“The Cirrus Pick-Up”

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OK the day has finally come! I just picked up a new Cirrus SR-22 Centenial Edition from Cirrus Design in Minnesota. Thanks to all the people that have contributed to X-Plane to make this possible! I include especially Sergio Santagada, Ben Supnik, Robin Peel, Michel Verheughe, Dave Spotts, Anthony Booher, Stephane Marel, and Yvves Cuttat.

Below find photos and journal entries on the initial pickup and cross-country flight as I fly the plane back home to South Carolina, seeing friends along the way.

OK so my face was pressed up against the window of the airliner as we taxied down the taxiway late at night in Duluth Minnesota. It was maybe 10 or 11 in the evening, and the bitterly cold air of Minnesota in October was blowing just outside the freezing window of the airliner. Sure enough, the hangars were right there to the side of the taxiway, well lit in the night and the simple word titling them understating their true meaning: CIRRUS DESIGN CORP. About TWO DOZEN of the curvy little speedsters sat parked around the ramp, their sleek little shapes visible only in silohuette and from glinting ramp lights. My plane (which I had never seen, in person or by photograph) was on that ramp, or inside one of the mammoth hangars, but in the darkness I could not pick out any plane with tail number N8141Q… the airline ticket to the Cirrus factory was one-way only…

In the terminal I collected my suitcase and rental car, and resisted the temptation to drive to Cirrus now… I didn’t want my first contact with the company to be me getting cornered by security at midnight while I snooped around the hangars…

Concerns swirled around my brain that whole night at the cheesy Econo-Lodge as the freezing winds whipped outside… Could I fly the plane? (I had never flown a Cirrus)… Did they get the money? (I had wired the full price of the plane that morning, but to the right account? The wire address sure had a lot of digits, and was under the name of some bank I had never heard of, not Cirrus)… Would it LOOK OK? (the only pictures of the Centennial Edition at their web site made the plane look an ugly brown-orange… I THINK it was only the sunset making it look that color but could not be sure)… Would I have the courage to fly the plane without insurance? (I never buy insurance, but things happen in an eyeblink on some of those landings in gusty wind conditions, and the plane costs almost four times as much as my house)… Would I be able to function with no sleep? (I usually work until 4 am, and sleep until noon… but would obviously report to Cirrus at 9 am for pickup)… Would I be able to fly at all decently? (I had flown an airplane ONE TIME in the last THREE YEARS.. my biennial flight review a week earlier)

