20 time, most of those in N707WT.

The author has extensive experience with the Garmin G1000 avionics installed in the latest Cirrus aircraft, but only limited exposure to Cirrus's unique version.

Safety

Cirrus has marketed its airplanes to generic rich guys (i.e., nonpilots) with ads in generic rich guy magazines, a strategy that Beech, Cessna, and Piper pursued in the 1970s but gave up when airplanes went out of mass production and yuppies decided that flying themselves around was too dangerous. Cirrus's advertising stresses the enhanced safety provided by the airframe parachute and the computer screens showing the airplane's position relative to airports, mountains, weather, etc. The combination of novice pilots and a fast airplane resulted in a mournful accident record that was reflected in high insurance rates and recurrent training requirements similar to what you'd find on a twin-engine plane or pressurized single. Accident and insurance rates started coming down in 2006 and the Cirrus has settled into roughly the same safety record as other planes with similar speeds and wing loadings.

If the engine were to quit over water or the mountains at night, the parachute would be a nice feature indeed. However, mechanical failures are not a very common cause of small airplane crashes. Indeed, after 10 years and thousands of Cirruses operating worldwide, engine failure followed by parachute deployment has never occurred.

Aside from the parachute, the Cirrus has a fair number of pro-safety features: (1) modern 26G safety cockpit, (2) angled firewall on the G2 models (introduced Fall 2004) to encourage skidding rather than crunching on a nose-first landing, (3) four-point seatbelts (with airbags starting in 2006), (4) good visibility, (5) highly redundant electrical supply.

In terms of avoiding an accident, one problem with the Cirrus is its unforgiving handling compared to other basic four-seaters. For pilots accustomed to learning about an impending stall by feeling reduced airloads on the flight controls, the Cirrus provides much less stall warning. This is due to spring cartridges that continue to resist flight control movement even when the airplane is not moving. In other words, the flight controls feel similar whether you're flying or stalled.

Once a pilot has gotten sloppy with airspeed, the plane is harder to keep level with rudders in a stall than a Cessna or Diamond; if in a deep uncoordinated stall, the Cirrus wants to drop a wing and go into a spin. Thanks to a "split-airfoil" wing design, in which the inner portion of the wing has a higher angle of attack than the outer portion, the Cirrus gives more of a stall buffet warning than many airplanes. The outer portion of the wings, which are in front of the ailerons, are still flying and permitting the pilot to control roll with the yoke, even as the inner sections of the wings may be stalled and creating a warning buffet. This illustrates one of the advantages of composite construction; you could build a metal wing like this, but it would be very costly.

A pilot with 800 hours in the SR22 noted that in his experience it is not nearly as docile as the Cessna 172 and Piper Arrow that he had trained on. A CFI ("certificated flight instructor") who now flies the $3 million Pilatus PC-12 says "The Cirrus is a plane designed to go fast. You shouldn't be flying it slow. It is trickier to handle in a stall than a 172 or the Pilatus."

Once in a spin the SR20 and SR22 are virtually impossible to recover, according to the test pilots. Remember that spin testing in certification is done with a special tail parachute for breaking the spin that can then be cut away inflight. NASA puts this best:

"Because unrecoverable spins may be encountered during initial aircraft stall/spin flight tests, spin test aircraft are commonly equipped with emergency spin-recovery parachute systems, which can be deployed to terminate the spinning motion and reduce the aircraft angle of attack to below stall conditions. The parachute is then jettisoned by the pilot and conventional flight resumed."
http://oea.larc.nasa.gov/PAIS/Concept2Reality/spin_technology.html (contains some photos of spin-recovery parachutes)
You learn more about such parachutes at http://www.airborne-sys.com/pdfs/TheSystemApproachSpinStall.pdf.

You're not going to be flying with a certification-testing parachute, however. A Cirrus pilot's only option is to pull the big main CAPS parachute and hope that he or she has not built up too much speed for the cords. A couple of new owners in Parish, NY managed to stall and spin their plane all the way down from 5000' AGL on April 24, 2002. Multi-engine planes don't have to be spin certified, and a lot of them are probably even nastier in a stall than the Cirrus, but very seldom are they sold to beginner pilots. A lot of single-engine four-seaters, notably Pipers and the Diamond Star, will just mush downward if you cut the power and hold the stick or yoke all the way back. Nearly all single-engine four-seaters will come out of a spin by themselves if you stop holding pro-spin rudder and let go of the yoke. The Cirrus demands more respect and more training. Ideally you should do your stall practice with the plane loaded up with passengers and baggage. Many four-seaters, including the Cirrus, take on a different personality when light on fuel and only the two front seats are occupied versus when fully loaded with a more aft center of gravity.

Cirrus uses wet wings rather than an aluminum fuel tank tucked inside the wing. Any crack in the plastic from an accident turns into a fuel leak, and the planes have had a tendency to catch on fire after crashing, unlike Diamonds, for example, which have a welded aluminum tank inside their wings.

Running out of gas is the most common cause of engine stoppage in planes of this class. The Cirrus is about average in the amount of assistance that it gives the pilot in avoiding running one or both tanks dry. Flying a stripped model without the Emax engine-monitoring option, the pilot must rely on float-type fuel gauges that aren't very stable or accurate. With Emax a disciplined pilot can record fuel burn from each tank and, using pencil and paper, calculate the fuel remaining in each tank. An annunciator lights up when both fuel tanks are below 8.5 gallons. This is based solely on the readings from the float gauges, not on an independent system. If a pilot gets distracted and runs one tank entirely dry, there will be no warning. By comparison, the Diamond Star DA40 has a capacitive-style fuel gauge that is more accurate and stable, with a digital readout. The DA40 has a totally separate float-style low fuel gauge in each tank and an annunciator that lights up when either tank gets down to within a few gallons of empty. The DA40 gives you an audio alert as well when the low fuel light comes on.

The average Avidyne Cirrus shipped with two outside air temperature (OAT) sensors, one for the Avidyne primary flight display (PFD) that is mounted on the wing and one for the Emax engine monitoring system that is mounted on the right side of the engine cowling. The Cirrus comes out of the factory, however, with the PFD OAT display disabled. The Emax OAT is displayed on the Avidyne multi-function display (MFD). I asked some of the University of North Dakota instructors who give the factory-authorized training why this should be, and they responded "Because the readings differ by six degrees." Six degrees Fahrenheit? "Celsius." (!) In N707WT we were lucky enough to run into a mechanic who knew how to go into the PFD maintenance pages and reenable the PFD OAT display. Sure enough it read six degrees C lower. Then we had the question "Which one is right?" As we were about to fly into wet clouds and the MFD read +4 while the PFD read -2, this was a live issue. The jets on the same frequency were kind enough to give us the readings from their multi-million dollar avionics suite: -1 or -2. As we got into the clouds, the PFD read -4 and the MFD read a cheerful +3. The frost accumulating on the wings added some more credence to the airliners' and PFD's reports. If you hear about a Cirrus pilot picking up ice at night and crashing, before you call him a fool ask yourself "What if he had only the MFD OAT reading and it showed the air above freezing?"

An Avidyne Cirrus has just six annunciators: oil (high temp or low pressure), Alt1, Alt2, low volts, low fuel, pitot heat failure. The pitot heat-failure light goes on if you've engaged the switch but no current is being drawn. If the OAT is below freezing and you've forgotten to turn on the pitot heat switch, you won't get a reminder from the annunciator panel. (The Garmin Cirrus has a "pitot heat" caution that is perpetually stuck on, regardless of outside air temperature.)

For a simple airplane the Cirrus has a truly fabulous amount of redundancy in electrical supply. There is no vacuum system, and therefore there are no vacuum pumps to fail or vacuum gyros to quietly and gradually fall over. With an all-electric airplane, however, you really don't want the music to stop after an alternator quits. The SR20 has a belt-driven 75-amp, 28-volt Alternator 1 and a big main battery in the front. That is pretty much where Diamond stopped in the all-electric Star. If the alternator fails in a DA40, you flip the essential bus switch to shut down half of the gizmos and have about 45 minutes to land before the radios die and you're left with just a small brick of AA batteries to power the attitude indicator. Cirrus, however, added a 20-amp gear-driven alternator at the back of the engine and a second, smaller battery just behind the back of the cabin. If Alt1 and Bat1 have been exhausted, you can run the PFD, GPS1/COM1, and the autopilot indefinitely from Alt2. If Alt2 dies, the essential bus is fed automatically by a diode connecting it to the main bus.

In complex airplanes the autopilot can be one's best friend or worst enemy. The Cirrus is potentially trickier than some airplanes because of its persistent aileron trim. If you are unhappy with what the autopilot on a Diamond, Cessna, or Piper is doing and disconnect it to hand fly, you might have to deal with a plane that is badly out of pitch trim. The autopilot might have been trying to hold altitude despite a power loss, for example, and be trimmed 10 degrees nose up. The Cirrus has aileron trim. The autopilot might have been trying to turn right, for example, to hold heading in turbulence. You take the plane back and then have to deal with a plane that wants to bank 30 degrees right and pitch up. With a center stick or yoke you can use all the power in your arm muscles to wrestle the plane back under control and then retrim. With the Cirrus's side yoke, however, you're using your much weaker wrist muscles to put the plane back to straight and level.

A lot of Cirrus owners are beginner pilots who don't have an appreciation for the real risks of getting from Point A to Point B by air. They think that they can take an airframe and engine with very limited capabilities and cram it full of fancy electronics to add safety. That is how we end up with SR22s that have almost all the avionic bells and whistles of a Boeing 777 and cost $600,000. In theory all of this stuff will keep you safe while plowing through the clouds hour after hour. For only a little more money, however, you could buy a slightly beat Piper Meridian. The Meridian has a jet-powered turboprop engine so it can climb up to 30,000', an altitude that is above most clouds and generally so cold that the air can hardly hold any moisture. For comfort at that altitude without an oxygen mask, the Meridian has pressurization. For getting up and down through icing layers the Meridian is certified for known icing by the FAA and has a heated prop and windshield plus boots on the wings and tail (and an ice light if you're crazy enough to fly in icing conditions at night). A typical flight in the Meridian might involve five minutes of instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) on the way up and the way down but otherwise bright sunshine above the clouds, just as in a jet. This is an inherently safer way to travel that has nothing to do with the avionics. The latest Cirrus is available with known ice certification, but it adds a lot of weight and really it would be better to climb up and through the icing layer.

