View from a Piper Pilot (long)

A friend of mine (who flies mainly Cherokees and occasionally a Trinidad or Seneca) went for his first ride in a Cirrus last week when I gave him a ride in my SR20. He posted the following story (unsolicited by me!) to a Piper mailing list and I asked his permission to repost it here. Always interesting to me to see people’s first impressions of the plane, and his piece was particularly well written!

I got to fly my coworker’s SR-20 last week. It was on one of those beautiful 78-degree days here in the mid-Atlantic region, and three of us (including the aircraft owner) were out at lunch, and we just looked at each other, and said “screw it, we’re not going back in to work, let’s go flying!” (it’s nice when you work at an aviation-related company, they understand the need to just go flying every now and then.)

We decided to head west, away from the IAD-DCA-BWI triangle with its TFR minefield. Someone picked up a map and pointed at CBE, Cumberland, MD. A good choice for a 45-minute flight (from GAI) over some interesting hilly terrain, including one place where a determined aircraft owner (probably a Maule or Helio Courier) has etched a tiny grass strip out of woods on the top of a ridge no wider than the airplane itself. Anyway, I’ve been to CBE before, and they even have part-121 airliner traffic in there–a beat up old Jetstream 31 runs twelve times a day from CBE to Hagerstown to Baltimore, under Pan Am colors. It’s kind of fun to watch them come in, and the pilot and copilot hand-carry the two passengers’ luggage to the terminal.

We pulled the plane out of the hangar and saddled up. Two big scissor-opening doors (like the Lamborghini Diablo) made ingress easy. The interior of the SR-20 is fantastic. Tons of room, nice materials, reminds me of riding in a Ford Explorer, compared to the decidedly VW-Bug (and I mean the old one) experience of flying most of my club’s Cherokees. In keeping with the safety theme of the aircraft, all four seats have four-point harnesses. Steve L gave us the preflight briefing, which included instructions on operating the BRS chute in case of extreme emergency.

My officemate Aaron got the shotgun seat on the leg out. He is just about to get started with his flight training, but he’s already logged MU-2 time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to log any SR-20 time, because neither Steve L (the airplane’s owner) or I are CFIs yet. But that didn’t mean Aaron couldn’t try it out. He did really well, holding heading and altitude, and doing some gentle turns.

We got to CBE too late to see the ancient Jetstream land, but it was there on the ramp, waiting to head out. We struck up a conversation with the young flight crew, who seemed beat after driving that bus back and forth to B’more all day. We were talking about the fact that the Cirrus has 20 times the technology the Jetstream has in the cockpit–they’re using steam gauges all the way, VOR and DME, no RNAV, no LORAN, and definitely no GPS. But someone made the point that with the frequency of trips and the limited route, that old plane has probably worn a path in the air and it could find it’s own way.

We stayed to watch them take off, enjoying the beautiful terminal with a mini-museum upstairs devoted to the history of the airport. The nicest empty airport terminal I’ve ever been in.

Then we took off to head back, with me in the shotgun seat. Steve L let me take over during climbout. Since there wasn’t much to do at that point (the Cirrus trims very nicely and climbs hands-off even with the autopilot off), I had him walk me through the optional ARNAV engine management system on the big screen–it displays individual cylinder EGT, CHT, power percentage, finds peak EGT, all the things that the JPI does, but on a nice big screen. I’m sure it does other things too, probably has settable alarm thresholds for all the engine functions, etc., but we didn’t have time to dig too deeply.

We leveled off and powered back to 65%, 50 degrees LOP. That yielded a TAS of about 132 on a fuel flow of about 8.5 GPH. Then it was time to try steep turns. The plane turns like it’s on rails, and the sidestick is a non-issue. Even though I was right seat, it just didn’t occur to me that it was any different than what I’m used to. I did my left turn to PTS standards no problem, but coming around to the right, the plane lost a little too much altitude. It’s slippery, and if you let the nose get down in a turn, you’ve got to catch it quick!

Once I was done fooling around, it was time to try out the autopilot. Steve’s plane has the STEC System 30 with GPS Steering and altitude hold. The altitude hold is simple–you’ve got the plane trimmed for climb, then once you hit your assigned altitude, you just hit Alt Hold. No pushing over, no trimming, nothing. The plane will overshoot altitude a little bit, but then bring it back down and level off. The autopilot is connected to the same trim servo as the trim switch, so it basically trims the plane itself. No annunciator telling you to add nose-down trim.

The GPS steering makes navigation just as simple. Put your flight plan in the Garmin 430, and it feeds the course heading as well as course correction to the GPS. When you hit a turn-point in your flight plan, the autopilot anticipates the turn based on your groundspeed, and the plane turns smartly to intercept the new leg, completely hands off. I understand Cirrus also incorporated an alarm clock to wake you up so you can switch tanks and land at your destination, it’s basically that simple to fly cross-country.

The avionics are good. I didn’t say great, just good. It’s got a 430/420 combo, which is incredibly capable and easy to use. I just love the Garmin 4xx line, we’ve got them in all our club planes, and they’re the biggest jump forward since the advent of the moving map, if you ask me. Less impressive is the huge ARNAV multi-function display that dominates the middle of the panel. It is big, about 10" diagonally, but surprisingly low-res. It looks like about 640x480 at 16 colors. Everything looks blocky and cheesy, and it doesn’t really do much more than the 430 itself. As I understand it, ARNAV is out and Avidyne has come up with a Cirrus-specific version of their vastly superior EX5000C MFD that is now standard equipment in new airplanes, as well as available for retrofit. Truth be told, I could do fine with a simple UPS MX20 for the MFD, and regain some panel space, but I don’t think that would work.

Steve L let me fly all the way to base leg in the pattern. It’s easy to fly in the pattern, get the speed down to flap operating range (100 Kts), then go one notch of flaps on downwind, and landing flaps on base-to-final. He greased it on, of course.

I’ve got to say, the Cirrus experience is markedly different from any other small single-engine plane I’ve flown: Ce***a 172, 182, 210, Cherokee, Saratoga, Bonanza. (Never flown a Mooney, hope to change that soon). It’s really quiet, even on the ground with the doors open. I expect those long exhaust pipes that open well under the belly have something to do with that. The interior appointments–materials, lights, vents, etc.–are all luxury-car grade. And the height and width of the cabin are more like the Cessna 310 my company flies than a light single. Combine that with 155Kts on 12 GPH with 925 useful load in a fixed-gear 200HP single, and it’s a great combination.

Greased the landing…come on…fess up, that’s the real reason you posted this? I would have to agree with your statement – particularly well written…for fiction, that is! [;)]

[:)]Actually, it was a very surprising experience. The approach was horrible - I ended up having to do a slip on final because I was too high and hot, something I haven’t had to do in a really long time. I think maybe the high terrain near the CBE airport was subconciously making me stay too high for too long in the pattern. But surprisingly when I kicked out the slip right over the runway, I really did make a greaser - better than my normal landings.

For once, the old “stabilized approaches lead to good landings” and its converse didn’t seem to hold true.

Glad he didn’t mention the part about needing to slip it in, though!! [:)]