Friday, November 20, 2009

SR22 Test FLight: Wow!

(note, this is one from the archives, enjoy...)

Today will forever be considered a “milestone day” in the life of this aviator, as myself and one of my best buds in Eugene got to go flying. No news there, but...Oh wait…did I mention we were at the controls of our very own Cirrus SR22 GTS?

Truth be told, it was only ours for about an hour, and a demo pilot from Duluth was in the right seat making sure Matt Moberg and myself didn’t bend (snap?) any really expensive composite airplane materials.

A little background: From the very day I first laid eyes on a Cirrus SR20 years ago at an AOPA Expo, I knew this was THE plane. Something about the Cirrus leaps out at a pilot, grabs hold and refuses to let go. I’ve always been impressed by the Cirrus operation – how they seem to know what pilots want AND need. Maybe that explains why they are cranking out 60 units a month these days.
Maybe it’s the curves of the fuselage, or the way the airframe, ergonomically-perfect interior and avionics suite come together in a symphony of delight that a flyer rarely feels unless they are in the left seat of a true aviation masterpiece.
And now that I’ve actually FLOWN a Cirrus, it seems words cannot possibly do this airplane right, but I will try…

Fit and Finish: Matt flew the northbound demo leg from Eugene’s Mahlon Sweet Field to Corvallis Muni, so I was able to lounge in the back seat and take a good look at the way this plane is built. I shared the back seat with Matt’s wife Carol, and we both had plenty of elbow and knee room. The seats could have been right at home in a high-end Lexus, they were that comfortable. The ANR Bose headsets (not sure if those were standard or just the sets that the demo team used) made the ride as quiet as I have ever experienced, and with the four knot wind and clear and a million weather, being a passenger in a Cirrus was far superior to anything I have ever experienced in GA air travel.

The SR22 GTS just FEELS like a well-built product. Things fit together tight, the doors close solid, and you just know that in 20 years, this will still be an airframe that serves it’s owner well. But the back seat is not where the fun is in a Cirrus, so at CVO we switched places and after years of dreaming, I was finally in the left seat of an SR, with my left hand on the key and my right hand searching for the blue prop lever (there isn't one, propeller pitch is automatically controlled).

Start-up and takeoff: I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive about actually FLYING the Cirrus…I thought that this might be a demo “ride” only. But our Cirrus pilot, Steve Noldin, basically gave me the plane. He said some planes have problems with “hot starts” but not Cirrus. The engine had only been off about 60 seconds, and all it took for me to coax it back to life – on my very first try ever in this make/model – was one-quarter throttle, full mixture, three blades and POW, three hundred and ten ponies instantly idling at 1,000 RPMs, ready to launch.

Takeoff was sweet. I did not know that the Cirrus family does not have a steerable nose wheel, and after lining up on the centerline, believe me, it was a rush to begin pushing the throttle forward. Like a fine sports car, the SR22 plants you in your seat with gobs of acceleration. But as IAS increased, I noticed we were only about 75% power, so I applied more forward throttle and the GTS leapt forward some more. Now rolling faster, I was STILL only at 85% power. This was mind-blowing. So to hell with it, I shoved it to the forward stops and the Cirrus sped up like a Nissan 300ZX to yet another level.

When those sleek wings decide to grab hold of the air, hang on, because the SR22 loves to fly. It didn’t explode into the sky uncontrollably, but instead was smooth and predictable – this is how an airplane is supposed to feel when it is rigged perfectly and the weight/balance is dead on.

The side stick: Of all the Cirrus features I’ve thought about over the years, the side stick topped the list. Would it be hard to learn? Would it be too sensitive…or not sensitive enough? Well, turns out the side stick is a non-issue…and by the time I was over the numbers at the departure end of the runway, I had already forgotten about the stick. This new-fangled style of controlling an airplane would forever be “the way” it should be done. Case closed.

Avionics: The FlightMax Entegra Primary Flight Display/Flight Director defies description. This panel could probably do your taxes while dragging your butt through the clouds and around thunderstorms as you follow a complex GPS approach inbound. I’m not going to go into long detail about what it does, but I’ll say this…maybe it was because I’ve got a few hours flying this type of PFD in X-Plane, but inside of :30 seconds as PIC, I was able to easily find IAS, altitude, RPMs, everything. Only thing that took a bit of searching for was the old yaw ball, which is now integrated into the PFD. And yes, I still have sloppy feet.

Returning to EUG, Steve let me work the plane through whatever maneuvers I choose. It took me zero minutes to be up to speed on the S-TEC/Meggit integrated autopilot, which is of the quality of what you might expect in a 757...not kidding here. The crisp handling coupled with a quick roll rate made air work nothing more than (a) think it, (b) twitch your wrist on the stick and (c) the airplane turns.

Because I seemed to be easily grasping how to control the Cirrus without really thinking about it, I was able to begin searching for targets on the TCAS – my first time ever with in-cockpit traffic awareness. And when Steve switched the right MFD to monitor the engine, the TCAS data was also shown redundantly on the bottom of the two GNS 430 GPS units. Sweet.

The landing: Entering the pattern, I began to think of a tactful way to let Steve know I was close to wussing out on trying to land an airplane valued well to the north of a quarter million dollars. But then as I descended into right downwind for 34R, I snapped back to reality when I noticed that the Cirrus was beginning to feel like an old pair of favorite gloves – it wrapped around my hands in a way that made controlling it completely intuitive. Yes, this airplane slings itself through the air at 160+ KIAS in cruise, but in the pattern, the SR22 was perfection as I brought the speed to the 100 KIAS mark easily and dropped a notch of flaps. Ninety on base, more flaps, and eighty on final…followed by (bragging here) a landing that felt like I had a thousand hours in the Cirrus…not 18 minutes. This is not because I am some kind of ace, but because this airplane does everything right. Everything.

Conclusion: I knew that flying a Cirrus would be wonderful, but I had no idea to what level of “wonderfulness” this airplane can achieve. After one quick leg, I felt confident that I could go out there right now, jump in the SR22 and make a smooth VFR flight anywhere. This is because Alan Klapmeier and his team of 970 seriously dedicated people have built an airplane that is so well-engineered, it is no wonder this company – and this airplane – are considered by many to be the benchmark for GA airplane manufacturing.

I have never flown a Columbia 400, or an A36 Bonanza, or the new Mooney Acclaim. But after flying a Cirrus SR22 GTS, there is no reason to test fly anything else. Every pilot deserves to own a really fast, beautiful airplane at least once in their lives. And after my demo flight today, you can bet your farm that the “N” number on my “forever” plane just might end with Charlie Delta and be constructed in a state that, um, isn't Kansas.