Pilot Report: Sino Swearingen

 - November 7, 2006, 5:41 AM

A sage old pilot once neatly captured the purpose of business aviation: “People buy airplanes because they want to go places…fast.”

Sino Swearingen, the company originally started by self-taught aeronautical engineer Ed Swearingen, now 81 and a consultant to the San Antonio-based group, is working on producing the SJ30, an airplane it hopes will capture a significant slice of the light jet market by being different enough to appeal to a particular customer base, yet not so different that it will end up on the fringe of the industry.

The 14,000-pound aircraft is not only fast–it has a high-speed cruise of Mach 0.83–but it is also capable of long nonstop trips (up to 2,500 nm). Swearingen’s machine sells for $6.195 million, a fraction of what a similar performing machine might cost.

Bob Kromer, Sino Swearingen’s vice president for international sales and marketing and a former SJ30 test pilot, said that price includes just about every possible option. “Quoting a low price with add-ons is simply a big shell game. We’ve equipped this airplane the way most owners will want it.”

The aircraft will seat six people in addition to the pilot. Like many other new-generation light jets, the SJ30, which received FAA certification last October, can be flown by a single pilot. Kromer told AIN the company has orders for 302 aircraft, 99 from retail customers and the rest headed to distributors around the world.

Swearingen gained fame 30 years ago with a line of tough, fast Merlin and (one of the original commuter airplanes) Metro turboprops. His design philosophy then–large wings and big engines are not always the better answer–is at the heart of the SJ30.

AIN flew SJ30 S/N 5. From a distance, the airplane appears quite small. But the fuselage is so rakish that as it sits upon rather nimble-looking landing gear, the airframe only appears tiny. Seasoned pilots may note a resemblance to Dassault’s Falcon 10 of 30 years ago, combined with some Hawker 4000 and a dash of Learjet 45. Walk around the airplane and the sleekness of the fuselage and the sweep of the wings bring only one thought to mind…speed.

During AIN’s evaluation of the SJ30, I spent about 3.5 hours aloft on two separate trips. The first was with engineering test pilot Mark Fairchild around the San Antonio area, while the second trip connected me with Sino Swearingen’s senior manager of flight-test operations, John Siemens.

The first leg with Fairchild, with the aircraft loaded to mtow, was to verify company climb performance claims up to FL430. Before we began the preflight walkaround, Fairchild and I reviewed the basic weight-and-balance paperwork. It showed that with 4,850 pounds of fuel and with 300 pounds of ballast to supplement my and Fairchild’s weights, the aircraft would tip the scales at 14,026 pounds out of the chocks, just above mtow. We would have burned off the 12 gallons of fuel needed to bring us into FAA compliance just about the time we pushed the thrust levers forward.

It was clear early on that while the SJ30 is categorized as a light jet, this airframe is no lightweight and is a credit to Swearingen’s early design.

The walkaround for N50SJ was relatively simple, with only a handful of probes to check, along with the nosegear well that holds the tandem nosewheel tires. Crawling around near the rear of the fuselage offers a close-up view of the main landing gear.

Despite leading-edge devices that allow the 30-degree swept wing to function at landing and takeoff speeds more common to a straight-wing jet, the SJ30’s landing gear looks sturdy enough to handle aircraft carrier ops. For added directional stability, the SJ30 has a single ventral fin equipped with a movable “water rudder,” which functions as both the yaw damper for the aircraft and the rudder bias boost if an engine quits. There is no APU option on the SJ30, but the company has plans to add a second FMS, an HF and a CVR.

The only item on the SJ30 that struck me as a bit odd, especially if the airplane were to be used in multi-stop operations, is the fuel filler cap. It is essentially an over-the-wing type filler with a small door and a cap that must be unscrewed before fueling. The filler door sits atop the fuselage near the rear of the cabin, something that will surely not thrill any lineman asked to fill the tanks in the rain. No option currently exists for single-point refueling although Siemens says it is planned for future models. The company hopes the fact that the airplane has such long legs and therefore won’t require frequent refueling will offset the inconvenience of the fueling door.

