We Fly The Cirrus Vision Jet Generation 2

A couple of big improvements make the latest single-engine jet from Cirrus a whole new experience.

Operationally, the addition of the new low-RVSM flight levels and more power above FL240 gives pilots the opportunity to fly farther on the same fuel or faster while burning a little more.

On the ramp in the mist, the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet, which many still call the "Cirrus Jet," is a figure of some mystery. When I posted a photo on my Facebook page of the plane viewed from the rear, its distinctive V-tail prominent, a friend asked if it was a "Bugatti." Now, the Bugatti, developed at the tail end of the Golden Era of air racing, was a single-engine speedster with a distinctive V-tail. The slick little number makes a lot of lists of the most beautiful airplanes of all time. The Vision Jet!not so much. It is, in contrast, the AMC Pacer of planes, a deeply polarizing aesthetic experience. Me? I like it.

Then again, I've flown it a few times, so I'm biased. It's an airplane unlike any in the worldwide fleet that does things that few other planes can in a way that is unique. It is the unicorn of general aviation planes.

It's a jet, let's not forget. And the big bullet point on this update is that it has autothrottles. Oops, autothrottle. I have a hard time referring to "engine" and not "engines" when it comes to the SF50, though I've made progress. Keeping autothrottle singular is a work in progress. It is the only civil jet in the world with such a technology.

Autothrottles are not new to me. I've flown a dozen jets with this technology---Gulfstreams, Embraers, Falcons and Citations---and even though I didn't fully understand the appeal of the technology before I flew with it 15 years ago, I have over time developed a strong appreciation for the safety benefits autothrottles bring to flying jets. There's zero doubt in my mind that SF50 flyers will feel the same.

But with the introduction of its SF50 Generation 2, or "G2"---the company is reprising the naming convention it developed for the SR20 and SR22 piston singles---Cirrus has created something that is a brand-new experience for me, well, and anyone else who gets to fly it: a single-engine, single-pilot jet with a Boeing 787 level of technological sophistication. And truth be told, the Vision Jet makes better use of such sophistication than the Boeings or Airbus beauties do because when you're flying single pilot, the fewer things you need to keep track of, the more safely you can fly, especially when things get busy.

I have a single pilot type rating in a few small jets, the Cessna CitationJet CJ through CJ4, none of which have autothrottles---not yet, at least (and that's me, not Textron speculating here)---and I know from simulator experience that when things get busy with emergencies, managing airspeed and engine health on non-FADEC, non-autothrottle engines makes already challenging circumstances even more difficult to safely manage.

With its V-tail and low-slung looks, the SF50 cuts a distinctive figure on the ramp.

From the outside looking in, it's hard to tell G2 from its G1 predecessor, which, like its piston-powered first-generation ancestors, was never referred to as G1 until G2 came around. The big tell is the paint scheme. As Cirrus does with new model year introductions, the SF50 G2 features an updated paint scheme, though it's not a big enough departure from last year's model to immediately attract note. Physically, the biggest change is to the wing, which is a clean shape now, having discarded the aerodynamic fences, one per wing, between the ailerons and flaps and chucked the VG over the shoulder, as well. These aerodynamic changes are hardly revolutionary, though it's hard not to like the absence of VGs.

With the G2, Cirrus has improved the plane in multiple ways, and not just by adding the Garmin autothrottles (which I'd flown before on a couple of Citations, including the now-discontinued Citation X+, perhaps the coolest airplane in my logbook). In addition to cleaning up the wing, Cirrus also worked with engine maker Williams International to turn up the wick on the FJ-33 turbofan above 24,000 feet (essentially by upping the allowable temps) so the jet can climb faster to its new RVSM ceiling of 31,000 feet. RVSM, as not all small plane pilots know, is short for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums. The regulation, which has been on the books for more than 20 years now, lets planes fly from Flight Levels 290 to 410 with a thousand feet of vertical separation instead of the previous 2,000 feet. The RVSM update was the happy result of Cirrus engineers beginning to put their attention to the added altitudes and the FAA realizing that with ADS-B, RVSM standards were easier to maintain, so it could relax its technical standards for the approvals.

