I recently travelled to Cirrus Design USA manufacturing headquarters in Duluth, Minnesota to take collection of a new SR20. Situated on the edge of Lake Superior, Duluth in winter is snow covered with temperatures hovering around -2C to -15C most days. After the 40 hour journey from Perth’s summer – it’s a shock to the senses taking that first step outside. Lake Superior contains 10% of the world’s freshwater and at 85,000 km2 it looks more like the sea than a lake. Cirrus Design employ around 1000 people and as it transpired, we arrived at their headquarters, with four other new owners from across North America also undertaking the Cirrus Perspective Transition Training Course. It quickly became obvious that Cirrus is a slick operation. The warm welcome, introductions and inspection around the contemporary designed headquarters raise a heightened sense of anticipation for the week ahead. Dramatic floor to ceiling glass windows overlook delivery bays where new aircraft are handed over to customers. Throughout the week these bays quickly become somewhat of a sideshow as stunning new aircraft featuring a surprising palette of vivid colour schemes are wheeled in each day to await their new owners. Next door, the massive factory builds around 6 new aircraft each week – an impressive operation to witness, as aircraft move through the advanced assembly lines to final completion and flight certification by the dedicated test pilots team. Alongside the Cirrus SR20/22 plant, work is well advanced on the manufacture of the new Cirrus Vision SF50 personal jet due to commence deliveries in 2017. The SF50 is in the final stages of certification and an amazing sight up close, especially during daily test flights with its eye catching V-tail design and “piggyback” jet engine placement. For those undertaking Cirrus training, the course is flown in your aircraft with a Cirrus factory pilot assigned to each new owner for the week. Good training studios are allocated for the course with each overlooking the apron below. I was fortunate to be paired with Thomas Klomp, an enthusiastic and knowledgable former RPT jet pilot. In addition to ground training and scheduled meetings with the maintenance and customer service teams, the air component is about 11 hours with flights each day following a formulaic flight training task list. Cirrus’ version of the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit is “Cirrus Perspective” and adds an alphanumeric key pad and many other flight and engine management add-ons. A good deal of the course is spent focussing on getting the best use from the Perspective system. Time spent doing the online course via the Cirrus training portal prior to arriving in Duluth was valuable, to make the most of the hands-on aspects of the course. With ice on the ground and the odd snow flurry, just getting to the ramp and into your plane can be a slippery adventure for the uninitiated. Flying in the cold dense air gives some super performance but everyone is forever vigilant as weather conditions turn marginal very quickly. To help the transition training aircraft in the freezing conditions – Cirrus thoughtfully house them in giant heated hangars, which makes the daily pre-flight inspection and discussion much more pleasant and valuable before the hangar door opens and tugs arrive to tow aircraft onto the apron. Of interest, Duluth airport shares its runways with an international-domestic terminal, the Minnesota Air National Guard and of course Cirrus. It is an amazing experience sitting at the holding point as half a dozen F16’s from the National Guard thunder down the 3100m runway ahead of you on one of their regular sorties. The ear splitting noise, radiant heat and jet blast from the F16 afterburners makes a GA pilot feel rather insignificant awaiting the tower’s authorisation for take-off.
Due to heavy snowfalls which can become deep very quickly, all taxiway edge lights at Duluth are mounted on posts around 3’ off the ground. For the careless, the narrower taxiways become a natural enemy of low winged GA aircraft! You quickly appreciate not cutting corners and vigilantly keep in the middle, taxing with the snow and ice piled along the edges. The runway snow clearing machinery works in synchronisation at amazing speeds. On one occasion a 3 hour snow dump left around 2-3 inches on the ground. Within 30 minutes the airport was operational again as a convoy of snow ploughs and sweepers operating in close formation cleared runways and taxiways spectacularly hurling snow 30 metres out to the sides. Prior to flying to Australia, N308JS was fitted with two 80 gallon ferry tanks. The cockpit was stripped and professional ferry pilot Bob Henry flew the aircraft from Duluth Minnesota to the Gold Coast – total time 57.5 hours. With this fuel load, the aircraft is overweight and consequently supplied with a special FAA clearance to undertake the ferry flight. N308JS left the US mainland at Santa Maria for Maui Hawaii – a 15 hour leg, then Maui – American Samoa (Pago Pago) 18 hrs, and on to the Air Gold Coast – Coolangatta where it stayed for 10 days being, de-tanked, refitted, serviced and put onto the Australian register as VH-VPK. Byron Page and I flew VH-VPK from Coolangatta to Jandakot in a very comfortable 3 days mid-April with a total flying time of 16 hours.