Most pilots equate progress in flying with stepping up to bigger, faster and more powerful airplanes. When I earned my private pilot license in a 310 hp Cirrus SR22, it was difficult to imagine enjoying anything with less performance. But as insurance (and my bank account) dictated, almost all of my post-checkride flying has been in a rented 200 hp Cirrus SR20-G2. First delivered in 1999, the SR20 wowed pilots with its composite construction, digital avionics suite and BRS parachute recovery system. It’s easy to operate and fun to fly; over time, however, it became lost in the shadow of its big brother, the top-selling SR22. Well, no more! With almost 700 new changes, the redesigned Generation Three model of the SR20 speaks for itself.
On an unusually humid February morning, Cirrus Training Center Manager Reid Nelson and I meet at Santa Monica Airport in Santa Monica, Calif., to check out the G3. During preflight, I find myself stretching on tiptoes to see the oil cap, and it’s obvious that something is different. In fact, the aircraft sits two inches taller than the G2, providing greater prop and tail clearance. Wingspan has also increased by three feet. Strengthened with a carbon-fiber spar to increase useful load, the new wings improve climb performance.
We depart on a photo mission to the Grand Canyon with full fuel and several bags, and with the 70-degree temperature, it’s a pleasant surprise when we climb over the Malibu shoreline at 1,000 fpm. Cirrus lists cruise speed as 156 KTAS, and, sure enough, once at 7,500 feet, the Avidyne Entegra’s PFD (primary flight display) screen shows us truing out in the 150s, even up to 162 KTAS. Helping us along are design changes made to streamline the airplane, including one-piece fairings on the main wheels, restyled wing-root fairings and the relocation of the fresh-air intake from the wing to a NACA vent on the engine cowl.
|The G3 model of the SR20 incorporates almost 700 changes, including a redesigned wing that improves climb performance.|
My first SR20-G3 landing is at Sedona, Ariz., and I cross the numbers on runway 3 with some excess speed, which Reid attributes to a wind shear. I ready myself for a different feeling or sight picture on landing, but the two-inch height increase is barely perceptible. After a meal at the on-field restaurant, we’re airborne again for sunset photos of the area’s Mars-like rock formations. We stop for fuel at Flagstaff, and even though airport elevation is 7,015 feet, the SR20’s auto-lean feature makes leaning on the ground or during climb unnecessary. (Once established in cruise, we use Avidyne’s lean assist feature to find our best power setting at 75 degrees rich of peak.)
Aside from a handful of headlights and taillights on Interstate 40, it’s pitch-black when we lift off on the final leg of the day. I toggle the MFD (multi-function display) to the terrain page to reference the nearby 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, but Reid turns off both 10.4-inch glass-panel displays and tells me to look outside. Moonlight illuminates snow on the ground, and as my eyes adjust, the landscape appears. We fly this way for several minutes, enjoying our darkness-turned-to-light in silence. (If only the bright green “Autopilot On” light would dim as well.) As we level out over Grand Canyon National Park Airport, the new-to-the-G3 wingtip LEDs beam down the runway. Designed to improve recognition and safety in the air, they’re also useful on the ground when navigating narrow taxiways. “The view from the cockpit during final approach at night is really cool because the lights look like the big boys,” smiles Reid as our Cirrus SR-747 touches down.
The following morning, we’re back at our tiedown spot before dawn in preparation for an air-to-air photo shoot, and Reid wipes off the layer of frost that has accumulated on the Cirrus. Because it’s the off-season, the de Havilland Twin Otters of Grand Canyon Tours aren’t so busy and we have the Dragon Corridor of the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area to ourselves. Navigation is simplified by entering user waypoints into the Garmin GNS 430 to mark the southern and northern limits of our path. The morning air is still, and the sun’s palette is ever-changing as it colors the wonderland below. I’m in an old airplane that acts as a photo platform, and looking through my Canon lens at the Cirrus in action is almost as fun as flying it.
|Powered by a 200 hp Continental IO-360-ES, the Cirrus SR20-G3 climbs at 828 fpm, cruises at 155 KIAS and has a range of 627 nm when at 75% power.|
Hundreds of shutter clicks and several gigabytes of photo files later, we return to KGCN. I hop in the SR20, and we fly several touch-and-goes. After testing different power settings to see what works best under the current conditions, we use percent power (as indicated on the PFD) to achieve appropriate airspeeds: 100 knots on downwind, 90 on base and 75 to 80 on final. Then we climb to altitude for airwork. During steep turns, aileron inputs are exceptionally crisp, with good control authority. Power-off stalls result in what feels like a rocking horse, in a forward-aft buffet. Thanks to the cuff design of the wing, where the outer part of the wing has a slightly lower angle of attack, we still have aileron control and can execute turns. And though our wing drops during power-on stalls, release of back pressure brings a quick recovery.