Getting My Feet Wet
With the San Antonio ground crew readying the door for closure, I settled into the right seat. Sino Swearingen does not allow anyone to occupy the left seat until they’ve been around the patch a few times to learn more about the airplane firsthand. Fairchild ran through the checklist and we reviewed the takeoff numbers we’d generated during the preflight brief. V1 was 111 knots, Vr 113 and V2 117 knots. Flaps would be retracted at 160 knots and the target climb speed would be 230 knots. A cruise climb normally calls for a speed of 250 knots.

Skies in San Antonio this day included only a few high cirrus clouds, but thunderstorms were forecast for later. The temperature by 10 a.m. was already a steamy 27 degrees C, with plenty of south Texas humidity. The weight-and-balance sheet for the flight showed that even with full tanks, the burn down, hour after hour, would keep the center of gravity within a narrow range, translating into no controllability surprises after a long flight.

The placement of the center FMS pedestal makes entering the cockpit on the SJ30 tight for the pilot. The only option is to step over and down into the seats. Once you’re in the seats, however, they are comfortable. The SJ30 uses a solid-fitting five-point harness for the pilot and front-seat passenger. Looking back toward the rear of the cabin, it was clear that a flat floor for the passengers is a benefit that makes entering the cockpit seat only a minor concern.

After flying airplanes with complete glass cockpits, some pilots might find the look of the SJ30 cockpit a bit utilitarian. The Honeywell Primus Epic system places the flight and engine instrumentation across three 8- by 10-inch LCD displays, with the remainder of cockpit functions using more traditional toggle, rotary and push-button switches.

The SJ30 also uses a traditional annunciator light panel for most warning and informational messages. The small overhead panel holds all controls for anti-ice and aircraft lighting. Siemens said that a future version of a Garmin 1000-like system, sophisticated enough to control the SJ30, is where the company plans to head in the future.

Fairchild took some time to explain the somewhat complicated-sounding SJ30 fuel system, which uses four tanks to feed the engines. While an understanding of how the aircraft’s tank system works is normally essential, it appears much less so when the pilot realizes that the only fuel management he ever needs to exercise is whether to cross feed or not. The rest is automatic.

Both of the Stage 4 noise-compliant Williams engines spun up quickly and were started with the avionics switch on while the airplane was connected to a ground power unit. The SJ30 uses the same engines as the Raytheon Premier I. By comparison, the CJ2+ and the Premier both weigh in about 1,400 pounds less than the SJ30, but both are slower and neither will fly nearly as far with the same payload.

Looking over Fairchild’s shoulder, I found the font size of the printed checklist to be small, despite my new glasses. Luckily, the Honeywell Primus Epic equipment can also display all the necessary checklist information should the pilot choose. After a quick check of all flight controls with the Swearingen flight crew before taxi, we headed for 8,500-foot-long Runway 30L at San Antonio International (SAT).
Pulling away from the chocks, Fairchild gave me the airplane for taxi as he brought the flaps to 10 degrees, which also extended the leading-edge slats. Like other aircraft powered by Williams engines, the idle thrust is so low that a considerable amount of power is necessary to get the airplane moving.

Steering through the rudder pedals, learning how to keep just enough thrust for good forward momentum and not ride the brakes was pretty easy. I also felt no particular drag from the brakes. Moderate pressure seemed effective in bringing the airplane to a stop. Ground steering is normally 10 degrees in either direction, with a parking-mode option controlled from the left seat that will swing the nose gear 50 degrees for tight places. Setting the pressurization is easy since the only pilot action necessary is to set the landing airport’s field elevation. Since we’d be returning to San Antonio, there was only a check of the setting before this departure.

Hot-weather Conditions
Once cleared for takeoff, I handed the airplane back to Fairchild and started the clock. Even though the aircraft was right at max takeoff weight, it accelerated quickly with the thrust levers pushed to the stops. The SJ30 uses an electronic engine control unit in place of a fadec. The brains of the units are still computers, but there is a mechanical control to the engines rather than a control-by-wire system. Swearingen believes its unit delivers the advantages of precise computer engine control with less system complexity.

The climb direct to FL430 at this weight would be no small challenge since ISA temperatures this day were 10 degrees and in some places 15 degrees above standard, almost all the way to altitude. As the gear came up, there was only the slightest pressure bump in the cabin. It was the only indication during the entire flight of any sort of pressure change within the cabin since the SJ30 maintained sea level through 40,000 feet. At FL490, the cabin climbs to only 1,500 feet at the maximum pressure differential of 12 psi.

