The Cirrus Aircraft range is now established among the most popular makes on the Australian market, so much so that Cirrus HQ in Duluth created a model specifically for our market. Steve Hitchen spent a day at Cirrus Melbourne finding out what the new Australis is all about.
Sixteen years after the first Cirrus production aircraft was delivered, partisans of the Australia general aviation market still view the SR20 and 22 with a great deal of suspicion: composite materials, glass cockpit, side-stick controls and, of course, that parachute.
It looks nothing like the traditional metal-clad pistons singles that have formed the backbone of general aviation in Australia since 1955; therefore, the relatively new interloper clearly is defective in some way. The older designs are still in production and they will do us nicely, thank you!
But get this: of all new four-seat piston singles sold in Australia since the start of 2011, Cirrus is out-selling Cessna and Piper combined.
The harrumphs of the indignant conservatives are starting to become muffled.
Such are the inroads that Cirrus has made in this country in the last 16 years, that headquarters in Duluth, Minnesota, granted Cirrus Australia the privilege of an aircraft tailored specifically for the our market. It even got a name: Australis.
Like many others in the aviation community, I first saw the Australis when I wandered onto the Cirrus stand at Avalon 2015. My eyes were locked onto the SF50 Vision mock-up, but that hold was broken when I was confronted with this SR22-looking aeroplane with the iconic Southern Cross emblazoned on the tail.
But rather than be just a stirring livery to attract the eyes of buyers, the new scheme heralded an aeroplane package distinctly Australian in nature. Even though it was at heart an SR22 like most others, the downunder motifs set in strategic spots like the headrests showed me that this was not just a North American model adorned with gratuitous Aussie stickers.
It certainly had an impact on others as well. Cirrus Australia reported orders for four aircraft before the show was done.
What's so Australian about it?
Several months later my phone rang. It was Cirrus Melbourne Regional Sales Director Kreisha Ballantyne, someone I knew from her former career as an aviation journalist. Would I like to take a Cirrus Australis for a flight?
What are you kidding me? For a year or so I had been fishing for this invitation because the Australis is based on the SR22 Generation 5, which I had never flown, but was under a constant barrage of praise from those who had for the technological leap it represented over the Gen 3 model (there was no Gen 4).
But what I really wanted to know was what makes this aeroplane an Australis, not just a re-branded SR22, and what forces brought it to life.
"It exists specifically for the Australian market because Cirrus said we could," Ballantyne told me. "They said we could give something to the Australian market that would make Australian people feel that the aircraft was tailored to their needs."
Headquarters told Cirrus Australia they could pick five options to add to a basic SR22 to make the Australis. They chose:
- air conditioning
- 100% UV windows to reduce cockpit temperature and illuminate the risk of aviation related skin cancer
- Australian survival and extreme weather Accessory Pack-
- Bolstered seats for long journey comfort
- Bigger Screens to reduce eye fatigue on long trips
- Tubeless 10 ply tires reducing the chance of punctures
With a 24 -month pro subscription to flight planning app AvPlan EFB or Ozrunways , the Australis does look very much like an aeroplane well-suited to our environment, for very good reason.
"We thought there was a pattern in what Australian customers were picking in options, so Cirrus told us we could pick five options and that's what we chose," Ballantyne explained. "The thing with the Australis is that if you want more things you can add them, but you can't take anything away."
I thought it curious that the Australis was based on the normally-aspirated engine, not the SR22T turbo that is the bigger seller around the world.
"Nine out of ten aircraft sold in Australia aren't turbos. So what we did with the Australis is that we went with the medium.
"Some people buy them [turbos] because they like to have everything, and some people do like to fly in the flight levels, but most people don't. And you can take an Australis to 17,000 feet with supplemental oxygen, so if you do want to get up there you can."
That doesn't mean you can't have a turbo engine if you really want one; it's on the list of options that can be added to the Australis.
