January 13, 2007

The Cirrus Driver

Some of us in the US GA scene have this … thing … about Cirrus drivers. You know: arrogant, a little clueless, flying fast complex planes (toys for the boys) a little beyond their experience and ability simply because they can afford to — that sort of thing. Around here the Cirrus has something of a (rather unfair) reputation as the dot-commer killer, the dot.com equivalent of the old doctor-killer Bonanzas. And as we're cruising back towards Hayward (KHWD) over Oakland we can hear this Cirrus Driver on Oakland's tower frequency missing a mandatory readback and then asking a couple of really clueless questions about his (standard, canned) departure instructions. Urgh. This guy's about to takeoff in a fast, powerful, loud, and rather slippery plane straight at us….

But what am I flying as we hear all this? Yeah, the club's Cirrus SR-20. Yes, I'm becoming one of them. True, it's the smaller, cheaper, much less powerful SR-20 rather than the Big Boy SR-22, but it's still a Cirrus. As John, sitting in the right seat, says with a grin sometime during the Cirrus Driver vs. KOAK tower exchange, "Cirrus Drivers! Dontcha just hate them…".

* * *

So what am I doing in the Cirrus? That's easy: John owes me a few hours of instruction, and hell, the Cirrus looks like a good way to do those longer flights (for example back to Santa Monica again later this year) quickly and relatively cheaply, and, as always, I'm just really curious what it's like to fly one of these things. Plus it's on a pretty reasonable special intro rate at the club and I can just about afford it (at least every now and then). So here I am…

The club's Cirrus is one of the older ones, with conventional (steam) instruments rather than a glass cockpit, but that's almost light relief for me (at least it's got an HSI). There's one of those weirdo S-TEC S-30 autopilots (literally) attached to the turn coordinator (more on this later), and one of those sui generis multifunction displays that turned up in GA in the early days of such things, a unit I don't think I've ever seen before but that seems straightforward to use, if not quite as useful (or pretty) as the G1000's MFD. And there's the early-day Cirrus Garmin 430 / 420 combo set for the radios and nav (for the life of me I still can't understand what Garmin were thinking with the 420 — a 430 without nav radios — did this save them all of $100?!).

I've had to do my homework to be allowed to fly this thing, of course: there's a ten page familiarisation sheet that has to be filled in before sign-off (not too hard, but the sheet itself is rather oddly structured, leading you to have to page back and forward in the POH between questions), and the usual 350 page POH to be internalised. Nothing I haven't done before, and (perhaps unfortunately) I have an Aviatrix-like fascination for systems and figures (hell, I am an engineer by training…), so that part goes fairly quickly as well. The two things I think I'm likely to have trouble with are the whole side-stick control thing (I'm used to either yokes or conventional sticks, both of which are just fine by me), and keeping ahead of what's likely to be the fastest and smoothest plane I've ever flown as PIC. Yes, I've had a complex endorsement for years and have many hours in an old Arrow, and have a few hours in a Tiger, so I have some idea of what to expect, but there are always surprises.

Preflighting this thing is straightforward, except I can't open the baggage compartment door without major swearing and key-jiggling (what are the manufacturers of expensive GA planes thinking when they use really crappy locks on things like this?), and I embarrassingly couldn't find the gascolator fuel drain under the nose (it looked like an electronics attachment to me and I didn't want to break anything). At least there aren't thirteen fuel sump drains to be tested as with the Cessna 172 SP's.

Startup and taxiing turn out to be pretty simple — as with the Tiger, the Cirrus has a castoring nosewheel and uses differential braking for steering on the ground, and despite having heard a few horror stories about getting Cirruses (Cirrii?) started, it starts first go. Very smooth. But I haven't flown enough in the past few months to avoid sounding really flaky on the radio, and I embarass myself a couple of times on the radio taxiing to the runup. Taxiing and runup expose what will become one of the only real annoyances with this aircraft: the power lever (which controls both manifold pressure and RPM) has very non-linear characteristics, and is extremely sensitive at lower power settings, and I end up lurching around with the engine changing speed all over the place (the Arrow's separate MP and RPM levers were both pretty linear and easy to use by comparison). John urges me to learn how to anchor my hand and use very slight adjustments at the lower end; of course, at the other end of the power settings, dramatic movements make almost no difference. This causes problems for the rest of the flight — not dire problems, but definitely major irritations and some rather rougher-than-I'd-like adjustments. I'll get used to it.

After runup, the first real test: takeoff, with that sidestick, and the general speed demon thing. We're cleared for takeoff, and take the runway. I push the power lever forward, and (maybe predictably) with the exception of minor issues to do with trim, from this point on the sidestick is no issue at all. I simply don't really notice I'm using it (as opposed to a yoke or whatever) — it's intuitive to use, the mechanical feedback feels right, and not having the damn yoke keep hitting my knees (as used to happen with the Arrow which had fixed-height seats like the Cirrus) was a real plus.

