Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Down & Dirty

The Cirrus SR22 tries out the Idaho backcountry and redefines airplane camping

The words "backcountry strip" and "Cirrus SR22" would seem to not go together at all. General aviation's best-selling aircraft for 10 years running has never been considered for its off-pavement capabilities. In fact, the Cirrus brand is known for its citified sensibilities, like comfort, advanced avionics, ease of flying, sophistication and speed—hardly a dirt-strip airplane.

Maybe it's because the Cirrus has become a household name among pilots who use the aircraft primarily for business or, because Cirrus' marketing efforts seem aimed towards younger owners who care very little about the joys of kissing grass with an aircraft's tires, we had to find out if the SR22's charms ran deeper than the glossy brochures.

Much has been written about how sophisticated the Cirrus flagship is, and how it can take four adults to business meetings 1,000 miles away in air-conditioned stereo-audio comfort, but we itched to go beyond that. How would the fancy SR22 perform on a mountain strip, dueling in the dirt with more rugged distant cousins?

There are a few facts about the SR22 that set the groundwork for any discussion about the aircraft, and that should be known by anybody who has ever looked skyward. First, the SR22 has only been around since 2001. The airplane is a product of some of the greatest innovation in general aviation since the first Cessnas and Pipers started coming off the assembly line in the 1940s.

Cirrus as an aircraft manufacturer has only been around since 1984 and has been aggressive about introducing new concepts to general aviation since it began. The company pioneered the idea of designing a cabin around a sphere instead of a tube. They championed creating a fixed-gear GA aircraft that could fly at better than 200 knots, and introduced the airframe parachute system and seatbelt airbags to GA buyers. Cirrus dove into composite materials, one-lever engine control, flight into known icing and a zillion other innovations. Not to mention the mind-blowing capabilities of the glass-panel avionics Perspective suite that resulted from a long collaboration with Garmin.

All these goodies have created something of a Tazmanian devil in the industry. In just a decade, Cirrus has sold some 5,100 aircraft and continues to steam ahead. The SR22 has become the industry's best-selling four-seat aircraft. The U.S. Air Force selected the lesser-powered SR20 (designated the T-53A) for cadet training at the USAF Academy, ordering them like boxes of Girl Scout cookies. The French Air Force has selected the Cirrus for their trainer. To date, the total time on the worldwide Cirrus Aircraft SR-series fleet has surpassed five million flight hours.

With all the SR22's success has come controversy, which we've written about before. Longtime aviators sometimes refer to it as a "plastic airplane," owing to its nontraditional construction. The airplane has been marketed to pilots who don't fit the accepted image of a steely-eyed aviator with "The Right Stuff." And, Cirrus' own marketing efforts haven't helped. Referring in its sales materials to the new yaw damper available on the latest generation SR22, Cirrus writes, "It [the yaw damper] will practically eliminate the need for rudder input in those extended climbs and turns!" To seasoned pilots with abnormally large right thigh muscles from holding rudder in a climb—the way "real pilots do"—it makes the airplane seem, well, "less capable."

Labels: Piston Singles


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