Within minutes of leaving San Antonio departure frequency, Houston Center cleared us to FL430 with no intermediate stops. As the aircraft accelerated out of 4,000 feet, the airspeed settled on 230 kias, which translated into a rate of 2,500 fpm and a fuel burn totaling 2,000 pounds per hour. Passing 10,000 feet, the airspeed increased to 250 knots with a rate of 2,100 fpm and a fuel flow of 1,600 pounds per hour.

The temperature did not drop below zero degrees C until we passed through 15,000 feet, at which altitude the center amended our climb clearance to FL230. As we left 20,000 feet, the rate was still 1,500 fpm, with a fuel burn of 1,500 pounds per hour. Stopped at FL230 for about a minute, we were again cleared to FL430. At 30,000 feet the rate showed 1,500 fpm, but fuel flow had declined to approximately 1,200 pounds per hour, with an outside temperature of ISA +13. Cabin pressure had not yet reached maximum differential, indicating 10.5 psi.

As we left 38,000 feet the rate took a marked decline to about 800 fpm, finally dropping to 400 fpm, despite our best efforts to maintain a solid climb rate. This was most likely attributable to the outside air temperature rather than the engines. Fairchild and I wondered if the airplane would make it to 43,000, and he added that, considering the warmth of the day, he would probably have leveled off at FL410 for an hour to burn off a bit of fuel before making the climb to FL430.

Nearing FL390, the airplane suddenly took off as if it had been restrained. We watched the rate once again increase to about 700 fpm, where it remained almost until we leveled at FL430. True airspeed through 40,000 had climbed to 414 knots. Thirty-one minutes after we left the ground at San Antonio, the SJ30 leveled at FL430, having used 840 total pounds of fuel to get there. Within 10 minutes, the aircraft had accelerated to 433 ktas and fuel flow had slipped to a miserly 820 pounds per hour total. The airplane was not far from bumping the Mach 0.83 barber pole at 430.

To make a 2,500-nm trip, we would have pulled the power back to maintain Mach 0.76. With a maximum landing weight of 12,275 pounds, we actually needed to burn some additional fuel before returning to SAT for lunch and more briefings before the next flight, when I’d have my chance to fly the SJ30 on the 490-nm leg from San Antonio to Wichita Mid-Continent. Fairchild handled everything on this leg to show me the single-pilot workload. I was more impressed with the demonstration when I learned that he was only a 1,500-hour pilot.

My Turn To Fly
After lunch, we switched pilots and Siemens took the right seat of the SJ30 while I took the left. During the lunch break, the weather had taken a decidedly ugly turn, with most of the poor weather straight north of San Antonio aligning with our intended route.

The outside air temperature was now 30 degrees C and we planned to leave with 3,460 pounds of fuel, along with Sino Swearingen production test pilot Phil Terpstra, who also doubles as a ground instructor for new SJ30 pilots. This brought our weight to about 12,580 pounds. The plan included weaving our way around the local San Antonio weather as we climbed northward on our planned route to FL370. I planned to hand fly the airplane the entire route and conduct some airwork and pattern time before landing at Wichita.

This time, we pulled the GPU plug early to try a battery start. The only difference was the need to turn off the avionics in case the power should spike during spin up. For takeoff on this leg, ATC gave us Runway 12R. The book said that with 10 degrees of flap the balanced field length would be 4,084 feet at this temperature, with V1 at 100, Vr 106 and V2 111 knots.

Turning on to the runway, I called for a final check of flaps, takeoff runway, speed brakes and trim. I pushed the thrust levers to the detent and found the airplane accelerated briskly, much more quickly than on the earlier flight. Reflecting on the closeness of the main gear to the center of gravity, I initially expected the takeoff run might be a bit squirrelly, but efforts to maintain the centerline were minimal as the SJ30 quickly left San Antonio behind.

I retracted the flaps at 160 knots just as departure gave us a turn that arced us around north toward the weather. The controls on the SJ30 are light, but not so light that they’d lend themselves to over-controlling. Perhaps comfortable is a better word.