The next morning I pulled onto airport road, using the little xeroxed map they had given me to get to the factory, and there loomed the CIRRUS hangars past the trees. I pulled the little rental car into the lot and took a space right up against a fence with a gaggle of Cirri parked right on the other side. In through the glass doors and announce myself… I was signed in and given a name tag. My first question was the same as everyone else’s that came through this lobby: “Can I SEE my airplane right away, please?”. We all know that the training, contracts, money, etc stuff must all be dealt with, but all of that junk can wait. The first impulse is always the same: You have to SEE and TOUCH what you came for… what you have only seen pictures or maybe rough copies of (someone ELSE’S airplane) before. As well, since you are required to show up with a cashiers check (now where did I put that thing?) or to have wired the money (usually done in advance) there is usually some additional pressure to see what you have just purchased. I was pointed to the far end of the very lobby I was standing in: A large, clean, white hangar was built right into the building I was in, with tall glass windows at the far wall of this lobby looking right into it. Within this pristine white hangar sat a curvy, angular, tan, sleek machine, segments of it visible through each of the vertical slit windows, but each window was a bit too narrow to take in the whole airplane. The door to the hangar was labeled “Acceptance Hangar 1:”. I pressed my nose up against a window to se the tail number on the airplane: N8141Q. Only numbers, but with so much meaning… I opened the door and tiptoed into the operating-room-clean hangar, devoid of any detail or distraction other than the plane itself. A touch of the wingtip and a walk around the plane revealed all the details: a perfect sleek beige shape with almost nothing to break the lines… no rivets, no wrinkles of metal like almost all other planes… just a perfect sleek shape. The doors were open (up and forward) making the plane look like a giant techno-butterfly from the fifth dimension, so I climbed aboard and made myself at home.. yup, fit like a glove. The plane was of spartan smooth interior with plush leather everything, and the panel simply being two huge EFIS’s and a stack of pretty radios with tons of little buttons and displays, with a few conventional instruments under the main EFIS for backup. The new-airplane smell of leather permeated the cockpit, a perfect addition to the sparkling avionics. The demo-pilot from Cirrus walked in stood aside while I grinned stupidly and stumbled around the plane. Soon he briefed me on the situation: He had pre-flighted it earlier: Full fuel, full oil, full glycol (anti-ice… the plane sweats glycol to keep ice from forming on it, a feature that would come in useful in 3 days). Dave (the demo pilot, flying 737’s when not demoing Cirri) would soon race around the area (him flying from the right seat, me watching from the left) proving that everything worked, so that I would be convinced that the plane was “as advertised” and complete the transaction. After this flight, a typical customer would hand over the check, or wire the money, but of course I had already done those things, so this flight was just a formality. The next 30 minutes went by in a frenzied blurr (over 200 mph behind 5 different computer systems, all of them totally unknown to me), at the end of which I could only guess that the plane did even one single thing as advertised! It sure seemed to fly, but Dave kept saying things like “OK lets check the GPS approach mode coupling to the autopilot with the vertical descent rate and altitude hold modes engaged… yup, seems to work just fine!” HUH? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? I was tempted to put my hands on front of his face and say “Hold on a second there! I haven’t the foggiest idea of what you just said, or did, or what the plane is doing, other than going really, really fast!” but Cirrus was doing THIRTEEN DELIVERIES that day (not a bad day of revenue!) so I could not hold Dave back from his other customers. We landed and taxied in, and I sort of stumbled out of the plane, still giddy with delight over it’s prowess, but without the foggiest idea of what the thing could really do, or had actually just done.

I was guided up to the “Customer Briefing Room”, lined with leather couches and the other customers there to pick up their plane that day: All dominant, independent, successful men with giddy smiles on their face. A mechanic was briefing a group of them around the table about 1: How to fly safely in the airplane, and 2: How to get killed in the airplane. Both good stuff to know.

Soon I was guided into the “Conference Room”: The only room in the building not richly appointed with leather couches, aviation magazines, and free coffee and stuff. This was a tiny white room with only 4 things in it: 1 table, 2 chairs, and 1 phone. I think this is what the US is using to interrogate the AlQuaida guys in Cuba or wherever they are. There were no curtains to hide behind, and no window to jump out of, and no pictures to point to in an attempt to distract your opposite: “Say, that is a pretty nice picture of an SR-71 behind you” (Cirrus sales guy turns around to look at it while you replace the cashiers check you just handed him with a fake). No, in this room, he would simply reply: “There are no pictures in this room, and why are you reaching for that cashiers check?” Even I was a bit surprised by the austerity of this tiny room. The nice lady from Cirrus, sitting opposite me said “Mr. Meyer, I received your wire. Here are the various documents for you to sign. We will start with the Agreement of Sales Tax document, which indicates that there is no sales tax on the aircraft as per our agreement with the State of Minnesota, etc etc etc. After signing about a dozen documents indicating my agreement that the airplane was as required, the FAA registry was made under Laminar Research, I promised I already had insurance if I was getting a loan (otherwise not) and a bunch more I cannot remember, we got to the final document. It was one page, and about one sentence, and here it is:

I agree that I accept all authority and all responsibility for N8141Q, and relieve Cirrus Design Corp from all authority and all responsibility for N8141Q.
Signed ____________________ Signed ___________________

We each signed it and she took it and filed my stuff in a big fancy leather document-holder and handed it to me with a smile. “Enjoy your new airplane!” I had to ask: “Wait, of all these documents, which one actually sold me the plane?” Her reply: “It was that last one. We have to do everything else, but that last document is what actually made it your airplane.”

