For pilots, jet planes are the ultimate. They’re thrillingly fast, with top speeds of around 450mph. They’re powerful, climbing to cruising altitude with muscular zip. And they can fly above the weather that can buffet or ground planes powered by piston engines. But most light jets have a price tag of £3m-£5m, and their speeds, while exhilarating, are also intimidating – unless you are at the top of your game you can get into a lot of trouble very fast. Now, however, there’s a new type of jet that anyone who flies can confidently pilot, and at a significantly lower price.
The Vision Jet SF50, from Cirrus Aircraft, deliveries of which are just ramping up after certification by US regulators at the end of last year, follows the same lightweight thinking as the company’s SR piston range: just one turbofan motor, unlike the two (or three or four) on most civil jets, plenty of electronic help for pilots and a whole-plane safety parachute, just in case. With a one-hop range similar to that of the company’s top-of-the-range piston plane – about 1,000 nautical miles – but a maximum cruise speed of nearly 50 per cent more, at 300 knots/345mph, the Vision is a cleverly designed package that fills a gap in the market for a jet aimed at pilots moving up from piston-powered planes to an aircraft that can carry more passengers, more comfortably, faster. But, crucially, not so fast as to intimidate.
I have come to Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport in Tennessee, where Cirrus is building a Vision delivery centre – “Think a combination of Apple Store and Audi dealership,” says Matthew Bergwall, project manager of Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Jet sales and marketing – to try this new jet for myself. Climbing into it, what immediately stands out is the generous width of the cabin. Most jets’ fuselages are pencil-shaped because of their aluminium alloy construction, but the high-tech carbon fibre chosen for the Vision is used to create a more tadpole-shaped cabin that can seat five adults and two children, in three rows, with plenty of space. Its open cabin feels more like a station wagon, whereas most jets are more akin to limousines, with a divide between pilot and passengers.
Starting the SF50’s engine is as simple as firing up an Audi car – turn one knob and push the start button. Then I sit back and listen as a sound more familiar from airliners and fighter jets builds behind me. And when I line up on the runway, that engine, with 1,800lbs of thrust, provides a hefty push as I move the power lever all the way forward.
One of the features that makes the Vision Jet stand out on the ground is a V-tail, with two ventral fins below it – making it look from some angles like the closest thing to a Star Wars X-wing fighter I expect I will ever fly. In the air, the fins’ control surfaces move automatically to keep the aircraft balanced, and at speed the rudder pedals can be ignored.
The overall effect is a direct feel through the sidestick control – and, even better, I can explore the limits of the aircraft’s crisp handling knowing that its avionics will take over if I go too far.
An integral stability programme gives verbal warnings if safe limits are overstepped – for example, letting the airspeed fall too much (thus causing the plane to stall). If those audio warnings are not acted upon, the sidestick will be nudged in a safe direction – rather like the lane-assist function in Audi cars. Protection from stalling includes a stick-shaker, which should grab the attention of most pilots, and if it doesn’t, then a stick-pusher puts the nose of the aircraft down to help it gain airspeed. This is all part of an avionics system that is similar to, and just as capable as, that of the HondaJet I reviewed for How To Spend It in October – but tailored specifically for the capabilities and performance of the SF50.
The system also means an autopilot that is blissfully simple to use, a button to replay the last few seconds of radio chatter (useful for double‑checking an instruction from air traffic control), plus a reassuring Cirrus trademark: a prominent blue button that returns the aircraft to straight and level flight – a potential lifesaver if the pilot becomes disoriented while hand‑flying in cloud or at night.
And whether at low level or cruising at high level, the huge windows in the cabin give both pilot and passengers spectacular views.
The Vision’s landing speeds are low for a jet – stall speed is just 67 knots, which is just seven knots faster than Cirrus’s piston-powered SR22 – and I found that the aircraft was easy to settle into a stable descent. Even better, the supple trailing-link landing gear made every touchdown look, and feel, great.
Pilots will need a specific type-rating certification beyond the standard licence to fly this jet, and training for one pilot is included in the plane’s price. An instrument rating is also required in order to fly the SF50 both in cloud and at altitudes where it is most efficient – near or at 28,000ft, which is below airliners but above a lot of the weather that can prevent small aircraft from flying – and that can be added into the training syllabus.
You can cover an impressive amount of ground, fast in the Vision. From Knoxville we could have flown to almost anywhere on the east coast without stopping for fuel. Range is always a balance between speed and payload, but think New York at high speed in just over two hours with four people on board. Miami would take about 20 minutes more. And, to the west, Amarillo would have been within range – very respectable for the size of aircraft. The down side is the fuel burn, which is a bit of a shocker for anyone coming from piston planes. The first hour of a trip uses 80-85 US gallons of jet fuel, but cruising higher up should use about 65-70 gallons an hour. Overall, reckon on about $300 per hour in fuel.
Cirrus has orders for more than 600 Vision Jets, representing about five years’ production – so output is being ramped up from one a week to about 100-125 per year. But Bergwall says occasional cancellations mean there’s scope for new orders to move up the waiting list. The starting price of $1.96m means the order book is likely to keep on growing – most small private jets tend to cost at least twice that, and even the small, twin-engined Eclipse 550 jet, perhaps the Vision’s closest rival, has a price tag of about $3m.
If more aircraft manufacturers jump on board to produce entry-level jets like this, so much the better. Personal jets as sophisticated, capable and enjoyable to fly as the Vision have the potential to open up longer distance travel to more pilots; I found criss-crossing the eastern states of the US almost as simple as using a car. Becoming a high-flyer has just become a whole lot easier.