After a pioneering eight-year journey, on 28 October 2016, Cirrus has finally achieved certification for its revolutionary SF50 Vision Jet.
Cirrus began FAA certification in September 2008. CEO Dale Klapmeier said that the certification of the aircraft is the culmination of a huge effort that General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) CEO Pete Bunce called impossible. “Luckily we never believed it was impossible. It was just a lot of work,” Klapmeier said.
The project was first announced in 2006 but in 2010 was suspended while the company dealt with both financial and internal challenges, including the attempted by-out of the whole Vision Jet programme by founder Alan Klapmeir.
In the tight times following the 2008 crash, the company concentrated on its single piston engine range. Then in 2012 it resumed the SF50 jet programme with an injection of cash from the China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA), a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
With certification now obtained, Cirrus says that deliveries will begin in December this year. As certification approached, interest and sales in the Vision SF50 picked up speed. “We now have an order backlog of over 600 aircraft,” says Cirrus vice-president of marketing, Ben Kowalski. “Production is sold out for the next four years.” Southern African sales agents CDC have sold an impressive 22 jets, all with substantial deposits.
To achieve certification, the four flight test aircraft accumulated around 2,000 hours since the first flight in March 2014. The first production aircraft flew in March 2016.
A PARACHUTE FOR A JET
Among the issues Cirrus had to pioneer was the installation of a Cirrus Airplane Parachute System (CAPS), as used so successfully by the piston range. Since the SR-series entered service in 1999, Cirrus has delivered more than 6,400 aircraft, and the CAPS has helped save more than 100 lives.
Even though the FAA said that testing of the parachute was not necessary for certification, a YouTube video shows the parachute being deployed from a Cirrus Jet in an unmanned test. The FAA considers the CAPS parachute a supplementary system. Cirrus says it is continuing to work closely with the FAA and plans to bring the SF50 to market with “a safe and fully functioning” CAPS.
“It was the part of the programme that probably offered us the biggest challenge,” said Matthew Bergwall, Vision SF50 product manager. “There were really no rules to follow.” Along with design and deployment challenges, Cirrus also had to look at the touchdown phase and design seats to absorb the loads created by forward and vertical velocity components. “We ended up looking at helicopter regulations for the chute landing,” he said.
The new airframe parachute is three-times as large as the SR22 CAPS, and it deploys differently – from the nose instead of the empennage – and it couples to the autopilot system.
The deployment starts with the pilot activating the chute via at least two separate independent actions (the SR22 has a simple mechanical pull handle in the cabin roof). In the jet, once the handle is pulled, the interface to the avionics will then attempt to put the aircraft in the proper speed range for deployment of 67-160 knots via the autopilot. Bergwall said Cirrus is continuing to study whether and how the chute would deploy if those conditions cannot be met.
Upon deployment, a car-type airbag fires first, carrying the parachute package up and over the engine and V-tail, upon which a rocket fires to inflate the canopy. The SR20 and SR22 use a rocket to deploy the chute from the airframe, but given the configuration of the SF50, Bergwall said the rocket would have to be the “size of a barrel”.
There was much excitement when Cirrus began taking US$100,000 deposits for the aircraft in 2006. The SF50 is unique in that it seats seven people, with the cockpit, second row and the third row each seating two. There is a seat that can slide between the second and third row or be removed entirely.
Initially, as a public relations exercise, the company gave deposit holders a drawing of the aircraft in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, one piece at a time. On 28 June 2007, the entire puzzle was completed and the aircraft’s V-tail configuration was unveiled.
In December 2006, Cirrus announced that the jet will be the “slowest, lowest, and cheapest jet available”. The SF50 is powered by a single Williams FJ33-4A-19 engine, producing 1,900 pounds of thrust and can cruise at 300 knots.
By 2008, Cirrus CEO Alan Klapmeier confirmed that the company had 400 refundable deposits of US$100,000 for the aircraft.
The jet made its first flight on 3 July 2008 at Duluth airport. After initial tests the aircraft’s design was modified to improve performance. Changes included altering the engine thrust angle. On the production aircraft, the right side door was eliminated to save weight, and Klapmeier was able to confirm that the aircraft’s maximum payload would be 1,200 pounds. With full fuel, it can carry 400 pounds of people and cargo. Klapmeier said that the trade-off between range and payload was based on customer consultations, which indicated that owners will often fly longer trips solo. Target range was set at 1,100 nm at a maximum cruise speed of 300 knots.