I floated back to the customer lounge with my document-carrier and sat down with a few other guys for our customer briefing, which started (just like everything else in this entire process) within 5 minutes of it’s designated time as our A&P arrived and told us all about owning a Cirrus: How to wash it and not to. How to pull the parachute. Where to maintain it. Who to call with any problems. How long the warranty was and what it covered. How to break in the engine and why. What oil to use and why. What fuel to use. (that was about the only thing I already knew!)

After the customer briefing, it was time to meet my flight instructor (another Dave, this one being one of the top dogs at University of North Dakota, and a great instructor to have to get a practical education on real-world flying of the Cirrus) and begin the most boggling flight-training process ever.

So the Cirrus is fast, sleek, and DENSE. Cessnas are light aluminum cans with only a little bit of weight spread way out on long skinny tails and wings, with modest power. This makes them easy to fly, but a bit slow.
The Cirrus is heavy though (3400 lb max weight) and really TIGHT, with it’s stiff structure, sleek wings, and compact shape compared to the gangly Cessna. The controls are far, far, far more precise and sensitive (the roll rate will SHOCK a Cessna-driver… you just flick your wrist while holding the little sidestick and the plane pivots 45 degrees left or right in an eyeblink. There is no slop, no delay. Only instant roll to your desired bank angle. It’s like moving a mouse cursor: As quick as you can move your hand, it’s there. The rudder response is fine (forward slips cock the nose off smartly by 15 degrees), and the elevator is perfect as well (nuetral stick and the plane charges straight ahead, all the way back perfectly nibbles the stall). The controls are spring-centered (no control lock), and perfectly rigged and tight, so every control deflection gives a crisp, immediate response compared to any other plane I have flown, and the heavy machine goes galloping off in a new direction. It flies just like my Corvette drives: You can feel the weight, but the response is crisp (but still damped) and immediate. (My Corvette is the 50th Anniversary Corvette, commemorating 50 years since the first Corvette was built in 1953. It comes in a special “Anniversary Red” paint, with a special beige interior. My Cirrus is the “Centennial Edition” Cirrus, celebrating the 100th anniversary of flight, since the Wrights flew in 1903. The Centennial Edition Cirrus comes with top leather and a beige interior as well. Surely, 2003 is a banner year for anniversaries of speed.)

Anyway, the control response is great, and the mass distribution, wing size, and control rigging and type combined with the mirror-smooth composite skin give excellent in-flight response. There is one catch, though: The thing is big, with a big prop, and sits pretty low. (again, just like the Vette) This leaves two major things to watch out for: 1: Don’t go charging over a dip in the pavement… that big prop has seven inches of clearance, and you don’t want to ding it. (perhaps this is actually impossible to do, but seven inches is not a lot in my book for a prop) 2: Don’t flare it too much on landing, or you will bang the tail. That’s a $4,000 repair bill since composite damage is hard to detect, unlike damage to metal structures. This means that for the landing you have to sort of just “Fly it on” like a jet… not flare up and up until the thing finally runs out of lift like you can (and should) with a Cessna. Instead, just pull the power and fly it onto the ground in a slight nose-up attitude. It’s easy to make it perfectly smooth. You can SEE the difference between a Cessna and a Cirrus landing: The Cessna comes wobbling in, displaced by every draft of wind, and points the nose way up until it perches in a nose-high plop-down on the runway. The Cirrus, on the other hand, flies a smooth glideslope with no wobbling (it’s higher wing-loading makes it smoother in gusty conditions… it holds steady in 15 gust 25 knot winds) then raises the nose just a little and you can’t tell where the flying stops and the rolling starts. It is quite a thing of beauty, though it uses a healthy dose of runway to get stopped! The gear has just the right amount of damping, and the plane holds itself with just the right wing-loading and stiffness for the landing to be smooth, tight, certain, and controlled. Much smoother than any airliner, which have all sorts of rumblings and imbalances and oscillations from resonances on the touch-down and roll-out.

Be advised that with all that weight and sleek frame that if you point it DOWN you will build up to redline in no time, so plan the descents ahead of time.