This upgrade to FL310 deserves special note. Adding a few additional usable altitudes might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Turbine engines, including turboprops and turbofans (like the Williams FJ-33), have a couple of sweet spot altitudes, one where the plane gets its best forward speed and the other where it gets its best range. The reasons for this are two. Jet engines use less fuel the higher they climb, and any airplane flies more efficiently in less-dense air, which happens as you climb. That's why you sometimes hear pilots concerned about not getting cleared to a higher altitude!they can go plenty fast down low, but they burn a considerable amount of fuel while doing so.

So by adding an additional few thousand feet to the SF-50's ceiling, Cirrus has given its jet pilots new options, and not just a few. The tradeoff in jets is always between loading and range, among other factors, of course. But when you reduce to these two main factors, you at least get a rough idea of what the mission profile looks like and if it's doable. The two big, interrelated questions are, how much fuel can you take and how much payload can you add in passengers and cargo? By flying at its new ceiling of 31,000 feet, available only on eastbound flights, of course, the SF50 can go about the same speed as the G1 model used to be able to hit but while burning much less fuel. In other words, more capacity and more utility.

The improved speed profile is due to the engine putting out more power above FL240, which was simply an engine software change. This change does two things: giving pilots more speed at the previous lower altitude ceiling and giving it about the same speed as the previous top speed (around 305 knots true) at its new higher altitude. We actually got a little better than that, so Cirrus is over delivering in this case. This allows the jet to stretch its range by as much as 150 nm, a very substantial increase. With lower fuel loads, the jet can, conversely, carry more weight, about 150 pounds, so another person or a couple good-sized dogs.

The added oomph also allows the jet to go faster at its previous ceiling of FL 280---we had it up to 317 knots true at that altitude. So pilots, in addition to going farther for the same fuel, or the same distance for less fuel, also can choose to get there faster by burning more fuel. The difference in fuel burn we saw on our flight was less than 10 gph compared to the G1 model's fuel burn at a cruise speed about 12 knots slower.

With a wide cabin and loads of headroom, the seats in the "cockpit" of the Vision Jet provide a great space to do a pilot's work while still enjoying unrivaled views.

Inner Spaces

One of the marquee features of the tightly wound jet is its great cabin altitude, which is the altitude the airplane's pressurized cabin maintains at its ceiling, 8,000 feet in the G1 model, which was an impressive achievement for Cirrus; remember that it's a single-engine jet so has only one engine to share its bleed air goodness. On the G2, Cirrus kept that same max cabin altitude, 8,000 feet, but in order to do so at the 3,000-foot-higher altitude, it had to turn up the pressure, from 6.4 psi to 7.1, not an insignificant amount. It proudly points to this achievement, and rightly so.

Passengers will enjoy the numerous interior upgrades, too, the most noteworthy of which is the addition of more comfortable, more fully padded second-row chairs (there are three rows of seats in the seven-seat jet). If you haven't had the chance to get inside an SF50, you're missing out. It's a remarkably open and comfortable seating experience. As a pilot, I revel in the sense of for once not wearing the airplane but instead just simply being inside it, and for passengers, it's got to be the most nap-friendly plane imaginable. Or work. The open spaces and abundant USB options make laptopping or iPadding a dream.

Cirrus also added a removable console (which I did not get a chance to see) between the two second-row seats. The console gives passengers a place to store their stuff and set their drinks and tablets and quarterly reports. The way the cabin works, the rear passengers, as many as three smaller people, get to their seats by entering through the big main door and then moving to their seats by going through the gap between the two middle seats. With a console in place, that would have required acrobatics that are not FAA-approved, so the console can be fitted only when the rear seats are not. The good news is that, according to Matt Bergwall, the Cirrus pilot with whom I flew, the console and seats come out very easily. I asked, "What, like 15 minutes?" And Matt replied, "No, like 30 seconds!" So while I didn't get the chance to test their removal, we did check out the hardware mounting system for the seats, and it's impressively simple and robust, so it's easy to believe it's a simple task. I'm guessing that most owners will keep the rear-seating row in the hangar and keep the console in place, using the rearmost area as a large, pressurized baggage space.

With the new autothrottle, the SF50 automates even more of the pilot's duties, making the Vision Jet, already the easiest-to-fly airplane its class, just that much easier for the single pilot to fly.

