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."
The Cirrus SR22T is as at home on a backcountry camping trip as it is at a luxury airpark. Above: Olson Fenwick enjoys a good magazine and a picnic at Cavanaugh Bay Airstrip.
Into The Woods
So, we took a factory-fresh SR22T and flew it to Northern Idaho for a few days with the idea of getting down and dirty. The Cirrus would be rubbing shoulders with Husky aircraft and Super Cubs and everything in between. To make it real, we piled four FAA-size adults and all our baggage and camping gear into the SR22, and set out for Cavanaugh Bay (66S), a docile-but-challenging little strip on the pastoral shores of Priest Lake, just a few miles this side of the Canadian border.
With us on our mountain escape was Matt Bergwall, Cirrus demo pilot and marketing representative. He'd help shake off the SR22's "city-ness" and transform it into a proper mountain flyer. Our base of operations for the trip was Sandpoint, Idaho, where the SilverWing luxury airpark development (www.silverwingatsandpoint.com) and a paved runway would provide the last vestiges of civilization.
Loading up the Cirrus, you can't help but notice the amount of space available. We heaped luggage, camera gear, camping supplies, extra headsets and everything else into the cavernous baggage compartment. We even snaked a couple of long fishing poles into the rear fuselage without a hitch.
SilverWing at Sandpoint features hangar homes.
In its 2013 model announcement, Cirrus unveiled the most requested modification ever from the large and vocal owner's group: greater payload. One of the criticisms of the earlier Cirrus SR line was that it had limited carrying capacity. With the newest-generation SR22, Cirrus has increased the certified gross weight from 3,400 pounds to 3,600 pounds. This is significant because it makes the SR22 a true four-place airplane with a useful load of 1,340 pounds. It will carry four average-sized adults and full fuel. In fact, with the five-seat version, it will carry five average-sized adults and enough fuel for a 700 nm nonstop trip. That makes the SR22 and SR22T the highest in-class useful load aircraft available today.
In the mountains, Garmin's Perspective panel is a joy to fly. There's almost nothing it can't do. The 12-inch screens dominate the cockpit—as they should—and provide every kind of information a pilot needs to conduct a flight safely. Besides being lighter than any of Cirrus' other flight-deck options, the Perspective panel is unique in that it's integrated completely with the aircraft itself. The whole aircraft system—airplane, autopilot, sensors, avionics, controls and engine—communicates. The GFC 700 autopilot is also legendary, and it deserves that moniker.
One colossal advantage in the backcountry is the Synthetic Vision feature of the Perspective system. In rugged country like this, navigating terrain in limited visibility can be treacherous. While there's no substitute for good flight planning, Synthetic Vision knows exactly where the terrain is and how it affects your flight path—regardless of outside visibility—and displays that environment on your PFD with a three-dimensional representation of the world. Used with the 3D obstacle depiction, it makes backcountry flying safer by giving the pilot an optical advantage, and advantages are what safety is all about.
Cavanaugh Bay Airstrip (66S) is a 3,000-foot groomed turf strip adjacent to Priest Lake. It features a camping area, with picnic tables, loaner camping gear, and a loaner car.
When Cavanaugh Bay airport came into view after the short hop from Sandpoint, it looked more challenging than we imagined. Although it's long (about 3,000 feet), the sod can get soggy and filled with ruts. The approach was over Priest Lake, and we needed to get over a set of buildings and trees at the approach end, and then drop into the remaining strip. If the wind was blowing, the challenge factor would have gone up exponentially, and the whole strip was surrounded by tall pines. Density altitude was also a factor. Although Cavanaugh wasn't a 500-foot Alaskan sandbar, landing there did make us focus.
The reason the strip is there is for the excellent restaurant at the marina, the picture-postcard camping (for fly-in guests only) and the crystal-clear waters of Priest Lake. There's a sheltered parking area with tiedowns in the grass and a smaller tree-covered area for tents that includes picnic tables. This little strip that some people call a best-kept secret even offers hot showers, free firewood, loaner camping gear and a loaner car.
By now, most pilots who are interested know the flying characteristics of the SR22. The side-stick takes some getting used to and the spring-assisted controls feel a bit stiff to the uninitiated. The aircraft isn't heavy on the controls but is no nimble ballerina, either. It handles somewhat between, say, a Cessna 182 and a Beech Bonanza, with a little SUV thrown in. It feels sure and stable.
