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AirTaxiFlights.com Interview: Cirrus Design CEO Alan "We Will Not Develop A Very Light Jet" Klapmeier

By Elliot Borin, Air TaxiFlights.com Staff Writer - © 2009, Reproduction without permission strictly prohibited. All company and product names in this document are the property of their respective copyright and/or trademark holders.

Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you hear the words "Cirrus Design?" Airplanes wearing parachutes, perhaps? Or maybe you envision a kit aircraft builder which jumped into the mainstream general aviation market in the late '90s and was producing the world's best-selling single-engine, four-passenger airplane by 1993.

If you're an aviation technology buff, the words Cirrus Design might trigger thoughts of composite construction, Terrain Awareness and Traffic Information systems, Satellite Weather Datalink, Stormscope®, electronic instrument approach modules, fully integrated avionics suites and other advanced technologies that might still be unavailable in light aircraft if not for Cirrus' pioneering.

One phrase that probably wouldn't come to mind is "Very Light Jet."

After all, as recently as November 2005 Cirrus Design Chairman and CEO Alan Klapmeier bluntly told attendees at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's (AOPA) annual expo that Cirrus "will not develop a very light jet." That being the case, how does one explain the sleek, glass-enveloped aircraft with the rakishly tilted camelback jet engine and 60-degree v-twin tail pictured here. And why is it called "The-Jet By Cirrus?" To find out, we asked the one man who truly knows.

AirTaxiFlights.com: If I remember correctly, the CirrusJet wasn't announced until September, 2006 long after -- years after, in some cases -- companies like Eclipse, Cessna and Honda had committed to their Very Light Jets. Why the late start?

Doing a single-engine jet has been on our drawing board for a very long time.
Alan Klapmeier: I don't think we were late in thinking about it and planning it, though we may have been a bit late committing to it. Our first meeting with (ultra-lightweight turbofan engine inventor) Sam Williams was way back in 1989, so doing a single-engine jet has been on our drawing board for a very long time.

We designed a turboprop version of our VK30 kit plane at the end of the '80s and a few years after that we co-developed the prototype ST50 turboprop, which was engineered to accommodate a jet engine at some future point. So we've been on this path a long time. We've been working on defining our market niche for well over a decade.

ATF: What niche is that?

Alan Klapmeier: As with the SR-20 and SR-22, one of our key design goals was a highly capable aircraft easy enough for even me to fly. An aircraft that would appeal to owner/pilots because it is easy and safe to fly. An aircraft less intimidating to passengers and new pilots than typical small planes and large and roomy enough to carry a whole family in comfort.

ATF: Given Cirrus' pioneering work with the VK30 and ST50 in the '80s and '90s, why did it take until the mid-2000s for you to green-light production?

Alan Klapmeier: Our main concern was resource allocation. Our number one task was to produce, sell and develop the piston-engined aircraft we already had certified, the SR-20 and SR-22. As a company, we needed to achieve a certain size to be confident we had the resources to continue to support and improve existing models while launching a personal jet program.

ATF: Addressing the AOPA in 2005, you said "we will not develop a very light jet ... but we are looking at the concept of a personal jet," which seems to indicate that the CirrusJet is a different breed of bird than VLJs marketed primarily to business owners, the air taxi industry, corporations and flying professionals. Yet all turbofan-powered very light aircraft, whether they come from Cirrus, Eclipse, Cessna or another company, can carry a family to a fishing resort or a mall developer to a building site equally expeditiously. And SATS air, which Cirrus owns a big chunk of, has already announced it will be adding CirrusJets to its air-taxi fleet. So what is the difference between a personal jet and a VLJ? Or is it simply a matter of attitude?

Personal aircraft, whether piston engined or jet powered, are used as recreational alternatives to cars by part-time, non-professional and even newly licensed general aviation pilots.
Alan Klapmeier: Attitude might be one way to put it. In our view, personal aircraft, whether piston engined or jet powered, are used as recreational alternatives to cars by part-time, non-professional and even newly licensed general aviation pilots. Therefore they should be as easy to learn, intuitive to operate, fun to fly, forgiving and safe as state-of-the-art technology can make them.

For example, we said we would build the lowest, slowest jet you could buy. Everyone else, as far as I know, is looking for bragging rights in the opposite direction. Which is what you would do if your primary customer base is going to be professional pilots or highly experienced private pilots with hundreds of hours and multi-engine ratings.

ATF: Yes, but most people need a car; not everyone needs or can afford an airplane.

Alan Klapmeier: Nobody needs a BMW, either. And a BMW is more expensive than, say, a Cirrus SR-20, when you consider how much longer the airplane will be operative.

An airplane changes your lifestyle. You can't hug your grandchildren or visit your adult children online. Playing internet golf is no fun. Having a vacation home loses a lot of its charm when it takes you two days of every three-day weekend to drive to it and back.

A personal airplane changes all those dynamics. The real barrier to entry isn't as much cost as it is complexity. We try to make flying easy enough so you don't have to be Superman to do it. Not everyone will or even wants to fly, but we have to make it possible for those who do.

ATF: We don't normally get into gearhead questions in these interviews, but I've got to ask this one. What's going on with the split tail and the slanted engine perched on top of the cabin?