The Australis comes in two flavours, the standard model and a Premium version, which sports two-tone livery and leather seats with high grade with Alcantara inserts. My test aircraft would be a Premium for a simple reason: at the time, no-one in Australia had wanted the standard, such is the attraction of the Premium package.
Flyin' with Ryan
On my arrival at Cirrus Melbourne's Moorabbin base on the appointed day, I found my demo pilot was to be Earthrounder and Cirrus advocate Ryan Campbell, a man who has plenty of SR22 experience having flown one around the world in 2013, becoming the first teenager ever to do so.
When an aeroplane has sustained you on an adventure like that, it's to be expected that you develop a fair amount of affection for the type, but his experience since with other aircraft has further deepened his ardour for the SR22.
"If you really want to look at why you buy an aeroplane, it's to use it," he told me before our flight together. "The Cirrus is essentially a five-seat aircraft, which gives a bit more flexibility with families. They are designed to be an A-to-B aeroplane, and they do that job so well.
"As for using a general aviation aeroplane as a tool, it makes it an enjoyable experience.
"To get in a Cirrus and fly it IFR, say from Melbourne to Wollongong, is an absolute non-event. At 400 feet the autopilot goes on, it holds the airspeed to top-of-climb and captures top-of-climb. You lean in the climb in a very simple manner. You have the aircraft set for a VNAV descent, it will run the VNAV descent right to the top of the approach.
"With the latest software for the Garmin Perspective we have BARO-VNAV approaches that are not normally seen in GA aircraft except for King Airs and the sort. So that will transition you to the RNAV approach, so you're doing the approach in three dimensions.
"The Australis makes average pilots look very, very good."
Being the quintessential average pilot, I was about to put Ryan's theory to the blowtorch. My log book told me it had been 11 years since I sat in the command seat of any Cirrus. That was an SR20 back in the embryonic days of glass cockpits in GA aeroplanes, and it looked very different to the Cirrus Perspective system that I now faced.
The intel behind the Perspective is pure Garmin, but crafted to deliver the capability that Cirrus wanted for its aeroplanes. What I liked about the Perspective from the get-go was the push-button system that makes numbers like frequencies and altitudes easier to dial up. I am yet to truly master the right combination of twisting and pressing for avionics driven purely with knobs, so the keyboard on the centre console represented, for me, a reduction in mid-air frustration.
It's pretty easy to see why everyone wants the Premium pack; I sank into the lavish shadow-grey leather that dressed the interior of Australis VH-ZZD like it was a lounge chair at an exclusive country club. Any fear of it being too hot in our sizzling summer climate was quelled by the presence of the shiny silver air conditioner vents prominent across the panel. Throw in the UV tinted windows and you're assured of arriving 300 nm later with neither a hair out of place nor sweat on your brow.
The now-traditional side-stick controls on the Cirrus gives a completely uninterrupted view of the Primary Flight Display (PFD), Multi Function Display (MFD) and the back-up digital flight instruments set in the lower half of the panel. It also makes it very easy to access the switch panel located on a flat shelf just below the PFD. At my right thigh sat the power lever (no individual prop control), with the three-stage flap lever sited below the comms panel in the centre console.
The thing that has always struck me about the SR22 is how much the cockpit layout reflects those of commercial aircraft, yet Cirrus continues to maintain their planes are built to suit private owners.
"One thing that Cirrus recognises, particularly in the United States but here as well, is that its pilots aren't always commercial pilots," Kreisha Ballantyne had explained earlier. "They are usually business people who use the aircraft to get to their businesses. So they don't fly for a living, but they use their aircraft to earn a living.
"However, our pilots often operate on a commercial mindset; they're often on a schedule, they're going from one place to another. It's like a charter, but it's a personal charter."
Hence, the cockpit design, layout and technology brings commercial capability to an essentially private aeroplane.
Rolling on 17L
Starting the 310 hp Continental IO-550 up front presented no problems at all, especially when compared with the same engine fitted to other aircraft.