Las Vegas is our lunch destination, and the approach controllers into McCarran International Airport are very busy and sometimes snappy. I’m thankful for the MFD’s moving map, which provides extra awareness of the surrounding airspace. By the time we land, the winds have picked up and the forecast is grim, so our all-you-can-eat buffet extravaganza on the Strip transforms into a chocolate-chip cookie courtesy of Signature Flight Support. Back on the ramp, 40 knots jostle us around, but without the rudder-aileron interconnect system (removed in conjunction with a one-degree increase in wing dihedral), it’s easier to taxi in a crosswind with the rudder fully deflected. As we wait on the taxiway for a long line of Southwest 737s to depart, oil temperature begins to creep up. Reid determines that this is likely caused by idling with strong tailwinds, reducing airflow through the cowling and oil cooler. When we eventually turn into the wind, temps lower and readings are normal for takeoff.
At an assigned altitude of 10,000 feet, our headwind is relentless, blowing up to 60 knots. Our true airspeed reads in the low 150s, but groundspeed seems stuck in the 90s. And so we settle in for a long, bumpy flight. But the Cirrus is a comfortable place to be on such an occasion, with a relatively high wing loading, leather seats and a 49-inch-wide cabin. As we inch our way over the Mojave Desert, music plays through an iPod plugged into the aircraft’s audio system, enhanced by the “Front Row Center” feature of Lightspeed’s Zulu headset.
|The aircraft’s interior features leather seats in an onyx/sand color scheme, with air-bag seat belts for added safety.|
The S-TEC 55X autopilot in GPS roll-steering mode does a great job at reducing workload, but as we enter the fogged-in Los Angeles basin, I decide to hand-fly. Reid briefs me using the CMax electronic approach charts, and I fly the descent profile as depicted, keeping up a scan on the PFD. When the clouds thin, I’m reminded of how it feels to be in a darkroom watching a photograph materialize on paper, as runway 21 emerges from out of nowhere, lined up perfectly with our flight path. No matter how many times you’ve seen it happen, it still seems like magic.
Not only is the SR20 fun for cross-country trips, but it’s also becoming an ever-popular training platform with flight schools. “The single-movement power lever, fixed landing gear and the fact that it’s not high performance makes the SR20 perfect for student pilots,” says Reid. “The handling characteristics at high and low speeds make it a very easy and forgiving airplane to learn to fly.” In the States, there are 60 Cirrus Standardized Training Centers (CSTS), with plans for more. Flight schools, including Western Michigan University, Delta Connection Academy, the CAPT Program and Air Safety Flight Academy, use the SR20 as a primary trainer. “By putting a Cirrus on the line, a school benefits from attracting a whole new class of renters,” explains Reid. “Believe it or not, the current generation of new pilots finds the glass panel to be less intimidating than round gauges. In addition, the spacious interior and modern look of the airplane is very appealing to many customers who wouldn’t enjoy a typical lower-cost training aircraft.”
I rent my “best friend,” N544AT, from Seaside Aviation (www.seasideaviation.com), a CSTS at Santa Monica Airport. In addition to primary training, owner Jesse Peck also offers transition, recurrent and instrument training. “My students love the Cirrus because it’s a 21st-century airplane, designed from the ground up as a new aircraft,” says Jesse. “Pilots working on instrument ratings benefit greatly from the increased situational awareness provided by the MFD.” The SR20 has allowed me to continue growing as a pilot, and the improvements with the latest model have reignited interest in the aircraft around the country. Little sibling to the SR22, yes, but grown-up as the G3, definitely.
For more on the new Cirruses, read “Cirrus SR22-G3: Brazil Or Bust!” at www.planeandpilotmag.com/aircraft/pilot-reports.
SPECS: 2008 Cirrus SR20 G3