Safety conclusion: The basic Cirrus is very safe if flown like a jet, with one eye on the airspeed indicator at all times. Piling on hundred of thousands of dollars in extra avionics won't make it substantially safer.

Preflight

Passenger and baggage capacity with the 56-gallon (usable) fuel tanks full is about 540 pounds in an old 3000 lb. gross weight airplane with skimpy avionics (to accommodate the extra weight of the Garmin, Cirrus obtained a 3050 lb. gross weight for the SR20-G3; it would be unwise to try short field takeoffs in the summer at 3050 lbs. given that the engine is still only 200 hp). Baggage is stored in a fairly large area behind the two rear seats, which do fold forward in case you want to carry bulky cargo such as a bicycle. To fold the seats forward, you remove a hidden pin. The seats don't lie flat, however, in this configuration, and some owners remove them altogether when they are carrying cargo.

Preflighting the airplane takes less than 10 minutes. Make sure to check tire inflation. The wheel pants fit tightly. If the tires are not fully inflated, they will bulge out and ruin the wheel pants on landing. This will cost you about $1,200 times 3 wheel pants. Unlike other manufacturers, Cirrus does not placard the wheel pants with the required tire pressure. If you replace the inner tubes, make sure that you do so with Michelin Airstop or the Goodyear equivalent. These are circa-2004 rubber formulations that are much less subject to leakage than earlier generations of airplane inner tubes. (The plane comes from the factory with the fancy Goodyear tubes.)

One unusual preflight item are Telatemp patches on the brakes, viewable through a circular hole in the wheel pants. On August 4, 2005 a Cirrus pilot who used his brakes to abort a takeoff taxied off the runway and shut down to inspect his pitot tube. Upon exiting the aircraft, he found "the landing gear engulfed in flames" and a lot of the wing burned up. Fortunately he was at a large airport with a fire truck that responded rapidly because otherwise the wing tank would probably have ignited. In March 2005 a Cirrus at Half Moon Bay caught fire under similar circumstances. The plane took five months to repair and gained 57 lbs. in the process.

Cirrus's theory is that the brake seals fail when overheated, either via aggressive braking on landing or by dragging the brakes during taxi. Upon the next landing, hitting the brakes hard heats them up and results in some fluid leakage. The fluid catches on fire. Cirrus issued an Airworthiness Directive and added the Telatemps (might be nicer to have more robust brakes!).

Don't be surprised if you see some blue fluid leaking from a vent tube underneath the cowling right next to the gascolator drain. This is normal highly condensed Avgas. Theoretically the amount of leakage can be reduced with aggressive leaning on the ground and not using the boost pump on the ground.

Pay close attention to the landing light especially if the airplane has recently been decowled for an oil change or whatever. It is easy for the landing light to become disconnected, and indeed the landing light on N707WT was inadvertently disconnected during its first visit to a Cirrus Authorized Service Center.

Be careful when checking the oil. The first thing to watch is to make sure that you don't let the latches spring back all the way once released. Guard them with your fingers or they can crack the fiberglass cover, especially if the weather is cold. Every engine has its own preferred level of oil, and any excess will be blown out. For N707WT the level is about 6.3 quarts. If you add a quart when the dipstick reads just above 6, you'll find that after one hour of flight the entire belly of the airplane is covered in a fine coat of oil and that the dipstick reads 6.3. Finally look to make sure that the oil cap isn't rusting on the inside. A friend with an SR20 took his out, wirebrushed it, and painted it with propeller epoxy. N707WT's oil cap began showing signs of similar rust after about two months. This is more than a simple cosmetic problem because the rust will fall off and end up inside the oil sump and engine.

The SR20 and SR22 share the same fuselage and interior dimensions. The interior is rather spacious compared to a Mooney, for example, though getting into the rear seats involves pushing the front seats forward and a certain amount of agility. The rear-seat passengers have a lot of legroom, a very good view, and the same four-point inertia-reel seatbelts as the front-seat passengers. The front seats adjust forward and back and also recline for long flights. The cabin tends to impress non-pilots. My first female passenger said "Everywhere you want there to be a handhold there is one; they put a lot of thought into this design."

Remind your passengers not to kneel on the seats. The areas underneath the seats are a honeycomb of aluminum intended to crush in a downward impact, e.g., if you fall out of the sky under the parachute. They will also crush locally if subjected to the full weight of a person concentrated in the area of a knee.

Starting the engine is easy whether hot or cold, primed or not primed. The Continental IO-360 in the Cirrus starts noticeably easier than the Lycoming IO-360 in my old Diamond Star DA40.

The pretaxi and runup checklists in the Avidyne MFD lack a lot of the items that you'd probably want to check. Unfortunately these can't be edited. So basically you're back to paper if you want to check things such as "boost pump on before takeoff".

Taxiing the SR20 in a straight line is accomplished via differential braking or full rudder deflection. The nose wheel is not steerable.

Takeoff

The SR20 requires fairly long takeoff rolls and offers only middling climb rates at the 3,000 lb. gross weight. For example, at 4,000' with an outside temperature of 30 degrees C the ground roll will be 2,346' and distance to clear a 50' obstacle 3,285'. A Diamond Star under the same conditions rolls for about 1,800' and clears the obstacle in about 2,700', similar to what a Cessna 172 can do. If you're out West in the summer, review the takeoff distance and climb rate charts before departing. Helpfully much of these performance data are available right in the MFD, in case reaching into the back seat for the P.O.H. is too much trouble.

Rotation speed is just shy of 70 knots. Older SR20s were shipped with no tail skid, so be careful when practicing soft field takeoffs. Overrotation will cause you to strike the tail tie-down on the runway and spend a few thousand dollars on fiberglass repair. The latest SR20s include an enormous plastic tailskid/tiedown that can be retrofitted to older aircraft as well.

The SR20 needs only a steady pressure on the right rudder to keep in trim during a climb, though the actual deflection of the pedal is fairly small. The SR22 needs a bit more of a shove.

[The Garmin G1000 SR20s are about 50 lbs. heavier empty and the legal gross weight is bumped up to 3050 lbs. The engine remains the same 200 horsepower. On a hot day, even at sea level, don't expect much of a climb.]

En-route Comfort

The Cirrus has enough room inside that you can stretch out a bit and aren't pushed up against your companions. It is nice to be able to recline the seats a bit in cruise and then put them back up near vertical for approach and landing. The side yoke makes it possible for the panel to be much lower than in a Cessna or Mooney, something that short pilots will appreciate. As an instructor sitting in the right seat, you get a truly fabulous view over the nose. Because you don't have a stick in your lap, as with a Diamond Star, it is easier to review approach plates, charts, or the P.O.H. Tall and big people appreciate the overall roominess compared to other basic four-seat airplanes (though the Garmin SR22-G3 seems to have less knee room than the Avidyne SR20-G2). After a few hours you might notice that the seat cushions aren't very cushy compared to, say, car seats. This is partly because heavily padded seats detract from crashworthiness and increase the amount of G-forces transferred to passengers.

Turbulent summer afternoons will not be comfortable unless you climb. The 22 lbs./sq.ft. wing loading on the SR20 is heavier than a Cessna 172 (15 lbs.) but lighter than a passenger-oriented plane like the Beech Baron (27 lbs.). The lighter the wing loading the more a plane gets pushed around by bumps. The faster a plane goes the more dramatic those bumps will be. For light planes the SR20 falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum as far as both wing loading and airspeed are concerned. Composite planes are more rigid than aluminum planes, however, so what bumps there are tend to get transferred to your body rather than being soaked up with flexing. Both the SR20 and the SR22 are hot inside due to the large amount of window space and the lack of a high wing providing shade. Only the SR22 can take air conditioning, and it is a $15,000 rather heavy option.

The main challenge to being comfortable in flight is interior noise. Cirrus is trying to market these planes to yuppies who've never flown light aircraft before and who lost interest in old metal airplanes because they were too noisy and uncomfortable compared to a modern car. Well, according to a Radio Shack sound-level meter, the Cirrus is actually noisier than an old Cessna, even when the Cirrus is throttled back to 55 percent power. Up front the Cirrus is 94 or 95 dBA in cruise with the (even noisier) eyeball vents closed. The back seats are closer to 87 dBA, which is good for transporting dogs. A Honda Accord at 70 mph subjects its occupants to around 65 dBA of noise, or about 1/30th the noise level of the Cirrus. OSHA requires hearing protection for workers when a factory sound level exceeds 85 dBA. I fly the Cirrus while wearing foam earplugs and a noise-cancelling headset. If you want to do the same, make sure that you don't get a Bose headset. The speakers in a Bose headset cannot handle the full power of the Garmin audio panel and radios. So if you crank up the volume on your radio to hear it through the earplugs, you'll blow out the speakers in the Bose headsets. The Lightspeed Zulu, Telex 50D, and the Sennheiser all have drivers that can handle the higher sound levels and both are available with LEMO connectors that let you plug them into the Cirrus's "Bose-style" outlets so that you can have noise cancellation without a battery pack.

For transporting dogs and other non-headset-wearing creatures, it seems that 65 percent power in N707WT results in the lowest measured sound levels. If you're shopping for a used Cirrus and this is an important factor, try out a few different machines. SR22 owners who've flown in others' airplanes report that some are noticeably quieter and some are noticeably noisier than their own. The G2 models do not seem to be any quieter than the older G1 models. An SR22-G3 measured 98 dBA on takeoff in the front seats. In cruise, at 75 percent power, the SR22-G3 measured 95 dBA in the front seats and about 92 dBA in the back seats.

[In 2011, MT certified a four-blade prop for the Cirrus SR22 and, due to the slower tip speeds, it may result in substantially reduced interior noise. I haven't been able to test-fly one yet.]

The Fancy Glass Panel (Avidyne)

The Avidyne primary flight display (PFD) offers a big artificial horizon on top with an airspeed tape on the left and an altimeter tape on the right. Underneath is a horizontal situation indicator (HSI) with a turn rate indicator. All of the functions of an air data computer are built in so you get a continuous readout of true air speed, ground speed, and a wind vector labeled with magnetic direction and velocity. At some point during your startup, taxi-out, and runup you'll need to remain stationary for about 30 seconds so the system can align itself. In practice this turns out to be a nonissue and almost always the PFD was ready before we were.