Flying the SF50

Of the jets I've spent time in, the SF50 is the easiest jet to fly, and not by a little. That fact is not an accident. The design of its systems, a collaboration mainly between Cirrus and Garmin International, is nothing short of brilliant. It's got integrated checklists, system-generated weight and balance calculations, automated V speeds and much, much more, all of which equates to much, much less work for the pilot. In addition, the plane is the cleanest jet in the world, with fewer levers and buttons and switches and breakers than any other production jet ever, probably any jet period.

Takeoff is pretty simple, though on our pre-takeoff briefing, instead of discussing V1 cuts (there is no second engine), we briefed what to do if the one and only engine were to fail, depending, of course, on what altitude you get to before the engine stops doing its job. It is, I admit, a pretty remote possibility with the FJ33s, a development of the FJ44, which is possibly the most time-tested private jet engine ever. And remember, there's a chute, too, so the takeoff brief makes clear at what altitude you can pull the chute and at what altitude you can consider returning to the field to land.

Just as you do with the Cirrus SR22 single-engine piston plane, you steer the SF50 with differential braking. On the takeoff roll, you need to get it rolling---with autothrottle armed, you just advance the throttle to the stops---before the rudder becomes effective. Rotate at around 90 knots---the software calculates the exact V-speeds for you before flight---flip the gear up (this Cirrus does have retracts!), retract the flaps and then climb away.

But the automation goodness doesn't stop there. On the climb, the combination of the Garmin Perspective Plus avionics suite, FADEC and autothrottle not only keep the engine within limits but also keep you below the airspace speed limit, 200 knots in the Austin Class C we were departing from, for instance.

I'll admit that the test of the G2 version of the Vision Jet was a test mostly of its automated systems. I've flown the plane enough to know what it flies like. Those characteristics haven't changed perceptibly. What has changed is that you can now fly it up to FL310, and you get to use the autothrottle.

The power console is new, with single-lever action complemented by the autothrottle controls to the left of the lever.

The autothrottle is controlled a few ways. There's a small control pad to the left of the throttle itself where you can choose one of two modes, manual or FMS. In manual mode you manually control the autothrottle settings. In FMS mode, the autothrottle's profile is set in, obviously enough, the flight management system, or FMS, where the flight is programmed. I won't go into great detail, but as one example, say you're going to be descending, which we all have to do at some point in a flight. You can set the descent schedule to fly the descent at a given indicated airspeed and a 3 degree descent rate with, among other options, a reduction to 250 knots below 10,000 feet and reducing to 185 knots in the terminal area. The autothrottle keeps the plane from overspeeding, so no more annoying chirping from the "Barber Pole" (as the red-and-white-striped warning on the airspeed tape is called) if you get caught up in communications or FMS programming and lose track of airspeed momentarily. I know only from second-hand reports.

On arrival, the beauty of the autothrottle makes itself clear, as the armed autothrottle will automatically slow the jet to appropriate speeds for flap and gear extension and final approach. We flew a missed approach into San Angelo, in West Texas. The missed approach with autothrottle is nearly fully automated. As you go missed, you hit the TOGA button and milk out flaps and put the gear up as the plane flies the selected missed approach procedure and the autothrottle handles the power.

Other new features of the G2 Vision Jet include the Perspective Touch Plus panel, which is an updated version of the already-excellent Cirrus branded and customized Garmin G3000 panel. Other new options include Garmin FlightStream connected cockpit, so you can load your Garmin Pilot flight plan into the FMS quick and easy, as well as 3D synthetic vision and a new satellite communications interface you can use to text folks using your own phone. Nice.

The G2 Vision Jet is shipping. The plane's price is a healthy upgrade from the just-under-$2 million sticker of the G1 model. At around $2.7 million, the G2 comes with just about every option North American owners will ask for, including autothrottle, updated seating, paint scheme, interior, new tech batteries and more.

Competing in a niche that is getting a little crowded, the SF50 offers features that its competitors don't or can't match. While it burns a bit more fuel than some of its closest near competitors, the allure of flying a jet, the quiet of the cabin, the size and the comfort, not to mention the technological sophistication, all give the SF50 a list of compelling features that is keeping Cirrus busy building jets and delivering them to delighted customers.


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