For the sake of my novice status, Campbell ran through the checklist embedded in the MFD software whilst we ran-up VH-ZZD prior to taxi. His practised hands whipped around the panel showing me how to set the QNH, dial-up frequencies and pre-set altitudes as he delivered the take-off brief.
We chose 1500 feet for departure to the south and set-up the autopilot to capture that level on climb-out. Handily, the left side of the autopilot panel contains controls for all the lateral modes and the right side all the vertical modes. To hand control to George, you select a mode from each side. In our case, we chose to navigate on the directional gyro heading bug and to climb on airspeed mode of 120 knots.
Moments later we were cleared to line-up on 17L, had selected one stage of flap, fuel pump on and mixture to full rich. Our take-off clearance to the south came promptly.
I pushed the power lever forward smoothly to the stops, and felt the aircraft surge forward. With no turbo, there were no limiting factors on the power. The Australis was the most powerful aeroplane I'd ever flown with a castering nosewheel, but the rudder was so effective in steering that holding the centre line proved very undramatic.
At 60 knots I unloaded the nosewheel and froze on the stick, staring ahead down the runway like I was mesmerised. At no time did I apply further back-stick, but ZZD rose into the air of her own accord. As the speed passed 90, I retracted the flaps and let her accelerate to the climb speed of 120 knots. No reduction in power needed; they climb at 100%.
As we passed 600 feet on climb out, Campbell announced "CAPS available." This was a verbal recognition that the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System couldn't be used below that height. Should the donk have cut out on take-off, the actions would have been the same as in an aeroplane without the CAPS: find a paddock and land.
As advertised, the Australis leveled itself off at 1500 feet, where we stayed until the Moorabbin zone was behind us. We reset the autopilot to 4500 and continued on up, the 120 KIAS giving us a 950 fpm rate of climb. The power setting for the cruise climb was 86%, with the Perspective showing a manifold pressure of 25 inches and engine RPM of 2680.
Straight and level
At 4500 the autopilot brought the nose down and we tracked toward Sorrento. With the air conditioner humming along, smooth air beneath the wings and Port Phillip Bay glistening out to starboard, we gave ourselves a chance to just enjoy the moment. This was, I reckoned, aviation's equivalent of cruising in a Bentley Continental.
I flicked off the boost pump and set about trimming the aeroplane, which Campbell pointed out is critical for the Australis' performance.
"With the Cirrus in particular because of the type of controls it has, it's so important to trim the aeroplane," he stressed. "If you trim the aeroplane it will be just so docile and well behaved; it will sit at the airspeed you want. It's just perfect. If you don't trim the aeroplane, you'll be fighting it the whole time."
The procedure for setting up the power and leaning with the Cirrus Perspective system is probably the fastest and easiest I've seen. Campbell made an arbitrary decision that we'd cruise at 65% power. First action: throttle back until the gauge shows 75% power. Second action: lean the mixture until 65% power is indicated. Done.
Those numbers, set at 7-8000 feet, will present you with an exhaust gas temperature 50o lean of peak (LOP), cruise TAS of around 172 knots and a fuel flow of 45-50 lph. However, many owners are not convinced of the merits of running LOP. If that's the case, setting 85% on the throttle and 75% on the mixture will leave the EGT rich of peak (ROP).
Now, at this stage of a flight test I would normally grab the stick and throw the plane around the sky to check out the load on the controls, roll-rates, pitch sensitivity and all sorts of things. We did a bit of that, but with the sweet handling characteristics of the SR22 known years ago, it was really just for me to have some fun. What I really wanted to see was the new capabilities the Gen 5 brought to the party.
One of the truly innovative features is Envelope Stability Protection (ESP). Put simply, this feature stops the pilot from banking the aeroplane more than 60o, or being forced to that angle by a malevolent burst of turbulence.
When ESP is active, two sets of parallel lines appear on the AH at the 60o marks.
"If you roll past that point," Campbell explained, "the ESP will say 'no' and push back to get the aeroplane to an angle of bank that is a little more sane. If you're hand flying and you get busy and the aircraft goes into a bank it will automatically protect you from overbank."