I asked Siemens to turn on the radar to get another look at what we were facing. We made a 30-degree turn back to the right to avoid the worst of what we saw ahead and entered the clouds and moderate rain at about 1,800 feet msl. Unsure about how bumpy it might become and while still within the San Antonio Class C, I kept the speed back to about 200 kias.

With only four minutes total left-seat time in the SJ30, I had Siemens work the radios and radar while I flew. Although I was not flying true single-pilot, I found that while hand flying the airplane, roll control was adequate and the pitch control solid. The ride felt like that of a heavier aircraft in the considerable bumps we found.

With all the intermediate stops ATC tossed at us along the way to remain clear of other traffic and stay out of the cells that had settled northwest of San Antonio, it took us nearly 20 minutes to reach FL370. But once we arrived and were clear of the weather, the SJ30 felt like a rocket, although easily controlled, so I let it have its own way. Temperatures were still warm, ISA +7, at FL370, but the SJ30 accelerated quickly.

Within six minutes, we saw the airspeed needle was bumping the barber pole at Mach 0.824, translating into a true airspeed of 484 knots. A tailwind brought the groundspeed to 494 knots. Fuel flow was a modest 1,070 pounds, which meant we’d have plenty of reserve in Wichita to fly around when we arrived.

During our level flight time on the way to Wichita, I looked around the cockpit, reaching for switches and turning rheostats, as much to see how well they worked as how accessible they were to a pilot who might be in the soup alone at night. Everything I needed was nearby, with all the electrical and environmental circuit breakers on my left.

The only area that might be of concern on a dark and stormy night were the avionics breakers, placed along the cockpit’s right wall and out of easy reach with a seat belt on.

Siemens briefed me on the testing necessary to prove a pilot up front alone could handle the SJ30 in IFR weather and busy traffic. “We made a number of flights with FAA people flying unassisted in the left seat.” Siemens said that one flight from Van Nuys to Las Vegas began in the late afternoon from VNY when traffic was heavy and visibility poor. “That’s the leg the FAA FSDO pilot flew.” Siemens said the FAA pilot acknowledged being quite comfortable with the layout and the workload.

Another flight put an FAA pilot in command on a San Antonio to White Plains (HPN) leg with an IFR approach to minimums at HPN. “Then we turned around for my leg, which was to Dulles from HPN. We arrived just in time for plenty of traffic, again, while the ceilings were low.”

Cleared down to 10,000 feet for an arrival into Wichita, I pulled the power back to idle to test the speed brakes. They produced very little rumble up front. Descending through 12,000 feet, Siemens canceled our IFR flight plan for a 1200 squawk as we slowed the aircraft for some air work in that vast openness 50 miles southeast of Wichita.

Two hundred knots seems to be the magic speed for airwork in almost every jet, and this one was no exception. Rolling through a series of 45-degree-banked turns both left and right, I could easily add enough trim to stabilize the airplane around the turns and allow me to fly with my hands off the wheel. I wished the trim ran a bit faster, though, and that the system did not delay  the electronic clicking sound that proved it was moving. It is not practical to watch the trim indicator while flying the airplane, and I think an immediate positive sound from the trim system would be a good backup to only feeling what is happening.

We set up a stall series to include both takeoff departure and approach to landing. I was slow on the first takeoff departure stall and noticed it is possible to get the nose high enough that the airplane appeared to mush a bit rather than stall.

While the attitude is uncomfortable, the fact that the airplane was still quite controllable at low speed and high pitch attitude was refreshing for an airplane with such a sharply swept wing. During the approach to landing stalls, I slowed and increased back pressure on the wheel, waiting for the shaker. When the wheel rattled, I quickly added power and called for flaps to 20 and was impressed at how easily the aircraft recovered. The results were pretty much the same on the rest of the stalls, which confirmed my recoveries were more than just good luck.

The wind was light at Wichita and Siemens and I planned a number of VFR patterns. We had burned about 1,500 pounds of fuel, so the aircraft weighed about 11,000 pounds. Siemens calculated the Vref as 108 and approach speed as 113 knots. During the first approach, we thought we were number one for the 7,300-foot-long Runway 1R. At about 2.5 miles, however, we learned the earlier traffic had slowed considerably. That meant slowing down right now.

