Cruising 25,000 feet above Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, I was fulfilling a bucket list item of a lifetime: sitting in the captain’s seat of a jet. I was talking to air traffic control, monitoring the jet’s progress and manipulating the jet’s autopilot system. I did almost everything except take off or land the plane, a Cirrus Vision Jet.
You might think there’s a catch to this – maybe I was describing an experience in a full flight simulator.
But no, it was most definitely real life.
The flight capped off a day in what can only be described as an AvGeek paradise: a visit to the Cirrus Aircraft Vision Center at McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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Minnesota-based Cirrus is known for producing some of the best-selling general aviation aircraft on the market, and the manufacturer uses the Vision Center as its customer headquarters, where it conducts aircraft deliveries and training. During the tour, I had the full experience: fly an SR20 simulator, experience an aircraft delivery, learn how Cirrus works with customers to produce bespoke aircraft customizations, and meet the team that produces videos – educational and promotional – for the company. And yes, they also let me fly the (real) plane, a single-engine Cirrus Vision Jet.
Fly the plane (simulated)
After being picked up from our hotel in a sleek Audi Q8 – joining me was Mimi Wright, a colleague from the TPG social media team – our guide for the day, Nadia Haidar, brought us to a simulator bay, where we spent an hour flying an SR20 fixed-base simulator around Knoxville. The SR20 is a single-engine piston propeller aircraft that helped propel Cirrus to commercial success 25 years ago. It’s now the company’s entry-level model. Believe it or not, United Airlines is a recent customer of the training version of this model, deploying it to train the airline’s next generation of pilots at the United Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona.
Here, I actually performed a simulated takeoff and landing under the guidance of an instructor pilot. Leaving Knoxville Runway 5R, I climbed to 4,500 feet, then made a few turns in the area, impressed with the aircraft’s responsiveness to my stick inputs (Cirrus aircraft don’t use yokes traditional controls; a side stick is ergonomically similar to the joystick you would use to play a video game). I ended the flight with a simulated instrument approach, where we could only see the runway at 500 feet above ground. My landing won’t win any awards, but we made it in one piece.
Then Mimi took control, and she didn’t land the plane. Instead, we ended the flight with a (simulated) parachute deployment. Cirrus aircraft are equipped with a Cirrus Airframe Parachute System. If a plane is in danger, you can deploy a parachute which brings the plane to a landing similar to that of a space capsule. More than 250 lives have been saved through pilot deployment of CAPS in times of danger, Cirrus says.
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The Vision Jet has another safety system: Garmin’s Safe Return auto-landing, which at the push of a button will automatically find the nearest suitable airport, notify ATC of aircraft intentions plane and will land the plane. It is designed to be used in the event of the pilot’s incapacitation of the Vision Jet.
Delivery or dance party?
Our next stop was the delivery center.
Back in Q8, we were ushered a few hundred yards into a dark hangar where a brand new SR22T, the company’s high-performance single-engine piston aircraft, awaited us. We were there to see what an airplane delivery looked like.
These are good times for the company, and aircraft production has a long lead time once an order is placed. Of course, customers also invest large sums in these aircraft, and a high degree of customization is available to allow owners to make the aircraft their own. Some customers even buy their planes as they are learning to fly for the first time.
It would therefore be an understatement to say that these aircraft deliveries are emotional events for new owners – and the company wants the experience to be special.
In addition to an impressive light show, the company will also play some of the customers’ favorite music for them. For us, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones was playing. (I felt like I was at a dance party – the only thing missing was a smoke machine.)
Once the lights are on, the new owners perform a receiving inspection to check for any defects. The planes are built in Duluth, Minnesota, and a company pilot flies them to Knoxville for delivery. Then, a customer acceptance flight takes place, where customers make sure everything goes well. Then the official handover takes place.
The company makes up to six of these sophisticated deliveries a day, with additional planes being handed over more informally. Time spent in the delivery shed is limited, the company said.
For its wealthier customers, the company will customize its product line to their liking through its Xi program.
We were moved to another building where we toured the Xi Design Studio, a room full of different customization options.
Rudder petals of different colors. Unique tail emblems and paint schemes. Even a photo of a piece of cheese embossed in the leather of the plane for a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan. It’s all part of the Xi process.
Clients typically come to Cirrus with rough ideas of what they want and are paired with an account manager whose job it is to bring those ideas to life. The Xi process takes place over a few months and involves an in-person meeting with the Cirrus team – including dinner – which allows the team to get a good idea of a client’s personality and what, exactly , will be the perfect customization for him.
Bespoke is the key word here; I lost track of how many times that word was used during that part of the visit. Cirrus aims for its Xi plane to have only 10% commonalities with other planes. In other words, the company wants each plane to feel unique, which the high degree of customization allows. Simultaneously, Cirrus is trying to develop Xi while keeping his designs unique and special, which can be a challenge.
Even if you don’t shell out the extra cash for a special Xi design, Cirrus prides itself on having a product line designed around riders and customer feedback. For example, some Cirrus seats have built-in phone and headset holders.
A flight of a lifetime
We then met our pilot, Travis Wellik, for a flight on the Cirrus Vision Jet, Cirrus’ only single-engine jet. Travis is a flight instructor and about as qualified as Vision Jet pilots, having developed the training program for the type, deliveries of which began in late 2016.
Nadia mentioned that I could sit in the right cockpit seat of the Vision Jet G2+ – a spot traditionally held by the first officer (although the plane doesn’t need it; it’s Federally certified). Aviation Administration for single-seaters). pilot operations). Then Travis came over and sweetened the deal: he let me sit in the left seat – the captain’s seat. I was on the moon.
I’m probably one of the biggest AvGeeks and had never flown a plane before. I have countless hours of experience fly a high quality simulated airplane on a personal computerand communicate virtually with air traffic control. I also hold an FAA aircraft dispatcher certificate.
All of this was useful for this flight.
I offered to take over ATC communications for the flight, and after copying and re-reading our flight plan clearance – usually one of the most verbose and complex types of transmissions – I seemed to have won Travis’ confidence. Under his watchful eye—yes, it was perfectly legal—he even let me taxi the jet back to our departure runway.
OK, I didn’t actually fly the takeoff or landing. I left that to Travis. But I fiddled with the radios, fiddled with the autopilot, learned the plane’s systems, and swerved around some storms, all while enjoying views of the Smokies at 25,000 feet during our 45-minute flight. I really felt like the pilot flying, even though Travis was our skilled captain. I was in awe of the Vision Jet and the degree of automation that is built into it.
For our approach, we left the autopilot on until Travis took over at 500 feet.
In other words, I was pumped. Who else gets their first flight experience in a jet? The whole adventure wrapped me up for the rest of the day; I was on cloud nine. As I was looking into flight schools to begin training for my private pilot license, my day with Cirrus definitely motivated me to make this happen as soon as possible, encouraging me to start building hours.
This is a basic strategy that Cirrus employs. By exposing non-pilots (who can afford to buy or finance aircraft, many of which sell for over $1 million) to their product line, the company hopes to not only inspire them to make a purchase , but also to learn to fly. The hope is that the pilots will be fired by the time their planes roll off the Duluth assembly line and arrive in Knoxville for the handover ceremony.
Although I don’t have any Cirrus buys in mind in the near future, I can say with certainty that the strategy is working. I’m addicted.