I could see that this would be very handy for those odd occasions when a lapse of concentration entices a pilot to turn too steep onto the base and final legs of a circuit. Although it can be over-ridden with more force, ESP is one of those little jolts that should make you think about how you're flying.
That ably demonstrated, we turned to stalling and another piece of backside-saving technology: underspeed protection. This is a great piece of kit that will stop you stalling the aeroplane by inducing an automatic nose down pitch before the stall is reached.
As it is, the Australis is a very humble staller. According to Campbell, it's a wing thing.
"The Cirrus wing was designed with the step halfway along the leading edge. The basic idea is to keep the tips flying and stall the inboard wing. With the outboard wing section still flying it keeps the aircraft stable.
"Whoever designed the wing, they got it right. It just doesn't have any demons or want to do anything negative."
And that's exactly the way it panned out when we stalled ZZD high above the Mornington Peninsula. It was almost like the aeroplane was simply lowering its eyes to get a better look at Arthurs Seat.
But what did freak me out a bit was the underspeed protection demo! With the autopilot on altitude and heading hold, Campbell closed the throttle and together we watched the airspeed slowly decay. That meant sitting on your hands well aware that the aeroplane was heading to a stall and doing nothing about it! We placed control of the aeroplane in the hands of the Cirrus Perspective system and just sat and watched the pretty lights.
The speed was still above the stall when the aural annunciator screamed "AIRSPEED", which was soon converted into "STALL, STALL." Within the blink of an eye, the underspeed protection annunciator lit up and the nose dropped enough to stop the airspeed indictor in its tracks. ZZD stayed just above the stall as it mushed down towards the earth. It would have continued to do so had we not powered-up to regain our altitude.
"It's a great add-on to have," Campbell said afterward. "I'd rather have it invented before we need it ... before it becomes a necessity."
Playtime over, we headed back to join the Moorabbin circuit via Carrum. I was a bit apprehensive because I was about to land a Cirrus from the command seat for the first time in 11 years. It was going to take some coaching from Campbell to come up with a landing I could confess to.
Like many contemporary slick singles, the SR22 collects speed quickly and sheds it slowly. The beauty of the Australis is that the first stage flap can be rolled out at 150 knots indicated, adding some lovely drag early in the circuit to help get the speed down. Normally, you would do this halfway along downwind and re-trim to get the aircraft stable again for the next stage.
As we were making a straight-in approach to runway 35L, I was making judgement calls about when to slow to the base speed of 90-95, when to extend the more aggressive second stage of flap and when to slow to the final speed of 80 knots.
Regrettably my judgement was not spot-on and we ended up higher on final than I would have liked. We crossed the fence with the power at all but idle, at which time Campbell cautioned me against over-flaring. That was one thing I remembered about the Cirrus range: they hate a big ham-fisted flare and like to be eased onto the runway.
What I did could never be described as "easing" ... "thumping" would be more appropriate.
That is one thing I have to caution people about with the Australis: it has inherited the Cirrus characteristic of being touchy to land unless you do it regularly. Once the technique is embedded into your skills base, you'll make some impressive landings, but patience is needed in early attempts.
We taxied back to Cirrus Melbourne with the aircraft in one piece but my self-respect in shreds.
The tale of the tape
The Cirrus Australis is, naturally, a very good aeroplane. I say "naturally" because it is basically an SR22 at heart and so exhibits all the innovation and technology that has been proven over the last 16 years of production.
What is changing with each model is the level of automation and protection that is build into the systems. It seems with each new generation, the SR22 is becoming more professional and therefore safer and easier to fly.
The Australis version has all that, plus some stuff that makes the aircraft a very attractive machine for this country; the UV windows and air conditioning are probably very enticing for would-be owners.
But if you really want to know why Cirrus aircraft have become so popular amongst Australia's "A-to-B" flyers, you don't need to think about parachutes, price points, market position, return-on-investment or cost-per-hour to get your answer.
All you have to do is fly one.