For a jet pilot the PFD might be easier to fly precisely than the "traditional six" round steam gauges. And having such a huge attitude indicator can be a powerful reminder that things aren't right if a pilot has become distracted. For a novice pilot, however, it is harder to pick up on deviations. Consider the humble round mechanical altimeter, for example. En-route on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight, you will be at an altitude that is a whole thousand, e.g., 8,000'. This means that the biggest needle on the altimeter will be pointing straight up. If you've lost or gained 100' it is pretty easy to see out of the corner of your eye that something isn't right because that needle is no longer straight up and down. The altitude tape on the PFD has mostly the same appearance whether you're at, above, or below your assigned altitude. It is absolutely critical to set the heading bug so that you have at least some chance of catching a deviation. There is nothing in a Cirrus to alert you to an altitude deviation, unlike in most Cessnas, Diamonds, Mooneys, and Pipers whose autopilot systems will provide an audio beep if you stray more than 200' from the altitude dialed into the autopilot's altitude preselector. If you're IFR and you don't want to risk an FAA violation, it is probably best to leave the Cirrus on autopilot.

If the LCD backlight on the PFD goes out, you must revert to the steam gauges underneath and you lose the ability to fly an instrument landing system (ILS) approach because the only glide slope display is on the PFD. There is no way to use the MFD screen to show the PFD info, as is possible with the Garmin G1000 system.

During training in Duluth we pulled the breakers on the PFD, which can be powered from either the main or essential electrical bus, and then attempted an airborne realignment. This was unsuccessful in occasional light bumps at 3,500' above mean sea level (MSL) but after we climbed to 5,500' into glass-smooth air we were able to get the PFD back. After "greaser" landings, the PFD continued to function during the taxi in or on the go. After a slight clunker, however, the PFD lost alignment and big red X's covered the attitude indicator and HSI. It came back after we sat on the ground for 30 seconds (this landing was not my best work ever but it was nowhere near as hard as a typical student landing a Katana or 172). At 65 hours the PFD "red-screened" in flight despite perfectly smooth conditions. It came back about 15 seconds later but as this occurred 100 miles from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories it was a lonely 15 seconds. During my CFII training, at 180 hours or so, we experimented with pulling the PFD breakers and the Avidyne would not realign even after more than 30 minutes of flight in smooth air.

An airline pilot buddy complained of the lack of an airspeed bug to help with holding a constant airspeed for performance or air traffic control (ATC) reasons. Right after he uttered his complaint, ATC instructed us to "maintain this airspeed until BEDDS" (BEDDS is one of the instrument flying intersections near Hanscom Air Force Base; the FAA designates various points on the map as five-letter intersections so that they don't have to consume radio time reading out latitude/longitude or VOR radials and distances).

The PFD and all of the other LCD displays in N707WT are readable while wearing polarized sunglasses.

The Fancy Glass Panel (Garmin)

I've already written an Avidyne versus Garmin comparison article, but there are a few things about the "Cirrus Perspective" system that are peculiar to Cirrus. For one thing, Cirrus does not use the Garmin G1000 audio panel, which is confusing to use and hogs valuable panel real estate. Cirrus places a conventional Garmin audio panel down near the throttle area. The G1000 is heavily reliant on menus and soft keys. Cirrus has added a bunch more buttons and an alphanumeric keypad, both fairly high up on the panel so that the pilot need not put his or her head all the way down (sometimes results in disorientation in instrument conditions). The user interface of the Garmin G1000 in the Cirrus is better than in any other piston aircraft.

The all-Garmin Cirrus has the usual nice features of synthetic terrain, a Microsoft Flight Simulator view of the world, and traffic displayed as dots on the PFD. It also has the attitude-based Garmin GFC 700 with an envelope protection system even better than the Avidyne DFC90. The autopilot servos will gently nudge the airplane back toward a reasonable pitch and bank attitude.

The Garmin installation is about 50 lbs. heavier than the Avidyne. Cirrus managed to keep the useful load about the same by getting the FAA to approve a gross weight increase from 3000 to 3050 lbs. Whoever approved the increase had probably never flown an SR20 at gross weight on a hot summer day. The 200 horsepower engine is just barely adequate for operating at 3000 lbs.

The Side Yoke and Springs

As noted earlier in this article, the Cirrus side yoke frees up a lot of panel space compared to a center yoke and a lot of lap space compared to a center stick. In some ways it functions just like a Cessna or Piper yoke. You push straight forward into the panel to pitch down. You pull straight back from the panel to pitch up. You twist left or right to roll. Unlike a Cessna or a Piper, however, the Cirrus has spring cartridges that push to keep the yoke in its trimmed position. One positive aspect of this design is that you don't have to gust-lock the plane after parking. A negative aspect is that your arm and wrist will get tired trying to "dive away" from the wind when taxiing on the ground, a procedure that usually isn't necessary with a low-wing plane like the Cirrus, but if you fly other planes, it is probably bad to get into the habit of ignoring the wind when taxiing.

A high-time CFI friend of mine had the opportunity to buy a low-time SR20 for around $135,000 from a guy who was basically afraid to hand-fly the airplane (note to shoppers: look for people like this at your local airport!). Despite the unarguably fabulous value, he decided not to get the plane because he didn't like the springs. "I can feel the air load on the flight controls in a regular airplane," he noted. "And when I get a Cessna or Grumman slow the controls begin to feel sloppy so I know it is time to pitch down for some more airspeed. With the Cirrus there was still a lot of resistance from the springs even at zero airspeed so it was hard to tell whether I was feeling the air loads or the springs."

My 800-hour-SR22-pilot friend says that one of his main complaints with the plane is how difficult it is to trim for straight-and-level flight. "The plane really needs a micro-trim switch," he says. His CFI confirms this impression and notes that the plane is much easier to fly if you back your hands away from the yoke and don't grip the control. "Just fly with pressure from your fingertips," he says. My first efforts were very unsuccessful. What seemed to me like the smallest nudge forward put the SR20 into a 300 fpm dive. The smallest nudge backward and it was in a 300 fpm climb. The smallest nudge left or right and the airplane was in a half-standard-rate turn. After 20 hours I was able to trim the plane for a hands-off straight-head 500 fpm climb through some clouds in Quebec. An airline pilot buddy of mine flew one vectors-to-ILS approach in the SR20 and said "My arm is tired; our Embraer regional jet has a trim speed that varies depending on airspeed; this plane really needs that."

The SR22 CFI related a story about taking friends up to Montreal for the weekend. "We land at a few places and all of the non-pilots take turns sitting in the left seat. I do this trip every year in a 172 and keep my arms in my lap while the non-pilot does all of the flying, including the takeoff, though I'm ready with my feet on the rudders." One year he took an SR22 instead. "It wasn't as much fun. None of them could fly the plane. They couldn't get it trimmed right. They couldn't do the takeoff. They couldn't handle the side yoke."

If you're flying visual flight rules (VFR) around Alaska, which inevitably means threading your way through mountain passes, or hand-flying in the turbulent Rockies to keep the autopilot from putting the airplane into an unusual attitude, expect to wake up the next morning with a sore arm. If there is any turbulence, it takes a fair amount of force to keep the SR20 where you want it.

En-route Navigation (Avidyne SR20-G2)

A typical Avidyne Cirrus SR20 has four moving map displays: one in each Garmin 430, one in the Avidyne multi-function display (MFD), and one in the HSI area of the Avidyne primary flight display (PFD). If you get lost, you'll have some explaining to do.

The Garmin GNS 430 is complex enough that it deserved a separate review, available from http://philip.greenspun.com/flying/garmin-gps. Briefly, however, each Garmin is a combined communications radio, VOR/ILS receiver, and moving-map GPS. The installation is IFR-certified and therefore you can fly GPS approaches in an SR20 or SR22. The Garmins have readable but small low-resolution displays. The Garmins cannot display federal airways or incorporate them into flight plans, which means that you must carry en-route charts for IFR flight. The Garmins provide some horizontal guidance during instrument approaches but do not provide any hints as to approved altitudes during various phases of the approach, which means that you must carry a complete and current set of approach plates for your region.

Rather than having soft keys, Garmin's user interface relies heavily on the pilot taking his or her eyes away from the task of flying the airplane to use knobs to position a cursor on the screen. Once the pilot has verified that the cursor is over the desired choice, the pilot is expected to press the Enter key. What would be a single glance and button push on a soft key-equipped system such as the Garmin GNS 480/MX20 (products acquired from UPS/Apollo) or Avidyne becomes on the Garmin 430 a task more akin to moving the mouse around the screen of a personal computer and selecting an option from a pull-down menu.

The Garmin GPS1 is where you will enter your flight plan, and all the other moving maps are slaved from that unit unless you reconfigure the airplane for personal preference or to deal with a failure of GPS1.

The Avidyne multi-function display (MFD), mounted in the center of the panel, remedies many of the deficiencies of the Garmin 430. The MFD is built on top of Windows NT 4.0 and has a large LCD screen with soft keys on the sides. The MFD shows victor airways, for example, though not in enough detail for you to figure out all of the intersections and VOR radio beacons that define the airway. Minimum En-Route Altitudes (MEAs) along the airways are not shown. The MFD shows terrain and obstacle heights. Our MFD crashed once and restarted during training, a problem that has been traced in some other Cirruses to a bad circuit breaker. The MFD locked up and froze at about 20 hours of Hobbs time, with only the checklist page functioning, but returned to normal after we shut the plane down and restarted for our next leg. We upgraded the software early in 2006 and the problem has not recurred.

The Avidyne PFD displays a simplified moving map of the flight plan and waypoints within the HSI. You can choose among four different modes for the HSI: a full-circle emulation of a mechanical HSI, a full-circle HSI with a schematic map and a couple of scale rings, a straight-ahead semicircle, a straight-ahead semicircle with schematic map. The range is adjustable. For an approach a good way to set the instrument up might be with a full circle and range of 20 nautical miles. You'll see the entire procedure laid out and your aircraft approaching the segments. As you get to the initial approach fix, you can reduce the range to 10 miles. As you get to the final approach fix, typically the outer marker on an ILS, you can reset the instrument to just show a semicircle with no distracting map elements.