Making the approach into Cavanaugh, we noticed the windsock was limp, making for a more relaxed landing. There was nothing special about the process, with normal approach speeds and flap settings. Once the mains touched down on the rutty sod, it was hard to tell we were on grass and not asphalt. It was once we slowed down that we started to notice the bumps. The Cirrus took it all in stride and had no problem navigating the grass all the way to the camping area. The wheel pants weren't even scratched.
This year marks a big change for Cirrus in that they re-engineered much of the original airplane. Generation 5 is the name Cirrus has given to the airframe change required to achieve the improvements for the 2013 SR22 and SR22T. The entire aircraft design was analyzed from spinner to tail, and many parts and systems reengineered and redesigned.
|If camping isn't quite your thing and you want to be pampered while eating at a gourmet-level restaurant and enjoying the beauty that Priest Lake has to offer, try Cavanaugh's Resort, about 100 yards north of the Cavanaugh Bay airstrip.
Cavanaugh's offers both lodging and some of the best lakeside dining in the area. If the views from Cavanaugh's restaurant don't make you want to jump into the cool, pristine waters of Priest Lake, then nothing will. It's a perfect spot to watch airplanes come into the secluded airstrip, and to watch the seaplanes doing their thing in the adjoining bay.
If you want to spend a few days on the lake (and you should), Cavanaugh's Resort offers luxury three-bedroom, four-bath guest suites that can be reserved weekly during the summer months (Fourth of July through Labor Day) or nightly in the off season. Primarily a summer destination, Priest Lake has some of the most remote and secluded camping spots around, and getting here by general aviation airplane is part of the adventure.
Sandpoint, Idaho, is a great launching spot for Cavanaugh's, and it's only a 20-minute flight to the strip. If you'd like a little mountain refresher course, contact SilverWing Flight Services at Sandpoint, and their locally experienced instructors can introduce you to the nuances of this hidden jewel of a mountain strip that just about any pilot can handle.
Some big changes were made to the CAPS, including increasing the parachute canopy size to 65 feet in diameter; a new rocket extraction system that propels the parachute on activation; an advanced rocket igniter and lighter, stronger construction materials. Other airframe upgrades included strengthening the carbon-fiber single-part wing spar, strengthening the landing gear and designing a new flap system, allowing extension to the first position at 150 knots.
I have to admit it was odd seeing the gleaming Cirrus among the blue-collar Cessna 170s and various other taildraggers. There were some tricycle-gear airplanes camping at the strip, but they were "legacy" airplanes from aviation's golden age. The Cirrus seemed like a college kid crashing his parent's gin-rummy night. Once we got all the gear out and set up, the SR22 fit right in.
Departing Cavanaugh was uneventful. Even with all four of us and our full bellies, plenty of fuel and all our gear, the SR22 jumped off the little strip. I could see a few spectators down below us scratching their heads and looking on in confusion, but there was no doubt the SR22 had performed flawlessly. In fact, the only problem we had the entire trip was a difficult restart after we had killed the engine but decided to move the airplane to a better spot. Like many fuel-injected engines, it doesn't like starting hot. But a little babying fired it up without issue.
The SR22 can hold its own on these moderate backcountry strips. Although the airplane is deceivingly large, it showed that it can handle dirt and mountains without a hiccup. The fact that a competent pilot can fly the SR22 in and out of these kinds of strips should also hold back the naysayers who insist the Cirrus can't run with the big dogs.
It's fair, then, to call the SR22 the most sophisticated GA aircraft, a useful and efficient business tool and a superlative cross-country hauler. Now, staring out over the Cirrus' gleaming, laminar flow, rivet-less wing over the mountain peaks surrounding us on the way back to Sandpoint, we can easily add, "solid, off-pavement family wagon."
| For pilots flying into the Cavanaugh Bay airstrip (66S), camping under the wing is the order of the day. Along with the sensory overload you'll experience getting there through some of the most picturesque scenery in the West, you'll also find it's one of the most idyllic camping spots in the area and is the perfect gateway to further adventures.