I left the power where it was since we were flying at about 135 knots and called for flaps 20, followed closely by landing flaps. The SJ30 slowed in a hurry. My first landing was still a good one, however. We’d planned for a touch-and-go as Siemens brought the flaps to 10 and I advanced the power to the detent.

Tower sent us back to departure frequency as we turned a right downwind for Runway 1R. This time, they put us behind a Skymaster on a six-mile final, which meant we almost lost sight of the airport in the pattern. Approach gave us a turn to base as I noticed there are some, although not any major, pitch changes as the pilot cycles through the flap settings.

The key is that with those big flaps and slats hanging out, the SJ30, like most jets, still requires a consistent power setting for a smooth arrival. With a bit more planning this time around, the second approach felt much smoother, and that hefty landing gear provided our rear-seat passenger with a smooth arrival.

We told the tower the next time around we’d be a full stop and proceeded through a similar VFR pattern as I began to truly enjoy flying the airplane. As I was turning base to final about four miles out and with slats extended and flaps at 10, Siemens pulled the right engine to idle. It reminded me again of just how difficult it can be to identify an engine failure with the power pulled back. I planned a flaps 20 landing and felt little difference between any of the approaches, even with an engine idling.

With no reversers, the final landing meant solid braking and extending the speed brakes just after touchdown. Extending those brakes is made easier, especially for a single pilot, by the fact that the switch is located on both ends of the thrust levers. Pull the switch backward toward idle with the right thumb to extend and push the button forward toward the instrument panel to retract the boards.

After touchdown on Runway 1R, I was not quite slow enough to turn at Bravo taxiway and continued on to M6. We estimated the distance to Bravo to be about 3,000 feet. Siemens reminded me to be ready with the parking mode button before I began to push the pedals so I would be able to make a smooth yet tight turn off the concrete. Block to block time on this flight was 2.4 hours.

Earning a type rating in the SJ30, whether as a single pilot or as part of a crew, means training at the San Antonio facility for both ground and flight. No simulator exists so all training is conducted in the airplane. Sources told AIN that the final OK for a full-motion simulator could be coming soon.

A pilot moving up to an SJ30 from a typical straight-wing Citation should expect to spend 10 days–including 26 hours of actual flight time in the airplane–earning the rating.

Kromer said, “We probably appeal to a more experienced pilot. I can’t think of any turboprop pilot who has bought an SJ30.” Swearingen does not currently offer a mentor program, but it might if the need arises. “Sixty percent of the initial customers are very knowledgeable about business aviation and flying. Some new customers were enamored of some of the features, primarily the speed, the pressurization system and the economy of operations.”

To help pilots of all abilities, Swearingen is building a software product, Quick Plan, that it hopes to offer future customers as a laptop-based solution for instantaneous answers to the question of how much runway is enough. This should be of particular interest to single-pilot operators. Since Quick Plan can function as an airport-specific, mini operations manual of sorts it will clearly display a go/no-go decision for the pilot based on the weather conditions entered. If conditions do not allow for a safe departure under the requested variables, the software automatically calculates other options for the pilot such as the amount of weight that needs to be offloaded for safety. Quick Plan said we’d need a balanced field length of 6,219 feet to climb to 35 feet after an engine failure. Although unmeasured, the actual ground roll would prove to be much less with both engines turning.

At first glance, some might label the SJ30 a specialty machine and an airplane that is perhaps not as cutting edge as some of the other aircraft rolling off the assembly line of competitors. Certainly the SJ30 is not going to appeal to everyone, despite its nicely outfitted cabin. But if overall performance is the key to a purchase, this machine deserves more than a casual glance.

When you watch the autopilot capture the altitude at FL370 and the airspeed build to well over 500 mph on fuel flows that would make an early Citation blush, when you consider the capability of this airplane to easily complete a 2,000-mile journey with little planning, the SJ-30 impresses you as a serious business tool capable of restoring a few more useful hours to the lives of people who fly a lot.

Hand flying the SJ30 through most of this evaluation showed me it handles well. It is certainly not the kind of airplane I’d want to jump into without previous turbine experience, but with patience to undergo the proper amount of training, pilots will feel comfortable in the SJ30 when they are the only licensed pilot aboard.