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Duluth Firm Breaking New Ground in Aviation
By Amy Radil
July 21, 1999
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After five years and spending $60 million in development Duluth-based Cirrus Design has federal approval to deliver its new aircraft to customers. The SR-20 is one of the first small airplanes to come on the market in the past 20 years, and is the first airplane to use a full-plane parachute. Cirrus hopes to reinvigorate the small-plane market by assuaging the fears of would-be pilots. However, after losing its top test-pilot to a crash, and now in the wake of the Kennedy tragedy, Cirrus has great deal to overcome.

The Cirrus SR-20
Range: 800 nautical miles
Cruise Speed: 160 kts
Price: $179,400
Photo courtesy of Cirrus Design
BRINGING THE SR-20 TO MARKET has been a long journey, and Cirrus employees seemed gleeful and relieved as they clustered around their signature airplane for a company photo.

The applause came in the wake of Federal Aviation Administration approval to begin customer deliveries of its SR-20 aircraft. The process was put on hold in March when Cirrus pilot Scott Anderson died after his test model SR-20 crashed half a mile from the DUluth airport.

Cirrus President Alan Klapmeier says he's mindful of Anderson's loss as the SR-20 comes off the assembly line this week.
Klapmeier: We've had people that I thought fairly unkindly said to us after Scott's death "how do you feel about this, did you do this to him?" We look at it quite the opposite that what Scott did was give his life in the pursuit of safety and what he was doing and he understood the risks was saving lives in the future and it was a worthwhile life.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report on the crash indicating it was caused by a control problem with the SR-20's ailerons, the pieces at the end of each wing controlling roll. Cirrus altered the design of the SR-20 to correct the problem and Klapmeier says Cirrus is now getting ready to increase production to fill the 340 orders it has in-house.
Klapmeier: We'll have 15 airplanes out before the end of the year, we should be gradually ramping up much faster than that as we go, and we look forward to producing several hundred airplanes a year in the near future.
Small plane sales slumped in the 1980s. Cirrus officials attribute the collapse to lack of new models on the market, mainly because no manufacturers wanted to battle through the arduous and expensive FAA-approval process to develop a new model. In addition, courts rules manufacturers liable for accident damages even with old and much-altered airplanes, but changes have since been made in federal law. Cirrus and its main competitor, Lancair in Redmond, Oregon, are two new startups which have braved the FAA process to get new models approved. Both use new composite materials which means they are lighter and more aerodynamic than the metal airplanes currently on the market. Cirrus says the SR-20's design learned lessons from luxury cars, with large windows and centrally located instruments. During test flights, pilots allow potential customers to fly the plane, to show how easy it is to control.
For More Information
Cirrus Design Web Site.

The SR-20 sells for about $171,000. Cirrus says it wants to attract people who never expected to own a plane, in part by emphasizing safety features and de-emphasizing the image of flying as a macho enterprise. The company has received national attention in the wake of the crash killing John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and her sister.

Cirrus President Alan Klapmeier has hinted that a full-plane parachute might have saved the passengers, although he says the Piper Saratoga Kennedy was flying wasn't parachute-ready.
Klapmeier: The technology isn't there, actually his airplane was too heavy for the parachute right now, but we hope to develop the capability for airplanes of the class he was flying.
Other pilots have pointed out preliminary reports say Kennedy may have become disoriented in the dark, in which case no parachute could be effective because he wouldn't have known he was going into a spiral. In Cirrus pilot Scott Anderson's case, his SR-20 wasn't equipped with a parachute, so the safety device, while tested, has yet to be used in an actual crash. But Klapmeier says the company is developing safety features going beyond the parachute for future models. Cirrus co-founder Dale Klapmeier, Alan's brother, says new models based on the SR-20 are in the works.
Klapmeier: The SR-20 was designed with a growth path in mind, going to larger engines, retractable gear, going right on through so we can go as far as we can on that particular design.
Cirrus Design expects to expand from its current 240 employees to 600 employees over the next few years in order to operate at full capacity.