Cirrus announced that pilot training requirements will be specified in the type certificate, in a similar manner to the Eclipse 500, making training a legal requirement.
In December 2008, the price for the SF50 was still US$1 million (base) and US$1.25 million (equipped).
On 26 June 2009, there was enormous upheaval when it was reported that Cirrus co-founder and former CEO, Alan Klapmeier, intended to buy the SF50 project from Cirrus Design and its major shareholder Arcapita, and produce the aircraft himself under a new company. The new venture received financial advice from Merrill Lynch. Klapmeier indicated that his reason for wanting to take over the project was to increase the speed of development. At the end of July 2009, Alan Klapmeier announced that his offer to buy the SF50 programme had not succeeded, with the key issue being the selling price and that negotiations were ended.
The unit price kept going up. In September 2009, Cirrus announced that the maximum price for purchasers who have already paid a deposit was US$1.39 million. This would give customers an aircraft equipped to a similar standard as the current SR22 GTS model. For new customers who paid a US$100,000 deposit before the end of 2009, the price was US$1.55 million. From 1 January 2010, the price was US$1.72 million.
In November 2009, the company said that development of the SF50 had slowed due to inability to raise the capital needed in the post-test flying phase. Cirrus CEO, Brent Wouters, indicated that the lack of financing would move deliveries into 2012 or later.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis the wings began to fall off the Vision programme. In January 2010, Cirrus said that the project no longer had a timeline for certification or deliveries.
Also in January 2010, key parameters for the jet’s design were confirmed. The aircraft would be certified for FL280. It would have a hybrid ice protection system, consisting of urethane pneumatic boots. The cabin pressurisation would be contained within a single-piece carbon shell. It would have an optional lavatory and would fit in a standard US-style 40 ft Tee hangar.
In June 2010, the company announced that it expected to start building a conforming prototype by the end of 2010 and have it flying by the end of 2011. Certification at that time was forecast for the middle of 2013.
In June 2010, Cirrus reported that they had 431 orders for the aircraft, which was now priced at US$1.72 million. Deposits made after 1 January 2010 were made non-refundable.
In 2012, the company announced that the SF50 had received sufficient investment from Cirrus’s new owners, China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA), and, as a result, the project would proceed.
By February 2013, the company was hiring staff for the production of the aircraft. The new price at this point was US$1.96 million. In October 2013, Cirrus announced that with the new Chinese investment, three prototypes were under construction for certification flight testing during 2014. First customer deliveries were scheduled for 2015 against a paid deposit order book of 500 aircraft.
By February 2014, a total of 800 hours of test flying had been completed. On 24 March 2014, the first conforming prototype flew. Pre-orders were 550 at a price below US$2 million, and Cirrus said it intended to produce up to 125 per year.
In February 2015, the City of Duluth agreed to put up US$6 million and asked the state to contribute the remaining US$4 million to build a US$10 million factory on the Duluth Airport, dedicated to the production of SF50 Vision Jets. The city would then try to recoup its costs for the facility from lease payments by Cirrus over time. The city was concerned that without the government support, Cirrus would locate jet production elsewhere.
In April 2015, the first production aircraft was being assembled. The company expressed confidence that certification would proceed on schedule and without the need for modifications, and decided to start production against the demand for 550 customer aircraft already ordered.
In September 2015, the Cirrus Perspective Touch glass cockpit based on the Garmin G3000 was finalised.
In January 2016, the company announced that delays had moved certification from 2015 to the first half of 2016, citing the inflight ballistic parachute testing as one of their final tasks before FAA approval.
The first production aircraft flew on 5 May 2016, and at that time, certification was forecast to be completed in June 2016.
The Williams FJ33-5A was approved by the FAA on 6 June 2016, with more than 2,000 pounds of thrust and more than a 6:1 engine thrust-to-weight ratio.
By July 2016, the SF50 had over 600 orders, the four flight test aircraft had flown more than 1,700 hours and certification was planned for the fourth quarter of 2016, delayed from the previous estimate of mid-2016.
On 28 October 2016, the historic certification was finally obtained and production swung into top gear to meet the large order backlog. And so, despite massive odds, the first true personal jet has achieved the incredibly demanding FAA certification. We expect to see the first SF50 Vision Jet flying in South Africa “before the end of next year,” according to CDC’s Andy Currin.