Cirrus sets guidelines for the single-engine jet it’s mulling

 - January 11, 2008, 9:45 AM

Whether or not Cirrus Design of Duluth, Minn., ever decides to build a single-engine personal jet depends heavily on what emerges on the small-turbofan development front. Cirrus director of marketing Ian Bentley told AIN, “Throughout aviation history, starting with the Wright brothers, airframe development has relied on the emergence of new engines.”

The small-turbofan movement took a big hit last year when Eclipse’s relationship with Williams International dissolved after the latter’s EJ22 was deemed unable to meet the performance goals for the Eclipse 500 very light jet. Cirrus’ jet, however, could benefit from the shakeout. Eclipse now realizes it needs an engine with more thrust than the 770 pounds expected from the EJ22. Engine manufacturers, including Pratt & Whitney Canada and, perhaps, Honeywell, are working hard on turbofans in the 900- to 1,000-pound-thrust range to meet the need. For instance, P&WC’s  1,350-lb-thrust PW615F, recently selected to power the Cessna Citation Mustang, could be recast in a lower-thrust version.

Even if the Eclipse 500 never fulfills its ambitious promise, these new engines currently being developed to power the revolutionary twinjet would be ideally suited to a smaller, personal-size single-engine jet–such as the type Cirrus envisions. Bentley said, “We’re optimistic that engines slightly larger than the EJ22 are likely to become available.”

Owner-flown Eclipse 500s, though not abandoned as a market segment, have been de-emphasized as the program has matured. Bentley said Cirrus has no reason to believe that Eclipse will not be successful in bringing “a million-dollar baby bizjet” to market. “In the next 10 years,” he said, “there will be such an airplane on the market.” But he hinted that it’s unlikely Cirrus will build a jet comparable to the Eclipse 500, even if Eclipse’s effort should fall by the wayside. Cirrus would more likely target the owner-flown market.

Bentley said, “Cirrus has been successful with personal transportation aircraft. Anything we do in the way of a jet will center on the owner-flown market. We share the vision of the ‘air-limo’ and fractional concepts. There’s a huge market there. The rest of the very-light-jet market will have to define itself either above or below that level.”

But the concept of hundreds–even thousands–of small-cabin jets flown for personal transportation by non-professional pilots makes insurers cringe and prompts the FAA to erect a shield of FARs on training requirements and type ratings. Cirrus is not unaware of these obstacles. Bentley said, “There is a need for a cultural change among insurers and the FAA for a single-engine personal jet to succeed. But let’s say you mount a hypothetical turbofan engine on an aircraft the size of an SR22. If all the other performance numbers remain the same–cruise speed, landing speed, rotation, weight-and-balance, payload–would insurance companies be as hesitant as they are?”

Having said that, Bentley quickly qualified that any such personal jet would have to be pressurized and its engine would have to have practical fuel-burn performance at mid-altitudes. Cirrus is anticipating that non-instrument-rated pilots could be among its customers, so any Cirrus jet would need to be viable flying below the flight levels.

Another arrow in Cirrus’ quiver is the BRS whole-airplane parachute being developed for very light jets. The two companies are only 150 miles apart, said Bentley, and have worked closely in developing the 80-pound rocket-propelled emergency chute that is standard equipment on the SR20 and SR22. Such a system on a single-engine jet could go a long way toward addressing the risk of flying such a sophisticated aircraft with only one powerplant. Whether or not insurers and FAA rulemakers would buy into the safety guarantees afforded by the parachute system is another unknown.

The newest avionics suite in the SR22 is also a likely candidate as a starting point for a personal jet that may be flown VFR most of the time, and IFR on occasion. Cirrus president Alan Klapmeier is known for his commitment to safety-enhancing innovations (such as the BRS parachute and 20-g, energy-absorbing seats) and considers the Avidyne Entegra suite to be a quantum leap in that direction. The system incorporates a pair of 10.4-inch screens with a business-jet-like primary flight display (PFD) on the pilot’s side. The main difference is the pictorial artificial horizon line that extends the width of the landscape-oriented display. As such, the aircraft attitude is almost constantly in sight–prominent in the peripheral vision of a pilot reading a chart or tuning a radio. Quoted in a recent article in AOPA Pilot, Klapmeier said, “I get vertigo easily, and I think I’m fairly typical. A well trained pilot can obviously [fly by reference to conventional instruments], but we need to stop expecting people to be able to rise to it. The difference between three inches, six inches and 10 inches [display size] is a huge safety factor.”

Cirrus has also addressed the issue of establishing an effective service network. “Service centers need to have volume to sustain themselves. The more service centers you have, the more airplanes you need in the fleet,” said Bentley. Cirrus currently anticipates production levels would need to reach about 75 aircraft per month to provide the numbers needed to sustain a service network and provide sufficient economy of scale for such an airplane.

But first things first, said Bentley. Cirrus  expects to generate black ink for the first time this year and is currently the second-largest producer of piston aircraft after Cessna. The company has delivered some 275 SR20s (200 hp) and 430 SR22s (310 hp) since the factory began production in July 1999 and expects to deliver a total of 500 new aircraft this year. Cirrus continues to refine the product, last year introducing TKS anti-icing and the Entegra avionics suite on the flagship SR22.