Alan Klapmeier: There are numerous advantages to mounting the engine up top. It contributes to a very clean, simple, aerodynamically efficient fuselage and it's great for maintenance and accessibility. We first considered putting the engine on top around 1999, but it was located much further back at that time. We hadn't done a whole lot of research and analysis at that point and we were envisioning a smaller airplane, a four-seater with a straight tail.

Later, as we migrated to a bigger, heavier engine we slid it forward which, of course, made it move up the back of the fuselage. That change necessitated angling the engine to vector the thrust and keep the thrust line close to the aerodynamic center of the frame. Once we decided on the engine configuration, the next design issue was routing the engine exhaust past the tail ... the V-tail seemed like a natural solution.

ATF: Indeed it does. But why such a big tail? Aren't most V-tail designs low and lean?

One thing that inspires a lot of confidence in the SR-20 and SR-22 is the integrated Cirrus Airframe Parachute System™
Alan Klapmeier: Very large tail surfaces are essential if you want to maximize control and stability in a personal jet. You'll also notice that the wings are relatively large and thick and equipped with Fowler flaps to provide the lift necessary to keep stall speeds down and enable the CirrusJet to operate with approach speeds and runway requirements very similar to those of the SR-22 and other high-performance, single piston-engined aircraft.

We want the average private pilot to be confident flying the CirrusJet and that demands that we give him a docile, easy-to-handle aircraft.

ATF: One thing that inspires a lot of confidence in the SR-20 and SR-22 is the integrated Cirrus Airframe Parachute System™. Do we assume correctly that the CirrusJet will also be CAPS equipped?

Alan Klapmeier: Yes. CAPS is like an insurance policy you never want to collect on but can't afford to be without.

ATF: Almost everyone interested in general aviation has heard of CAPS, but most articles and news stories simply refer to it as an "airframe parachute" or something similar. What does it really do and how does it do it?

Alan Klapmeier: First you have to understand what it's supposed to do. What it's intended to do. CAPS was designed to help people survive accidents caused by things like engine failure or pilot incapacitation.

It does not, cannot, gently lower a stricken airplane to the ground. It is not analogous to a single person gliding to earth with a parachute. It is more like falling off a ten-foot wall while sitting in a chair. You will probably survive, but the chair most likely won't.

During CAPS deployment, a large parachute attached to the airframe is ejected by a small ballistic rocket powerful enough to force the canopy open even when the aircraft is in a spin or inverted. The parachute inflates slowly and, coupled with reefed risers, rapidly brings the aircraft to stable attitude under the canopy. In tests with the aircraft traveling at under 135 knots, the canopy decreases forward velocity (relative to wind) to zero and vertical drop to 17 knots within eight seconds.

CAPS was designed to help people survive accidents caused by things like engine failure or pilot incapacitation.
ATF: You've been quoted as saying that the most important feature of a new airplane is its engine. With Eclipse, Cessna and most other manufacturers except Honda choosing Pratt and Whitney power for their VLJs, what made you go with Williams International?

Alan Klapmeier: We've known Sam Williams for a long time and his company builds great fanjet engines. But Pratt and Whitney build great engines as well and we did go back and forth for quite awhile. In the end, it came down to the Williams EJ33-4A being a slightly better fit for us in areas like fuel consumptions vs. weight vs. cost. If we had been looking for an engine that was a little bit smaller or larger, it might have come out differently.

ATF: One more question about the aircraft itself, what's the thinking behind the spherical fuselage?

Alan Klapmeier: When it comes to aerodynamic drag width is much less of a factor than shape. The spherical shape gives us a wide, comfortable cabin without the penalty of increased drag inherent in a circular body with the same usable width.

It enables us to put three full-size reclining seats abreast behind the two cockpit seats and ahead of twin jump seats at the back of the cabin. A CirrusJet can very comfortably transport a vacationing family of seven and all their gear. We believe that capacity is very important in a personal jet.

ATF: Given your emphasis on "personal aircraft" what inspired the decision to become the first aircraft manufacturer to expand vertically by acquiring a substantial interest in an air-taxi operator?

Alan Klapmeier: We're very bullish on air taxi. We think it's a really excellent way to address a significant part of the public's transportation needs. Look at the airlines. Their business model is broken. It's commodity based. They want passengers to change themselves to fit their model.

We're very bullish on air taxi. We think it's a really excellent way to address a significant part of the public's transportation needs.
The airlines refuse to accept the fact that in transportation you can no longer make huge amounts of money just by selling seats, you have to sell service. You have to take people where they want, when they want and get them there when you're supposed to ... not an hour or two later.

You can also look at the driving model. Despite gas prices continually going up, corridor congestion is not going down. So making 200 or 300 mile trips by car is not only much more expensive than it used to be, it's also considerable slower in many parts of the company.

Air taxi companies likes SATSair are not only offering a cost effective, faster and more convenient alternative to the airlines, they're also getting people off the highways. Once an air taxi operator begins serving a remote community and people start flying to graduations, business meetings, family reunions and things like that, they never want to go back to the old transportation models.

Light aircraft have always offered a fantastic way to travel, but that has been largely unappreciated because accessing the benefit required you to be a sort of aviation expert. You had to be a pilot, understand how to get an aircraft financed, arrange for hanger space and negotiate for maintenance services. The air-taxi industry is changing all that. We're proud to be part of it.

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