The speed thing, however, and the general slipperiness of the SR-20, does keep me occupied for the entire flight. Not in a particularly worrying way, but this plane certainly flies faster and reacts quicker than any non-aerobatic plane I've flown, and the urge to just roll it over and do a quick roll or loop while no one's looking stays around in the back of my mind (no, of course I bloody wouldn't…). The plane certainly feels heavier on the controls than most others I've flown, but it's not a ponderous sort of heaviness or stiffness, just a reminder that it's not a Decathlon or Aerobat or even a 172.

Which brings up the next issue: while climbing over the hills towards Mt Diablo at an airspeed of about 140 KIAS (and not at full throttle) I start trying out the electric trim system, which is a must for longer flights with the heavier controls. It's controlled with one of those hat switches on the top of the sidestick, and elevator trim seems to work just fine: no surprises there. But roll trim turns out to be incredibly touchy, and it takes a long while to get the hang of just nudging the hat in the right direction quickly enough to not cause a major upset. I guess I'll get the hang of this, too (at least it has roll trim). I also try out the S-30 autopilot: again, no surprises, but it's a clunky interface compared to the ones I'm used to in the 172s, and altitude hold seemed pretty, well, impressionistic, at least when I tried it. I haven't tried the nav modes yet, but it looks fine in general — and especially useful with longer flights, IFR or VFR, because (again) of the general heaviness of the controls, and the twitchiness of the trim.

We head out (quickly) to do some airwork over the Delta with traffic advisories from Travis Approach. Disappointingly, I'm sure, nothing here went wrong or felt odd either, and stalls, steep turns, etc., were all (more or less) done within PTS the first time. Stalls are a non-event in this plane, but you need to be rather lighter on the rudder on the edge of the stall than with some of the planes I'm used to. Steep turns were a joy — the plane kept level and easily predictable in either direction — and the emergency descent workout was as dramatic as I'd expected (this plane flies fast). I think the thing that started to bug me slightly at this stage was the lack of separate manifold pressure and throttle — this is a rather non-complex plane in comparison to the Arrow, and I guess I miss the ability to change RPM independently of MP (at least up to a point). I guess you just have to trust the engine control. The other side of this is that mixture control can be left to the default engine controller as well, but you can do manual adjustments if you want (and we did, right down to a metered 9 gallons per hour — not bad for a 200 HP engine doing 140 KIAS).

And so to landings. We head off towards Napa (KAPC), probably my favourite little towered airport for landing practice. John does the first touch and go on 18L, the small runway, and we request 18R (the larger one) for my turn(s). So I do right traffic for 18R, and try to keep to the recommended airspeeds and engine settings (etc.) for each leg. Not too bad, and I line up fine and go over the proverbial fence at 75KIAS… and land, pretty much as instructed. You fly this thing on and keep the nosewheel off the ground much the same as I used to do with the Arrow, and everything feels familiar and, if I crabbed a little too much on landing, Oh Well. At least I didn't kill anyone or break anything. A couple more touch and goes, and I still haven't killed anyone or broken anything, so we head back to Hayward through Oakland's airspace, talking to NorCal and Oakland tower.

The landing at Hayward goes fine and I start to feel I can fly this plane — and I could really enjoy flying it long distance. We shall see. In any case, I have at least another flight to complete before VFR signoff, and I'd like at least a flight or two after that under the hood for IFR. Given the state of my professional and private life at the moment that might all take longer than I'd like, but it's a goal worth aiming for. And no, I'm really not interested in the SR-22. I couldn't afford it even if the club had one. But the SR-20's a good alternative to the club's 182, even the G1000-equipped 182. Nothing's cheap about this sort of flying, but I guess I can rationalise the extra hourly cost of the SR-20 by pointing out that you actually get a hell of a lot further during those hours, and when well-leaned, the fuel consumption isn't a lot worse than a 172SP. Well, that's how I rationalise it, anyway.


Anonymous said...

The SR20's controls aren't actually heavy. What you're feeling is a combination of two things: the spring cartridges and the rudder/aileron interconnect.

Did you notice that the SR20's controls feel the same on the ground (with zero IAS) as they do at cruise speed? Very little control feedback from the Cirrus.

Anyway, welcome to The Dark Side. Not everyone that flies an SR20 or 22 is a lousy pilot. To be honest, I've found the aeronautical signal-to-noise ratio to be lower among my Cirrus students than among those that fly other aircraft. Your mileage (or should I say, "NMPG"?) may vary of course.

Hamish said...

Ron -- thanks. I guess I hadn't thought of quite why the controls felt that way, but it makes sense (D'Oh!). And despite my having a go at the average Cirrus pilot, I have to say that the ones I actually know tend to be rather thoughtful and careful pilots. So much for stereotypes, eh?!