One thing that I haven't figured out how to do in the Cirrus is display the names of the towns and rivers over which one is flying. The Garmin 530 has a nice moving map with a lot of detail about land features. If you get curious about an unlabeled object, you can move a cursor around the screen and highlight it (don't try this unless you are on autopilot!). The Garmin 430 has a much smaller screen and seems not to show nearly the same level of detail. The Avidyne MFD either does not display rivers or doesn't know their names, and it has no cursor function.

The Engine

Cirrus has chosen an unusual engine for the SR20, the Continental IO-360-ES, most commonly seen in the 1977 Cessna 172 Skyhawk XP. Most people who wanted a 200-horsepower engine would pick a four-cylinder model, and the general tide of feeling seems to be that Lycoming makes a more reliable engine than Continental. Cirrus, however, opted for the increased smoothness of a six-cylinder engine. Budget a bit extra for top overhauls and overhauls in general compared to a four-cylinder Lycoming. Continental cylinders have a reputation for not making it to the recommended time-between overhaul (TBO), which in the case of the IO-360-ES is 2,000 hours. As of June 2005 the costs to overhaul the engine are the following: $27,000 for a Penn Yann overhaul, $29,350 for a Continental factory reman exchange, and $34,100 for a factory-new engine exchange. This compares to $19,100 to overhaul the four-cylinder Lycoming IO-360.

The engine controls are somewhat simplified compared to the standard three power levers found on other constant-speed prop aircraft. The IO-360-ES comes with an altitude-compensating fuel pump that leans the mixture to some extent automatically. If you never touch the mixture control, therefore, you won't waste quite as much fuel as you would in a standard airplane. Throttle and prop are combined into a single power lever with a mechanical gizmo correlating an open throttle with higher prop speeds. If you really like running at 2200 RPM and a medium manifold pressure to reduce the amount of cockpit noise... buy a Bonanza; the SR20 allows only one engine/prop speed for a given percentage of power and this is typically 2500 rpm.

Cirrus and Continental authorize lean-of-peak operation below 65 percent power. This can result in spectacularly efficient performance and endurance. N707WT will go 140 knots true airspeed (TAS) on 8.5 gallons per hour or about 6.5 hours with 56 gallons usable or about 840 nautical miles in still air with a 30-minute reserve. Redoing the mixture to rich-of-peak results in a gain of 3 or 4 knots, but the fuel burn goes up to more than 11 gallons per hour. The engine runs a bit rougher lean of peak and some folks in Duluth mentioned that the lean of peak crowd was buying a lot of top overhauls. Nonetheless it is a very nice option to have when operating an SR20 in remote portions of Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

The Engine Instruments

The right side of the panel contains mechanical gauges for oil temperature and pressure, voltage and amperage draw, and engine RPM and manifold pressure . Without Avidyne's Emax engine-monitoring system, this area also contains gauges for cylinder head and exhaust gas temperature. With Emax, you're left with a little blank spot in your panel.

One thing that the SR20 and SR22 are missing is an engine time meter. The single Hobbs meter in the plane runs all the time that the engine is running, even if you're at idle for 30 minutes fiddling with the GPS and waiting for IFR release. This kind of meter is good for flight schools, which get to bill by the inflated hours, but it is tough to understand why it is in a Cirrus, an airplane that is almost never used in flight schools (the training and insurance requirements are too difficult to meet). Nearly all Cirruses are owned privately. Having the hour meter run up means that the plane depreciates faster and that oil changes and 100-hour inspections must be done more frequently. If you see a Cessna advertised for sale with "1,000 hours total time" this refers to the engine tach meter, which may not run at all when the engine is idling. A Cirrus used for 1,000 hours of flying time under IFR in the Northeast U.S. would probably show 1,250 hours on its Hobbs meter. Many owners have paid avionics shops $1,000 or so to install an "air switch" that interrupts the Hobbs meter whenever the plane is going slower than 35 knots of ground speed.

Fuel Totalizer

The Emax system in the Avidyne MFD prompts you, every time the plane starts up, to enter the amount of fuel in the tanks. If you've just had the plane topped off, therefore, you're unlikely to forget to reset the fuel totalizer. The totalizer in N707WT has proven accurate to within about 0.1 gallon out of 30 gallons.

The "fuel remaining at destination" indication on the MFD is hard to fathom. Suppose that you are going to an airport. The display might show that you'll arrive there with 20 gallons remaining. If you then activate an instrument approach on the GPS, the display might show that you must fly an additional 1,100 nm to the missed approach hold and that therefore you'll be suffering from a critical negative 50 gallon fuel state at that time. This information is highlighted and presents an unwelcome distraction when you're trying to bring an airplane down out of the clouds. [A typical example of this was with the ILS at Jackson, Wyoming. The display showed 29 minutes to KJAC and 1,144 nm and 10+ hours to the JAC VOR.]

Starting from full or evenly balanced tanks, you want to switch at 7.5 gallons used, 22.5 gallons used, and 37.5 gallons used. This procedure ensures that the tank levels are never more than 7.5 gallons apart. Unfortunately there is no way to program the Avidyne to give you warnings when these magic numbers are reached.

S-TEC 55X Autopilot

"In the complex world of instrument flight, an autopilot is almost a requirement; some day they will probably be standard on all except pure sport airplanes; they are certainly very desirable, as they turn a busy hand-flying task into a relaxed experience where the pilot is well in command of the situation and always ahead of the airplane. The lower a pilot's experience level, the more an autopilot becomes a serious need, or, of course, a good copilot." ...

"A copilot during serious instrument flight is a necessity - not required by regulation, but without a doubt, flying instruments without a copilot is a very tough job. I've flown small aircraft in serious weather, on instruments, alone and it's much more difficult than flying a 747 with a crew."
— Robert N. Buck, retired TWA captain, Weather Flying, pages 91 and 102

The S-TEC 55X with flight director and dual Garmin 430 package is an $18,000 option and worthwhile if you plan on any single-pilot IFR flying. This is a two-axis autopilot with altitude preselect. If you're becoming disoriented in the clouds or need to take a breather for some other reason, press the HDG button to turn the unit on in "heading" mode (tracks the heading bug in the PFD, which ideally is fairly close to your current desired heading) and press the ALT button to instruct the autopilot to hold your present altitude.

When precision is necessary, such as when on an instrument flight plan, the S-TEC 55X can be set to track a course determined by a VOR or the GPS. The altitude preselect feature lets you say "please climb at 200 fpm until you reach 5,000'".

For ILS approaches, the autopilot can track both localizer (heading) and glide-slope (altitude). As a pilot you can't go to sleep, though. This is not a jet where the autopilot also has "autothrottles". If you don't back off the power, you might find yourself zooming down the glide slope at 160 knots; if you back off the power too much, you'll find the airplane hanging on the edge of a stall at 60 knots.

The S-TEC in the Cirrus gets its information about airplane attitude from a mechanical electric gyro turn coordinator hidden in the panel, not from the attitude indicator in the PFD. If you are flying in turbulence, therefore, it is best to take the unit out of "altitude hold" mode and into "VS 0" mode, where the autopilot isn't fighting to stay at a precise altitude and therefore making turbulence even worse. Remember that the autopilot only knows whether or not the plane is turning; it doesn't know anything about whether the airplane is pitching up or down. Remember also that if the PFD fails, the autopilot can still fly the airplane using the NAV/GPSS mode and altitude hold or vertical speed entered directly on the unit.

The flight director feature is a way to use half of the autopilot. Divide the autopilot into a sensor/computer part and an action/servo part. The action/servo part might have failed, you might not want to use it due to turbulence, or you might be too close to the ground, as on a takeoff. The flight director is a set of "command bars" that come up on the attitude indicator. Suppose that you are sitting on the ground holding short of runway 29 and get a clearance of "runway heading climb and maintain 3,000". You push a big square switch at the top left of the PFD labeled "FD ON/AP OFF". You turn the heading bug to 290. You push a soft key for vertical speed and dial in 500 feet-per-minute. You push another soft key in the PFD for altitude bug and dial in 3,000 feet. You push "HDG" on the autopilot and the unit wakes up. You push and hold VS then push the ALT button on the autopilot. Now the autopilot is in "heading mode and climb at 500 fpm until reaching 3,000' mode", but it won't actually try to push the elevator or ailerons around because of that big square button.

You can tell that the autopilot has absorbed these settings because the heading, altitude, and vertical speed bugs on the PFD go from outlined to solid. The flight director (FD) bars come up. As you roll onto the runway, you should see the FD bars level and asking for 5-10 degrees of nose-up pitch. All that you need do as a pilot is to maneuver the "flying wedge" so that it nestles underneath the FD bars. If the wedge is right up under the bars, you are doing what the autopilot would do if it were engaged. When it does come time to take your hands off the yoke and deal with the radios, charts, or engine, you can verify that the autopilot isn't going to do anything too radical by making sure that the wedge and the command bars are aligned. Remember that the command bars show you what attitude the autopilot would put the plane into if it had control. If those bars show a radical descending right turn, probably something is wrong with how you've set up the bugs on the PFD or the modes on the S-TEC box and you should keep hand flying until you've sorted it out.

One very nice feature of the Avidyne PFD is that it shows you a line of text on the very top repeating the displays on the front of the autopilot box. You don't have to take your eyes off the attitude indicator to see that the autopilot is tracking a NAV course versus a HDG.

Sadly the first SR22 owner whom I asked "What do you like most and least about your plane?" put the S-TEC 55X on his "like least" list. He has had the autopilot put in a lot of pitch and bank that he didn't understand, force him to disconnect the autopilot and hand-fly a plane that was very badly trimmed in pitch and roll, and send him to the avionics shop on multiple occasions. My personal experience with the 55X in N707WT has been favorable trending to unfavorable. For example, one time flying a vectors-to-ILS approach in Quebec City it was set to "Heading mode pending NAV APR modes" to intercept the localizer. The S-TEC did not start the turn until the plane was actually on the localizer and therefore blew through the course. Perhaps if I had set it to NAV/GPSS mode, it would have done better. In any case the consequence of the S-TEC's error was some weaving back and forth to get back onto the localizer and it flew the rest of the approach until we broke out at 600' AGL. That was a couple of years ago and the autopilot has gotten steadily worse. Perhaps it can be adjusted, but tweaking an analog autopilot like the S-TEC is a bit of a black art.