With 310 horsepower going to a huge 3-blade constant-speed prop, the thing accelerates like a scalded cat on steroids and caffeine, so any time you want to go faster, or up, just push the throttle forwards and it will be done. The take-off, in fact, involves three levels of ecstasy, each more exilerating than the last. Level 1: You push the prop to the detente (halfway) where the prop comes up to 2500 rpm and the torque comes up to about 50%. At this point, the plane is accelerating the same as the Cessnas I usually fly. Level 2, 2 seconds later: You push the throttle over the detente and up to the firewall. The engine asks for the full 2700 rpm and full torque. The acceleration doubles. Level 3, about 1 second later: A lot of the engine energy has been going into SPEEDING UP THAT BIG PROP until this point, but now established at 2700 rpm, the prop governor “opens up” the prop pitch to soak up the power. The acceleration jumps again. As your eyes are re-seating themselves in the sockets, you are past take-off speed and pulling back on the stick as the plane leaps from the pavement.

Once you get used to these quirks, the plane is great to fly, and a good sharp person could get it in one day. The real problem is the computers, though. The plane has five (containing four different moving maps), and they made my flight training quite vexing, and here they are:

1: Avidyne PFD (Primary Flight Display) This system shows the pitch, heading, and roll of the plane, along with an HSI with a little map drawn underneath it showing the procedure turns, holding patterns, etc. You also enter all your autopilot settings here.

2: Avidyne MFD (Multifunction Display) This system is a huge moving map, with all the terrain, airports, and airspace drawn on it, as well as your course, complete with all the procedure turns and holding patterns that you have asked for in the GPS system. You can see your plane crawling across the map, following the entire instrument approach. As well, lightning strikes from the StormScope are shown on it as little yellow jaggies, other airplanes from the SkyWatch are drawn on it as little blue diamonds, and the display can be toggled to show checklists and engine instruments as well, complete with the temperature of each cylinder, mixture-leaning programs, fuel on board and predicted remaining at your destination, gas mileage, etc etc etc.

3: Garmin 430 (GPS #1) This is where you enter your destination and flight plan, as well as dial in your nav and com frequencies. This GPS has a tiny moving map as well.

4: Garmin 430 (GPS #2) As above, but with the “crossfill” option turned on, it copies the flightplan data from #1, so if either system fails you still can continue the flight on the remaining GPS.

5: S-Tec 55-X (autopilot) Only slightly less important than the engine, this system flies the plane for you, complete with flying full approach procedures. On the ground, you can dial in Grand Rapids airport, plus the GPS approach to runway 34 there, full procedure, and engage the autopilot once airborne. The autopilot will fly you to Grand rapids, intercept the initial approach fix, fly the entire approach procedure, and fly you right to the runway, with you never touching the controls. For an ILS, it will fly you right to the pavement… all you have to do is flare at the end. The autopilot has it’s own self-contained attitude system, so even if the primary attitude system fails, you can still let the autopilot fly the complete approach to anywhere, even though the primary flight display screen is blank, or on fire.

These computers are powered by a dual electrical system, with two batteries, two alternators, and several buses each feeding various systems. The main battery is charged by the main alternator and can power everything. The main alternator can also charge the second battery. The second alternator can only charge the second battery, not the first battery. The essential electronics can be powered by the main or second battery. The non-essential electronics can be powered by the main system only, not the backup system. The autopilot takes user input from the primary flight display and the GPS. If the primary flight display fails, the autopilot takes minimal user input from it’s own front panel, and input from the GPS. If one GPS fails, the other will pick up the load. The first GPS is powered by either battery one or battery two. The second GPS is only powered by battery one. The autopilot can fly from the GPS or the VLOCs (VORs/ILSs). If the primary flight display fails, you can still control the plane from the backup mechanical instruments, or let the autopilot fly from it’s internal sensors. If the first or second alternator fails, the other will pick up the load, though a failure of the first alternator will require you to shut down the non-essential electronics. If the multifunction display fails, you can still use the mechanical engine instruments and the small maps on the primary flight display or Garmin 430s. If the autopilot fails you can hand-fly the full approach procedure, simply following the lines on the multifunction display. If the GPS satellites in orbit fall to Earth, you can fly from VOR to VOR using the NAV ability of the 430’s. Etc etc etc.