For airplane campers, there are a lot of reasons to stay at Cavanaugh. First, the strip is secluded but doesn't require super backcountry pilot skills. It's mowed and groomed to a large extent, and is wide enough that you won't be sweating the approach. At 3,000 feet in length, it will accommodate most piston singles with ease. Last summer, a guy in a Citation Jet even stopped in for a bit. Also, the strip sits at 2,500 feet elevation, so it won't require a ton of performance to operate from. The approach is over Priest Lake and the only hurdle is a group of trees and buildings at the north end. It shouldn't pose any problem for average pilots. Like at other Idaho strips, announce your position on the CTAF (122.9).
Once you've landed, there's ample parking for a good 30 airplanes on the grass surrounding the landing area. There's a camping area with picnic tables (these get taken first, so plan accordingly), and the state-owned strip offers hot, clean showers, hot coffee, drinking water, stoves and all the firewood you need at no cost.
There's a rustic-but-functional bunkhouse available that will sleep six people on bunks, also at no charge. Allen Lieske—the onsite caretaker during the summer—is known in the Idaho area and is a fantastic host with years of experience here. He can help with just about any need you may have.
There's a courtesy car available if you want to go exploring or need to get supplies in nearby Coolin, which is about eight miles away. Coolin has a large grocery store and most conveniences and services. You can use the car for $5 a day and .30 per mile. You should check with Lieske to make sure the car is available before your trip.
If you want to take a dip in Priest Lake—which is known for its refreshing, clean water—you can walk over to the marina and dive in, though it's actually all private beach. If you want to be more legit and really take advantage of this incredible lake, Blue Diamond Marina is a great place to rent watercraft, and their staff can give you tips on where to swim and which beaches are best. Blue Diamond is about five miles north of the strip, along the west shore of the lake.
If you agree that places like Cavanaugh are disappearing fast and want to show your appreciation for great spots like this, there's a donation box at the campsite. Contact the airstrip at (208) 443-2721.
|CIRRUS NEXT GENERATION|
|Cirrus announced the launch of its latest SR22 models, the Generation 5 SR22 and SR22T, at the beginning of this year, and it marked a sweeping design change for the successful aircraft. The biggest news is a whopping 200-pound increase in the airplanes' maximum takeoff weight.
According to Cirrus, the weight increase was the most-asked-for enhancement by the maker's substantial customer base. The changes for 2013 make the SR22 and SR22T the highest in-class useful-load aircraft available today.
While last year, customers could opt for a fifth seat in the '22, the new-generation model features a fifth seat as standard equipment, in conjunction with the 60/40 flex-seating feature, three-position recline and a child-seat restraint system. With the increase in maximum weight, the SR22 and SR22T become true five-place airplanes, capable of transporting five average-sized adults for at least 700 nm.
Cirrus only gives a new "Generation" moniker to aircraft that have gone through substantial redesign, and the 2013 model is no exception. In addition to the gross weight increase, Cirrus examined and reengineered a wide array of components in the Generation 5 series. The aircraft's unique one-piece carbon-fiber wing spar was enhanced with more layers, giving it even greater strength than before. The landing gear was beefed up, and a new flap system was designed, allowing extension to the first position at 150 knots.
The redesign accommodates the increased airframe load, aerodynamic improvements, improved flight performance and big changes to the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS.) The CAPS system hasn't experienced this much of an enhancement since the SR22's launch 10 years ago. Changes include a better failsafe electronic deployment trigger instead of the older pyrotechnic trigger, a bigger parachute canopy, and a larger, more powerful deployment rocket. Cirrus did substantial testing of the CAPS, including a new series of test drops, to validate the new system's performance with the gross weight increase for the airframe.
The Generation 5 continues the technological innovation that has marked Cirrus' success in the general aviation marketplace. In addition to the major changes, Generation 5 offers Cirrus Perspective avionics by Garmin; Cirrus Known Ice Protection; Perspective Global Connect satellite communications, and a host of interior and exterior upgrades and options.
For customers who are thinking of upgrading to the Cirrus Vision Jet but can't wait, Cirrus also offers the Vision Jet-inspired SR22T Special Edition. It reflects the Vision Jet's luxury, style and performance, and is a taste of things to come. Racecar seats, carbon fiber interior accents, three-tone paint scheme, sterling-finish propeller and spinner, and an $829,900 price tag make this the ultimate Cirrus for those looking to the future.