Avidyne DFC90

The Avidyne DFC90 autopilot is a retrofit option (roughly $15,000) to Avidyne-equipped Cirruses. The DFC90 is attitude-based and, for the first time in general aviation, offers the kind of envelope protection commonplace on the most advanced airliners, e.g., the Airbus A320. Set to descend and maintain 3000', for example, the DFC90 will level off at 3000'. If the pilot neglects to add power following the descent, the DFC90 will not continue to trim the airplane slower until it stalls. Rather than DFC90 trims until the airplane reaches about 90 knots and then announces that it is unable to hold altitude any longer. This is a great safety feature. The passengers on Colgan 3407 would all be alive today if their $30 million turboprop had been equipped with the Avidyne DFC90.

Garmin GFC 700 Autopilot

The Garmin autopilot, available only with the Cirrus Perspective avionics package, works like the autopilot in a jet. It gets attitude information from the AHRS driving the primary flight display. If the AHRS were to fail, you'd be in deep trouble, but Cirrus typically ships any GFC 700-equipped plane with dual AHRS.

Like the Avidyne DFC90 and unlike the S-TEC, the Garmin autopilot knows what attitude the airplane is in and can try to push it back to something more sensible. This enabled Cirrus to add a "level" button on the autopilot. Push this if things get ugly and the airplane will gradually push itself towards a wings-level, altitude-holding attitude. It would be a much more useful feature if the button were located in the top center of the PFD rather than being buried among dozens of other buttons in the lower center portion of the panel.

As noted above, the Garmin-equipped Cirruses may also include "envelope protection" in which the autopilot servos, even when the autopilot is not engaged, will try to nudge the airplane back to a sustainable attitude.

Datalink Weather

Datalink weather from the XM satellites is included in every package except the most basic SR20. For $30 per month, you get an "Aviator Lite" subscription to airport weather reports (METARs) and a map of rain showers based on the National Weather Service's NEXRAD ground radar stations. For $50 per month, you get the "Aviator" package that includes weather advisories and temporary flight restriction (TFR) outlines, as well as lightning strikes observed by ground-based sensors.

On an Avidyne Cirrus, the Aviator package is much less useful than it might seem due to the fact that the Avidyne MFD doesn't display any detail about the weather advisories. You see a big area marked off for "turbulence" for example but can't get the text of the Airman's Meteorological Advisory (Airmet), so you won't know whether this is at FL290 or 8,000'. The afternoon that we flew back home to Bedford almost the entire Boston area was marked off with forbidding red TFRs but these had not been mentioned in our DUATS briefing and were unknown to the air traffic controllers whom we queried. As with the Airmets, it is impossible to select a TFR outline and get the text associated with that supposed TFR. [In July 2005 we had the same experience in the Minneapolis area; a huge red circle was drawn within the MSP Bravo airspace, indicating a TFR, and yet the Approach controllers had no idea what it might be.]

Whether you pay $30 or $50 per month, the airport current weather (METAR) information is presented graphically on the moving map. Good visual flight rules (VFR) weather is shown with a blue flag over an airport. Marginal VFR is shown with a green flag (green does not mean "go ahead" in this case). IFR and low IFR get scarier colors. Coverage is limited to the Lower 48. You don't get data for border areas in Canada, and you don't get reception once you head north toward Alaska (an XM radio in a car will stop working around Juneau, Alaska). The software is not smart enough to realize that, at a very high latitude, you're out of the coverage area. The consequence of this lack of intelligence is that while you're trying to thread your way through mountain passes in Alaska you are prompted with multiple warnings about datalink information not being received.

Latency is low for the NEXRAD picture, usually three to five minutes. Unfortunately, when things get tough and you're in the clouds and there are thunderstorms in the region, it seems that perversely the datalink slows down and you're looking at 20-minute-old information. Data for METARs are typically delayed 10-15 minutes compared to what you get on an ATIS frequency. For example if a new ATIS is cut at five minutes before the hour, you usually won't see the latest METAR on the Avidyne Trip page until ten minutes past the hour.

We decided not to get a Stormscope in our plane, which is today a $10,000 option adding 6 lbs. and additional maintenance complexity to a plane that is already too heavy and too complex.

After a year, our datalink weather stopped working. The receiver deactivated itself. We thought we had stopped paying XM, so we called to update our credit card on file. "You're up to date and your receiver should be working; we'll send an activation signal out for the next 24 hours." We flew the plane during this 24-hour period and it went into an "activating" mode, but never got further. We called XM again and they said that they had no idea why we weren't active. A few more calls and attempts to activate proved effective. You can rely on being charged $30/month, but you can't rely on having weather.

In the Garmin Cirrus, any plane that has weather also has XM music, 100 channels of crummy 64 kbit digital streams, but the airplane is so noisy you probably won't notice the lack of audio quality.

Traffic Awareness

Any Cirrus with a Mode S transponder or the Garmin G1000 will pick up "TIS" traffic information from the FAA RADAR system. Cirrus will sell you a $21,500 Skywatch system that has some advantages over a Mode S transponder, such as working in the vast open spaces of the West where the FAA doesn't have RADAR coverage or doesn't bother transmitting traffic info. This adds 15 lbs. to the weight of the aircraft.

What did we choose for our airplane? Nothing. We look out the window. We talk to ATC. For single-pilot operations, we didn't think that we needed another excuse to keep our head down inside the airplane staring at the MFD. If some day there were a lightweight inexpensive system that would give audio alerts "Traffic two o'clock slightly low" we might add it.

Terrain Awareness

In February 2005 when we ordered N707WT, the fancy "ground proximity warning system" was an $11,500 option. Garmin was promising at the same time to offer a $500 noncertified upgrade to the 430 that would show hazardous terrain in yellow or red (this was eventually subsumed into the 430W). If you don't have either of these options, you can compare the terrain map in the Avidyne to what the altimeter says and determine for yourself whether or not you're sufficiently high.

We decided not to add the ground proximity system to our plane. For one thing it adds weight to a plane that is already struggling with a limited payload. For another the instructions that it gives you may not be appropriate to follow in the kind of mountainous terrain where one is likely to get into trouble. Suppose that you are approaching a 16,000' mountain in Alaska, for example, from a valley that is at 4,000' above sea level. The fancy ground prox system will shout "climb" in your headset. In a nonturbocharged piston-engine airplane, it is unlikely that you are going to clear this obstacle by climbing. Turning back towards the center of the valley would make a lot more sense.

At Oshkosh 2005 Cirrus announced that it was making the fancy ground prox warning system standard on all of its airplanes. The 2009 pricelist, however, shows "eTAWS" as an $8,000 option. It is unclear why you'd need this given synthetic terrain.

Electronic Approach Plates

For about $4,000 at purchase plus about $1,000 per year paid to Jeppesen, you can get approach plates displayed on the MFD. This would work a lot better in an airplane where the MFD is mounted vertically. On the Cirrus you have to scroll up and down to see the entire plate. Electronic charts are great for long trips where you would otherwise carry spaced- and weight-hogging books and books of approach plates that you'd probably never need.

If you're a bit lazy about updating the charts, the information disappears from the system altogether. I.e., you go from "charts 29 days out of date" to "no charts available" all of a sudden. This could be an unwelcome surprise on an instrument flight.

Budget-minded pilots will elect to use an iPad or Android tablet with a chart application rather than pay Jeppesen and endure the hassle of updating the Jepp charts every few weeks.

Landings

Landing an SR20 the University of North Dakota factory-authorized training program way requires precise control of airspeed at 75 knots. Too fast and you'll float. Too slow and you'll sink like a rock, at least according to the UND instructors who begin to look visibly green if the airspeed sinks below 75. I was able to land the SR20 on about 1,500' of runway within my first day of flying. We took the plane into 3,200' strips and it felt reasonably comfortable.

One pro-safety feature of the SR20 is the foolproof nature of going around. Suppose that a novice pilot is somewhat freaked out by the unexpected appearance of a vehicle on the runway and decides to go-around. He forgets to retract the flaps, however, and also forgets to push the prop control all the way forward. In some of the older Cessnas with the 40-degree flap setting, this would probably be the end of his flying career as he continued to sink toward the runway. The SR20, however, will climb just fine with full flaps extended. There is no prop control on the SR20; pushing the throttle all the way forward will simultaneously increase prop speed to the maximum.

The SR20 is not a short-field airplane. If your experience is with the Cessna 172/182 planes, which take off and land shorter and also are more suitable for rough fields, develop some new personal minimums. If you do land in a short field and need to stand on the brakes, make sure to keep the plane rolling afterwards so that airflow will continue to cool the brakes that are tucked up inside those tight wheelpants (see the preflight section above for how Cirruses have been destroyed by fire after aggressive braking).

Owners asked "What do you like most about the plane" often include "easy to land smoothly" on this list. They do caution new pilots, however, to hold a fairly flat landing attitude: "Just fly the plane onto the runway."

If you're also a seaplane pilot, be careful when transitioning from the Cirrus into the seaplane. The Cirrus landing attitude is pretty flat. That same attitude when landing a 172 on floats risks digging the fronts of the floats into the water. As with almost every other seaplane flying mistake, the consequence is flipping the plane into the water.

Parking and Securing

One of the great things about the spring cartridges for the flight controls is that there is no need to gust-lock the airplane. Just shut the doors and walk away. Make sure that you don't lock the keys in the plane, though. You can turn the lock cylinder to the "locked" position when the door is open. The next time you shut the door it won't open without the key.

High-end FBOs accustomed to jet customers will chock the wheels with enormous rubber bizjet chocks. These sit up against the plastic fragile wheel pants, not up against the load-bearing tire. Should a major gust of wind come along, the fragile and expensive wheel pant will crack before the tire ever comes into contact with the chock. The clearance between the wheel pant and ground at the back of the three tires is about 2.75", so it might be best to carry your own chocks that are no more than 2" high.