The plane is very, very, very hard to take completely out of commission.

Everything is redundant, and every redundancy is different than what it backs up, so there is no one way to take out the whole plane.

Learning the systems is certainly the hard part, and while most people can figure out how to make a Garmin take them direct somewhere, really understanding what navigation and autopilot and interface hardware affects what other hardware, and what to do when a failure occurs, is what separates the ride-alongs from the pros in flying this plane. The aerodynamics and handling are easy by comparison.

So, with my first flights being in gusty (15 to 25 knot) freezing winds in Duluth Minnesota, charging along at over 200 mph, trying to learn all 5 computers at once while flying the airplane, the experience was quite a bit humbling. Did I mention that during break-in of the engine you have to run it at near full power, close to the ground, so you aren’t allowed to slow down or climb much? And the wind caused constant turbulence. The real kicker is the no-flaps landing. Cessnas have so much wing they land just fine with no flaps… the only difference between a flaps and no-flaps landing is that the plane doesn’t slow down as easy. The Cirrus is so much tighter and heavier though, with flaps that are so big and powerful (large slotted), that landing without flaps involves an approach speed of 105 mph to be just above the stall, nose pointed up in the air all along final approach, or 125 mph to keep the nose basically level. That’s almost airliner approach speed, so when you come screaming in to a short runway, the adrenalin really starts pumping because that pavement disappears fast. Especially since you can’t flare much, so you just fly it on while going fast. Even at the 8,000 ft runway at Duluth, we used up most of the pavement getting the thing down and stopped in a no-flap landing… and that was with a decent headwind component of the 20 kt crosswind.

Flight training was pretty much the same each day: Pre-flight the plane in that damn freezing cold, fire it up and fly on instruments (under the hood) through the turbulence to an airport within 150 miles or so (close, at this speed), shoot some instrument approaches, and come back, shooting more instrument approaches along the way. At low altitude, cold air, full throttle, the plane gulped fuel like a waterfall (84 gallons on board, good for one 3-hour session with an hour reserve. When the engine is broken in and low-power operation is allowed, I will fly at 17,000 feet and half throttle. This will still give the same 200 mph speed, but at half the fuel burn).

Each day we would fly a different routine, with more and more systems being failed each time, and more and more intense scenarios being devised by my instructor. (ILS into Minneapolis St Paul where we pass an Airbus on final on the parallel ILS. Failure of the Primary Flight Display (Big red X’s through every function, with the message “Maintain Straight and Level Flight, restore in 38 seconds” where the attitude indicator should be). Failure of the autopilot. Failure of an alternator or battery. Etc etc etc.

At the end of the day, after flying at Mach 5 in X-Plane, keeping ahead of the Cirrus is not too hard. With the wonderful autopilot that will do everything on instruments for you including the full approach while you just sit there and watch, the wonderful moving map that shows you everything in the world including thunderstorms and other airplanes, and the wonderful primary display that shows you everything the plane is doing, the plane really flies itself even if one or two of the systems is taken out. No more than this will ever fail, any more than I will win the lottery three times within 1 hour. Once within an hour? Maybe. Two or three times within an hour? Forget it. As long as you land after you get the FIRST failure, the systems are so redundant that there is no way you will get taken out. In the event that you lose the engine and you are in no position to glide, though, or someone manages to sneak past your SkyWatch system and hit you and rip you to pieces in the air, or Mother Nature manages to overcome your heating and glycol-sweating system and encase your plane in ice, you can reach up over your head and pull The Handle, which will shoot a rocket out of the back of your airplane, dragging a huge parachute with it. The parachute will open and the entire plane will come floating to Earth with all inside unhurt. To me, this thing is more like a Starship than an airplane.

Now, some of the first pics as I travel the USA in the 8141Q:

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