Night Flying

One of the nice things about the PFD and MFD is that all of the information on them is a consistent intensity at night. The engine gauges on the MFD are particularly easy to read at night compared to analog gauges. The backup steam gauges are backlit with white light. There are also some red LEDS under the glare shield and near the fuses. On a G2 model, the only things that are tough to see and operate at night are the main switches (pitot heat, landing light, ALT1, BAT2, etc.) and the fuses. On the G3 SR20, the switch labels are backlit.

As noted in the preflight section, do remember to check the landing light before takeoff, especially if the airplane has recently had its cowl off.

Winter Flying

It is difficult to remove snow and ice from a plastic airplane. If you can't get a hangar, you'll have to use fabric wing covers during the winter months. This adds about 15 minutes to the already miserable cold and windblown experience of being out on the ramp. Cirrus will install a Tanis cylinder heat electric preheater at the factory for $1500. Most owners use the Reiff system, which is similar.

Once in the air, however, the SR20 is wonderfully warm and well sealed. On sunny days the greenhouse effect from the canopy means that you won't even need to use the cabin heat, which is ferociously strong.

Curiously, for a plane built in Minnesota, the plane is not that well suited to cold weather operations. Even with the winter cowl plugs installed, the oil temperature tends to hover between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, not warm enough to boil out condensation and keep the engine from corroding.

Except for those handful of Cirrus owners with aircraft certified for flight into known icing conditions (FIKI), it would be difficult in the winter time to keep to a schedule, even with an instrument rating. If there is an airmet for icing or a pilot report of icing, that is "known icing" and pushing a SR20 or SR22, even with the optional non-FIKI TKS system, through a cloud layer becomes illegal. The SR22 can be ordered with the TKS weeping wing, FIKI or non-FIKI, and the antifreeze is supposedly quite effective if switched on prior to encountering icing. The SR20's performance falls apart frighteningly quickly in ice, as chronicled on my separate icing encounters page.

Summer Flying

Unless you've got the latest Cirrus with the blower fan option, prepare to hold the doors open during taxi-out and run-up. The panel fresh air vents produce only a feeble stream of fresh air from prop wash and aren't truly effective until you're airborne. If you're on the sunny side of the aircraft, the interior is comfortable for this writer at outside air temps below 5 degrees C, with the noisy eyeball vents closed, or below 8 degrees, with the noisy eyeball vents open.

Don't expect much of a climb rate at gross weight. N707WT had to be held at Vy to climb out of Pierre, South Dakota (KPIR; 1,700' MSL) with an ASOS-reported temperature of 35C. By 8,500' the climb rate was down to about 300 fpm and Vy was only about 91 knots, down from 96 knots at sea level. The oil temperature was climbing dangerously close to the 250 degree F red line, and I had to level off and reduce power to 50 percent to let the engine cool off.

From the NTSB report on the Angel Fire, NM crash (see below):

"A demonstration pilot for the manufacturer, who had flown the accident aircraft on several occasions, stated that he departed from Denver on a hot day with full fuel and ski equipment in the back, earlier that year. According to the pilot, the aircraft performed 'as advertised.' On departure from Denver, he was asked if he could expedite the climb through 8,000 or 9,000 feet for traffic. The pilot responded 'negative' as he was climbing at about 300 feet per minute with the temperature gauge starting to peak."

High-Altitude Operations

The SR20 has a operating ceiling limitation of 17,500' but the en-route climb rate charts in the P.O.H. make it pretty clear that you're not going to get it above 14,000' at gross weight. If you're out West or like to climb above the turbulence, add a portable oxygen system.

Mountain Flying

Be careful flying the SR20 out in the mountains, especially in the summer. A normal summer afternoon will produce downdrafts that exceed the airplane's climb rate, i.e., you may not be able to hold altitude even at Vy. You certainly won't be able to use the autopilot if it is at all turbulent. Suppose that you command the S-TEC autopilot to climb to 11,500' at 300 fpm. On a hot summer afternoon, this will result in an airspeed very close to the Vy of 91 knots at 10,000' density altitude. Suppose then that you fly through a 500 fpm downdraft. The autopilot will notice that you're no longer climbing and begin to pull the airplane's nose up to increase the climb rate. Of course because you're already at Vy any additional nose-up pitch will actually reduce the climb rate. The autopilot doesn't know this, so it will keep pulling the nose farther up and very soon you'll find yourself in a stalling attitude. (I'm not sure how the Garmin GFC 700 would handle the situation.)

On May 28, 2002 an SR20 took off from Angel Fire, New Mexico at a density altitude of 10,000' and crashed into a nearby mountain at 4:30 pm. The pilot had 1,350 hours of which 100 hours were in the SR20. He was by himself, but from the NTSB report it sounds as though the plane had been fully fueled, so he might have been close to gross weight. In any case he tried and failed to outclimb rising terrain.

Arctic Flying

The Avidyne glass SR20 isn't completely at home in the far north. When you get above the Arctic Circle in places like Nunavut, you're supposed to set your en-route altimeter to 29.92 and you're supposed to fly your approaches on true headings instead of magnetic. The Garmin 430 GPS units have a configuration setting to display everything in true but the Avidyne PFD does not. If you're trying to fly an approach, therefore, the HSI on the Avidyne PFD will show that you're about 30 degrees off from where you should be according to the approach plate.

With weather datalink installed, you'll get a fair number of annoying warning messages on the Avidyne MFD about datalink information not being received.

Aerial Photography

The Cirrus is a very poor choice for aerial photography. The low wing gets in the way of some pictures. None of the windows open. There is no little vent/camera window as in a Diamond DA20 or DA40. All of the windows are curved and contribute glare/distortion to the image. Enjoy the scenery but don't expect to take it home with you.

In-flight Music

The Garmin 340 audio panel included with the SR20 offers two stereo music inputs. In theory you can put two portable CD players in the airplane and send children's music to the rear passengers while listening to something more sophisticated in the front seat. Cirrus has provided two mini-DIN jacks in the most logical places in the airplane that run back to the audio panel. Sadly the Garmin panel in most Cirruses has the gain on the audio inputs set to a ridiculously low level. Garmin did this to all their 340s around 2001 because some people complained about noise from other avionics leaking into the audio panel. Have Cirrus or your avionics shop ground a wire on the back connector to up the gain by 20 dB and the 340 will work just fine with an MP3 jukebox or portable CD player.

If you're flying around the crowded Northeast, with ILS marker beacons everywhere, you'll need to push the marker mute button twice on the audio panel. Otherwise the GMA 340 will mute your music even when you can't actually hear the marker beacon.

As of Oshkosh 2005 Cirrus announced that their newest planes would ship with the capability of getting music from XM Radio if you have the weather datalink and are willing to pay $10 per month. XM Radio has more than 100 channels, each of which is a 64 Kbit/second data stream (i.e., about one-third the bit rate of a high-quality MP3 file).

Headsets

In addition to standard headset jacks, Cirruses come prewired with LEMO connectors that allow noise-cancelling headsets to draw power from the ship rather than a battery pack. LEMO is a Swiss connector company, and this particular standard was first adopted by Bose, but you can also get headsets from other companies, including Lightspeed, Sennheiser, and Telex that terminate in LEMO connectors and will plug directly into the Cirrus. Using earplugs to further dampen the high noise levels inside small GA planes, I have had good experience with Sennheiser and Telex and bad experience with Bose, whose speakers were blown out by a Garmin 530/340 audio panel combination when I cranked up the volume loud enough to hear ATC through the earplugs.

Insurance and Training

When I took delivery of N707WT, I had just over 1,000 hours of total time, Commercial Airplane Single Engine Land and Sea, Multi-engine Land, Instrument Airplane, and Private Rotorcraft-Helicopter ratings. With just me on the policy I was quoted between $3,500 and $5,000 per year for insurance, roughly double what I was quoted for a Diamond DA40 or a single-engine Cessna. Unlike the "any pilot" clause that I had with my old Diamond Star, the insurance came with a limitation to pilots with 500 hours total time and at least 10 hours in Cirrus. I was required to attend factory training and to do annual recurrent training. Policies for fixed-gear Cessnas, Diamonds, and Pipers do not have those requirements. This kind of stipulation, however, is typical if you're flying a twin or pressurized retractable airplane.

To get a signoff from the University of North Dakota instructors who work at the Cirrus factory, you will need to budget three days for ground school and a minimum of 10 hours of flight time (they strive for 15 hours, but the weather is not very cooperative in Duluth). The UND guys who I met and flew with were fun, competent, and knew almost everything that there is to know about the avionics. One valuable part of the training is a parachute trainer. You get to feel what it is like to pull out the handle and yank on the steel cable hard enough to trigger the rocket (a firm tug straight down, ideally with the left hand around the right wrist to add some strength, until you feel a pop). If the Duluth weather forecast is poor and your time is precious, it probably makes the most sense to pay a UND instructor to fly your plane to your home airport and do your training where you sit out bad weather at your office or house instead of at the Accordion Museum in Duluth.

Recurrent training can be performed by any Cirrus Standardized Instructor Program member (CSIP), a CFI who has been through some UND training.

Since 2005, insurance requirements and rates have been relaxed somewhat for the SR20. We're currently paying about $2,000 per year on a hull value of $170,000, despite my partner being a low-time pilot.

Product Support

Cirrus Design was founded in 1984 by Alan and Dale Klapmeier, brothers from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Most of the financing for the current operation came from the First Islamic Investment Bank and its wealthy Arabian Gulf customers, who together purchased 61 percent of Cirrus in August 2001 for $142 million. In February 2011, the company was sold to China Aviation Industry General Aircraft, which is in turn owned by the Chinese government (holds $1.144 trillion in U.S. Treasuries as of May 2011, among other assets). Unlike some competitors, therefore, there seems to be little doubt that the Cirrus Design Corporation will survive long enough to pay warranty claims.

All Cirrus airplanes are made in one facility in Duluth, Minnesota with parts that come from a factory in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Cirrus has no dealers and sells all of their planes with regional salespeople.

The SR20 comes with its maintenance manuals on CD-ROM for convenient access when you're away on a cross country trip and need to get service from a shop that is unfamiliar with the plane. Parts have been tricky for N707WT. The authorized service centers don't seem to stock any and, even with advance warning, have not been able to get the parts. For example I informed a service center that N707WT needed an oil temperature sensor. The mechanic called Cirrus on a Tuesday, and they promised to ship one out the next day. When I arrived at the shop on the following Monday, the part had still not come. The mechanic called Cirrus, and they said that the part had yet to leave their warehouse.

My friend with an SR22 had a painful time getting Cirrus and Continental to accept his claim that his $5,000 engine repair was their responsibility. He threatened a lawsuit and eventually got them to pay up.

Cirrus's approach to support differs from most companies in that they make no use of information technology. If you call a mobile phone manufacturer about your $200 handset, they log the call into a "ticket tracking system" and open a trouble ticket. The customer service folks can search for "customers with unresolved tickets older than two days" and try to move things along. The management can figure out how it is doing overall by getting statistics on how many customers are having issues, how many of those issues remain open for longer than two weeks, etc. These systems are so common that there are free open-source ticket tracking programs available for any interested company to install. Cirrus doesn't have anything like this. Each phone call or email is handled as though you never contacted them before. Maybe the person who receives the communication remembers you, but maybe not. How many unhappy customers are out there with grounded aircraft? Cirrus has no way of knowing.

[Because Cirrus has no system for tracking which of their aircraft are languishing in a hangar or on a ramp somewhere due to a mechanical problem, the company does not have an Aircraft-on-Ground (AOG) team. Most aircraft manufacturers have an AOG team that supplements their usual support staff. The AOG team keeps track of every aircraft that is grounded due to mechanical problems and tries to expedite parts and assistance so that the customer can get back up into the air. Cirrus keeps its sales force centralized, but relies on a network of independently owned maintenance shops to keep customer planes flying.]

Cirrus has regional field service managers that are available to support customers and maintenance shops. When I've gotten the guy on the phone and he knows the answer, I've gotten an answer. When I've had to leave voicemail, I've only gotten return phone calls about half the time. I emailed our regional support manager regarding the failures of our Avidyne PFD. He responded the next day: "I'm checking into this and I will get back to you soon." That was the last I heard from him. The service is about what you'd expect from guys who are doing everything by writing messages on scraps of paper and trying to remember to respond to messages that are 723 emails back in their inbox.

My experience with Garmin since 2002 has been that a call to their 800-number or an e-mail to their aviation tech support group results in an informed answer almost immediately. Avidyne has been the most frustrating parts vendor with which to deal. Questions via phone or email have not been answered. After six months of trying to get Avidyne's assistance in fixing the PFD and MFD so that they would stop failing in-flight, the best that their customer service manager could offer was to charge us $495 for an "upgrade" that might or might not fix the problems, with at least two weeks of downtime due to a minimum two-calendar-week turnaround inside Avidyne's shop.

Maintenance

"That's a beautiful airplane you have," said my mechanic upon being asked to do the first oil change. "Finally an airplane put together nicely." He likes the SR20 better than the SR22 and even a little better than the Diamond Star DA40. Apparently the installation of the engine is very simple and sensible.

If you've got an earlier SR20, make sure that your mechanic pulls the alternator every year and inspects the engine case underneath. These tend to crack, which means the engine needs to be removed and returned to Continental for repair.

My owner friends report that annuals have taken three to eight weeks at authorized Cirrus service centers and cost from $5000 to $10,000 for in-warranty airplanes. Our favorite New England service center is www.lanmaraviation.com in Groton, CT. They've had the patience to chase down problems that other mechanics gave up on, e.g., our left fuel tank gauge was never accurate. Lanmar figured out that we had a right fuel tank sender installed in the left wing (the part number differs only by a suffix). Lanmar is primarily a turbojet shop, but they get a lot of Cirruses. Jack Shields, the avionics manager, is something of a legend around New England. He managed to rip out the entire panel of an older TBM-700 and put a Chelton glass cockpit in. The system worked well enough that EADS agreed to support the airplane at their own service centers.

We've never tried, but heard good things about, Airways Inc. in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (KLNS).

When looking for a service center, try to pick one that has a comprehensive avionics shop. Most of the problems with a newer Cirrus will be avionics-related.

After 600 hours and a few Avidyne software upgrades, our experience with N707WT is that there is always something wrong with the airplane, but never anything seriously wrong. A week after the plane gets out of the shop, we get a notice in the mail of a new mandatory service bulletin. Or there is a little glitch such as a leaking brake line or software that needs to be upgraded.

During our first three years of ownership, our Cirrus SR20 was available approximately two-thirds of the time, i.e., it is grounded and in the maintenance hangar waiting for parts or service approximately one third of the time. The downtime was primarily due to service bulletins, airworthiness directives, and the Avidyne. A service visit typically takes a month. Within two weeks after it is complete, we get a mandatory service bulletin or an airworthiness directive in the mail.

The Cirrus owners forums are full of stories about people whose airplanes were grounded for 4-6 weeks with an Avidyne problem or upgrade. Unlike the Garmin G1000, the Avidyne system is not field-serviceable. Even for a simple software upgrade, the PFD and MFD must be pulled from the airplane, shipped back to Avidyne, monkeyed with on a bench, then returned to the shop for reinstallation by a mechanic. We've had better luck with our airplane, never suffering more than 3 weeks of Avidyne-induced downtime.

Our fourth year of ownership was relatively trouble-free, with minimal downtime. It was capped off with an $8,500 annual inspection, due partly to some 500-hour items and the fact that some valve lifters had corroded, apparently a common problem with this Continental engine.

Warranty

Cirrus offers various warranty options at various prices. It is almost impossible for a layperson to figure out what is covered. In the Cirrus owner's forum, for example, people report that warranty coverage has been denied for failed alternators. Cirrus ducked out of paying by noting some fine print: "The seller does not provide any warranty either expressed or implied for those items which are expressly warranted by the specific manufacturer." The buyer had paid for a three-year extended warranty, but the alternator was only covered by a one-year warranty.

Basically, Cirrus is saying that they won't provide any warranty on anything that is separately warranted by its own manufacturer. The trouble is... Cirrus doesn't disclose anywhere which items are separately warranted.

So you never really know whether or not Cirrus is going to pay until they either pay or they don't. Certainly we were not able to get any assistance from Cirrus when Avidyne was refusing to deliver warranty service on our failed PFD and MFD.

For N707WT, service has been slowed down, sometimes for as much as a week, because the shop was waiting to hear back from Cirrus as to whether or not something would be covered under warranty.

The Parachute

If all else fails... pull the parachute. Unfortunately, as of July 2005 all of the folks who actually needed the parachute to save their lives are in fact dead. The previously mentioned owners in New York who got into a spin, for example. Either the 'chute didn't work or they couldn't get it to deploy. On February 6, 2005, an SR22 pilot crossing the Sierra reported having trouble with ice (NTSB ID: LAX05FA088), despite the fact that his plane was equipped with the TKS ice protection option. He pulled the parachute, but was apparently going too fast at the time, which resulted in the cords ripping out of the airplane and the plane and pilot slamming into a mountainside.

By contrast it seems that quite a few of the folks who have pulled the parachute and lived would very likely have either not gotten into trouble if they'd been flying a Cessna or would have been able to recover and land at an airport. One fellow in Texas on October 3, 2002 found that his left aileron had partially detached from the wing and that the plane was pulling to the left, requiring both hands on the side yoke. Modern airliners, to earn their type certificates, are designed so that if one aileron is jammed with a screwdriver the yokes can be split so that the left yoke controls only the left aileron and the right yoke controls only the right aileron. In other words, a plane will fly with only one aileron. It might well have been safer to rely on the parachute than on being an unwilling test pilot of the SR22 in this configuration, but a Cessna pilot, not having the parachute option, would presumably have continued to fight with the yoke down through a landing.

Canadian pilot Albert Kolk forgot to switch fuel tanks while flying along on autopilot. Eventually the autopilot couldn't hold enough aileron trim to keep the plane level and kicked off. The plane went into a steep spiral. Most pilots have trouble initially determining whether they are in a steep spiral or a spin (the airspeed indicator is key here; low airspeed = spin, high airspeed = spiral). Because the only demonstrated way to recover a Cirrus from a spin is to pull the parachute, Kolk pulled the parachute. In a Cessna 172 or 182, by contrast, Kolk would have never suffered the fuel imbalance in the first place. The fuel selector would have been on "Both". Had Kolk been flying a Cessna, he would have not have had the option of the parachute and he would have been secure in the knowledge that a Cessna will generally come out of a spin if you simply take your hands off the controls. With no parachute at his disposal, he would have had nothing better to do than study the instruments, level the wings with the yoke, pull the power back, sweat quite a bit, and say to himself "man, I'd better take this flying stuff more seriously."

Ilan Reich blacked out when flying IFR in hazy conditions in New York on June 30, 2005. When he woke up, he'd lost some altitude and gained airspeed to the point that he was 4 knots over the Vne of 200 knots. He was able to recover back to a normal attitude and airspeed. However, concerned that he might black out again and that the airframe might have sustained some damage during the excursion above Vne, Reich pulled the parachute. Reich had to do some ad hoc maneuvering to try to steer the plane away from some fuel tanks and then suffered a very hard landing in a small river. The impact cracked and compressed a vertebra in his back. The doors wouldn't open, and he had a difficult time smashing the windows open with the safety hammer and getting out. The plane sank after about four minutes (now we know). Did the parachute save Reich's life? He was a good pilot. He didn't black out again. He was minutes from a long runway with an ILS to which he was already being vectored. Planes don't generally break up in midair after exceeding Vne by 4 knots; for comparison the Vne on the Piper Malibu/Mirage is 198 knots and the FAA's structual analysis found that the airframe wouldn't start to come apart until you were going over 600 knots (smooth air). Had Reich been in a Cessna, he presumably would have landed, sat on the ground shaking for awhile, then gone to see a neurologist to figure out why the blackout occurred.

On August 9, 2004, Jeff Ippoliti had his SR22 washed and some avionics maintenance performed. On August 10, 2004, Ippoliti departed into low IMC and began getting erratic readings from his pitot-static instruments. He pulled the parachute and walked away from the wreckage, which was examined by the FAA:

"Examination of the static system of the airplane revealed approximately 1 teaspoon of water was found between the static port openings and the alternate static air valve; the water was retained for analysis. ... Prior to the wash the pitot tube and two static ports were reportedly covered with yellow vinyl tape (Patco's #150-P 2). Testing of the water sample retained from the static system of the airplane, revealed it contained 3.2 mg/L of fluoride, which is common in tap water."
The NTSB report implies that had Ippoliti activated the alternate static source, he would have recovered normal airspeed and altimeter readings. Who among us can say that we would manage the emergency more successfully, however? So let's credit the parachute with at least this one life.

In flying over the rugged mountains of the Yukon Territory, I sometimes asked myself if the engine were to quit would I be better off gliding down to one of the numerous gravel bars in the numerous valleys or pulling the 'chute. This is a common paranoia among pilots of piston aircraft, but the fact is that engines very seldom do quit. As you can see from http://www.earthrounders.com/ there are plenty of (braver-than-this-author) folks who've flown single-engine piston aircraft over the world's widest oceans. As a statistician might expect, to date none of the Cirrus parachute pulls have been related to a sudden engine failure.

[Whether or not you pull the parachute, you'll pay to maintain it. The "line cutters" need replacement every six years (under $2000) and the entire parachute needs repacking every ten years ($10-15,000). As the parachute is the only demonstrated means of spin recovery, the plane is not airworthy unless the parachute is current.]

Celebrities

The most famous Cirrus owner is Angelina Jolie, who flies an SR22 out of Santa Monica, CA. Cory Lidle, a New York Yankees pitcher, flew an SR20 into an apartment building in New York City (see my Weblog entry on the subject). James Fallows, a writer for Atlantic magazine, was an early SR20 owner.

Wishlist

Some of these desires stem from personal quirks. My tolerance for heat and noise is lower than most folks'.

The Cirrus Revolution?

A lot of Cirrus owners are very enthusiastic about their airplanes compared to the ragged-out old metal planes that one sees in row after row on the ramp. To their eyes the SR20 and SR22 are revolutionary improvements on what Cessna, Mooney, and Piper have been building for the last 50 years. If this is true, why are Cirrus sales so small? In 2004, the U.S. had 440,000 families with net worths of over $10 million. U.S. general aviation manufacturers shipped 2,355 planes in 2004, down from 17,811 in 1978. Yuppies can afford airplanes but prefer to stay in their SUVs.

How revolutionary is the performance of a Cirrus? Consider the Mooney M20, introduced in 1953 and shortly thereafter appearing in the M20C version with a 180 hp Lycoming O-360 engine. The M20C carried four people in a cramped noisy cabin at a cruising speed of around 147 knots behind a direct-drive aluminum engine with a manual mixture control. Fifty years later Cirrus will sell you a plane that carries four people in a slightly less cramped equally noisy cabin at a cruising speed of 153 knots behind a direct-drive aluminum engine with a manual mixture control. It will cost about the same as a brand-new Mooney Ovation, the riveted-together descendent of that M20C, and a bit less to maintain due to its fixed landing gear. Mooney, Cirrus, and other makers of small piston-powered planes are generally making a product that is comparatively much less affordable than decades ago. For example, a Chevrolet Corvette sports car in 1978 listed for $14,000 and a Mooney was 2.7 times more expensive at $37,500. Today the vastly improved Corvette is $44,500 and a somewhat improved four-seat airplane is around $280,000 or 6.3 times more expensive. Most of the improvement in the 2005 airplane versus the 1978 airplane comes from the advent of the Global Positioning System.

What would it take to revolutionize a market? A mass-produced plane that a yuppie would be willing to ride in. This would be something like a Piper Malibu with turbocharger, pressurization, air-conditioning, and certified de-icing gear. Piper hand-builds about 25 of these every year and sells them for $1.1 million. What would be revolutionary would be a mass-produced plane of similar capabilities that sold for $400,000. The Cirrus single-engine jet may yet prove revolutionary, if they can keep the price close to $1 million.

Conclusion

When the weather is cool, the air is smooth, and the clouds are nonicing, the SR20 is a good value for point-to-point transportation for two people with weekend bags or three adults for a breakfast outing. The SR20 is particularly good at trips where you're stuck in the clouds for lengthy periods and mostly monitoring the autopilot.

Novice pilots looking at this plane should remember that it can't do anything more, fundamentally, than a 1965 Cessna 172 augmented by a portable GPS. The SR20 can't climb over the clouds any more than the 172 can and therefore both are subject to airframe icing and embedded thunderstorms. The SR20 is faster than the 172 and that encourages people to plan more ambitious trips through more weather systems and over more terrain. But the need to stay mentally ahead of the airplane is the same in both cases and may actually be tougher with the SR20 due to its greater speed.

During the 500 or so hours that I've flown the plane, I have had to delay some flights due to poor weather or forecast ice. I have had some very uncomfortable flights due to heat and turbulence. I have had some scary flights where I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to pick up ice or where I had to fly through mountain passes dotted with clouds and rain showers. In almost every case the existence of the parachute did not make the flight any safer or more comfortable. What would have made the flights doable on my schedule, safe, easy, and physically comfortable was a plane that could climb to 25,000' (the tops were never higher than around 20,000'), was certified for known icing, and had pressurization for the dog in the back seat who doesn't like having an oxygen cannula in his nose. On the hot bumpy in-and-out-of-the-clouds flights, I would have climbed to the smooth cool air above the various layers. On the scary flights in Alaska, the Yukon, and Nunavut, I would have gone IFR and blasted through the icing layers quickly. The one time that I would have remained grounded even with a turbocharged de-iced plane was at a gravel VFR-only airport in a mountain valley in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

So the SR20 is perfect for an economical regional flight where you can look out the window and know that the weather will be pretty reasonable for your trip out and back. If you want to go somewhere on your schedule, however, you need something more like the Malibu (only $300-500,000 for a good used one, but expensive to maintain, insure, and hangar; remember also to get a letter from God promising that the engine won't quit as it has on so many other Malibu/Mirages).

SR20 versus SR22

The SR22 has the same fuselage and the same wing spar as the SR20. There is a bigger engine out front and longer wing tips on the sides but otherwise it is the same plane with the same structural strength. The SR22 is 25 knots faster, an honest 180 knot cruiser, and can carry four adults. The SR22 can carry 92 gallons of fuel (84 gallons pre-G3) instead of 56, and therefore if throttled back will cruise much farther than the SR20, especially if you are willing to breathe oxygen and fly up around 12-15,000'. If you throttle an SR22 way back it can fly at similar speeds and fuel burns to an SR20. If you have a spare $15,000 and 50 lbs. of payload that you aren't using, you can get air conditioning installed in an SR22 but not an SR20. A sacrifice of 134 lbs. of payload buys the known ice system. A turbo SR22 with all of the options lists for $600,000.

How about ease of flying? An SR20 pilot needs to deal with power changes from 200 hp down to 0 and from 0 hp up to 200. A power change may require rudder and elevator input, the amounts of which will depend on the amount of power added or subtracted. The bigger change available in an SR22, from 0 hp to 310 hp on takeoff, for example, will require a faster and larger response from the pilot than what an SR20 pilot must do.

Cirrus versus Diamond

The Diamond Star DA-40 is one of the best hand-flying airplanes ever designed. As such, it is a better primary trainer than the Cirrus and a better plane for the pilot who expects to train casually and to fly once per month. The Cirrus is more comfortable, faster, much cheaper as a used airplane (since so many have been produced), and very suitable for the pilot who intends to train intensively and then fly weekly.

Cirrus versus Cessna 400

The Cessna Corvalis/Cessna 400/Columbia 400 and its simpler cousin, the 350, are composite designs with similar performance to the Cirrus SR22 and Cirrus SR22 Turbo. These airplanes have some excellent hand-flying qualities, but have never proved popular with customers. According to some airplane salesmen I've interviewed, nearly everyone who test-flies both the Cirrus and the Cessna Corvalis ends up buying the Cirrus. The Corvalis seems cramped inside compared to the Cirrus and the controls are spread out more, with some overhead, some underneath the central armrest, and the remainder in front of the pilot on the panel.

As the Columbia 350/400, the airplane had insufficient market appeal to keep its manufacturer in business. The Bend, Oregon company went bankrupt in 2007. Production in Oregon was shut down in 2009. Cessna restarted production with a component manufacturing operation in Mexico and a final assembly operation in Independence, Kansas.

One of the big selling points for the Corvalis was its ostensibly greater structural strength than the Cirrus's. The Corvalis was certified in Utility category whereas the Cirrus is a Normal category aircraft. This marketing claim was called into question on December 10, 2010 when the FAA issued Emergency Airworthiness Directive 2010-26-53 because of a Cessna Corvalis that "suffered a significant structural failure in the wing during a production acceptance flight test."

Resale Value

Due to the near-infinite production capacity at Cirrus and the improvements that are made from year to year, depreciation is rapid. Our six-year-old 2005 SR20, for which we paid $280,000, is probably worth no more than $150,000.

Don't be fooled by high Cirrus asking prices, especially for the older steam-gauge airplanes. A friend had a beautiful 2003 Cirrus SR20 with 1700 hours total time and 315 on a new engine. After about six months he finally managed to give it away for $112,000.

Should a Novice Pilot Buy an SR2x?

A lot of pilots who shop for the SR20 and SR22 have fewer than 100 hours and lack an instrument rating. Is it safe for someone with this level of experience to buy and fly a Cirrus? Cirrus seems to think so because they have offered various incentive packages to student pilots, even on the fire-breathing SR22.

I think the beginner can be safe in an SR2x provided he or she schedules an immediate 50-hour intensive instrument training cross-country program. He or she will have 15 hours of UND training at the Cirrus factory and then 50 hours of dual traveling, say, from Duluth to San Francisco to Florida and back to San Francisco. At the end of this time the former beginner will be ready for an IFR checkride and familiar with the challenges of planning real trips across multiple weather systems. With all of the practice approaches and touch-and-goes, the former beginner will be expert at slow flight and landings. U.S. Navy studies have shown that time in type is the most important factor in predicting accident rates. Someone with 65 serious training hours in the Cirrus, even though lacking in overall aeronautical experience, is going to have a thorough understanding of the plane's behavior and have a lot of mental energy left over to think about the flight situation.

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Text and photos Copyright 2005-2011 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu

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