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Cirrus jet nears certification

A Cirrus Vision jet flies by Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)1 / 7
Team leader Eric Palmquist (from left) and production assembly workers Josh Bartels and Dean Setters examine a center console in front of Cirrus’ first production Vision jet. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 7
Cirrus’ three conforming jets, seen here together, are nearing the end of rigorous testing for Federal Aviation Administration certification. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)3 / 7
A wing for the Cirrus Vision jet sits near the first production unit of the new plane. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)4 / 7
A Cirrus Vision jet takes off from Duluth International Airport for a test flight on Tuesday. It is one of three Vision conforming jets undergoing FAA certification testing. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)5 / 7
The fuselage for a Cirrus Vision jet sits in a bonding oven. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)6 / 7
Several Cirrus employees work on the fuselage of the company’s first production jet, which will be used by the company. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)7 / 7

Cirrus Aircraft’s new SF-50 Vision jet is still a few months away from receiving Federal Aviation Administration certification. But production of the groundbreaking small personal jet has been underway for some time.

Components for the light jet started being made a year ago at the company’s Grand Forks, N.D., plant, then trucked to the Cirrus headquarters at the Duluth International Airport. There, assembly work began last April.

Today, one end of the 275,000-square-foot production building is dedicated to Vision jet assembly and testing. One large area is dotted with raw fuselages for testing and design.

One fuselage stands out, getting the most attention. It’s farther along with production assembly workers starting to install its mechanical systems. Labeled “P1,” it will be the first Vision jet to come down the production line — probably this spring. Its gleaming white wing rests on a stand nearby.

In a separate area, crews work on the fuselages of the Vision jets to follow. Large ovens are used to bond the plane’s all-carbon-fiber components together to create a lighter, stronger plane.

Cirrus had aimed for FAA certification and first customer delivery of the jet in late 2015. But the expected certification process is complicated for such a new category of plane, explained Bill King, Cirrus’ vice president of business administration. Cirrus has three conforming planes that have been undergoing rigorous flight, systems, icing and other testing since 2014.

“Certifying this kind of plane is a lot of work,” King said. “It’s a clean-sheet aircraft.”

With certification pushed back a few months, a production ramp up also is pushed back. Despite 600 orders for the $1.96 million jet, that delay isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More jet production space is needed at Cirrus’ main plant in Duluth, where its SR-20 and SR-22 series of single-engine piston planes also are assembled.

It’ll be cramped quarters until Cirrus’ new 68,000-square-foot center for painting and other finishing work on the jets is completed in September on nearby city-owned

land at the airport. The $12.6 million project will be built with a $4 million state grant and $8.15 million in city-issued general obligation bonds.

 Cirrus created space for jet work at the main plant a year ago when it moved machining, subassembly production and some research and development to a 40,000-square-foot space at an off-airport building on Miller Trunk Highway. A new $15 million delivery and customer service center under construction in Knoxville, Tenn., also will open up space.

Groundbreaking jet

Cirrus’ Vision jet will fill the gap between high-performance propeller planes and light business jets, creating a new category in general aviation.

The single-engine jet, which seats five adults and two children, sports a distinctive V-shaped tail. It is designed for regional travel and personal business use and features advanced technology, avionics and luxury features similar to Cirrus’ piston-powered planes. The jet will reach speeds of more than 300 knots or 345 mph and will be able to fly 1,200 miles before refueling.

The inside of the cabin is twice as big as Cirrus’ four-seat piston planes. Like Cirrus’ propeller planes, the jet will have a specially designed airframe parachute system. Cirrus officials say it will be the only jet in the world equipped with such a system.

The Vision jet will be the first small personal jet brought to market. That, experts say, will give Cirrus a huge advantage in the marketplace. Other airplane manufacturers have tried to develop one, but those jet development programs have either ended or been stalled.

Cirrus’ first customer delivery of the Vision jet is expected to come with fanfare and trigger a groundswell of attention worldwide.

“The fact that you have a jet is an absolute game changer,” King said.

It’s already happening.

“We’re a few short months from certification, and the interest has skyrocketed,” said Ben Kowalski, Cirrus’ vice president of marketing. “As we get closer and closer, we’re already getting attention from customers and media. Every time we take it to a different airport, the air traffic controllers say that’s a cool aircraft.”

Boosting revenue

While Cirrus started developing its light jet about 10 years ago, the jet program slowed during the economic recession, which hit the industry hard.

The program was not only back on track but ramped up in 2012 when new owner China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co. invested the needed $100 million to get the jet to certification and into production. Hundreds of engineers, technicians, production and other staff have since been hired, most for the jet program. Cirrus currently has 1,000 employees, with 750 in Duluth and more jobs coming, Kowalski said.

The jet’s production also means more business for local Cirrus suppliers, including Northstar Aerospace, which provides airplane seats for Cirrus’ piston planes and also will produce the seats for the jets.

“Cirrus’ business is a huge deal, not only for Northstar but really for the whole aviation community located in Duluth,” said Perry Flemmen, Northstar’s board chairman.

Northstar’s work for Cirrus amounts to half of its business. It’s a big reason why the company increased its staff from 39 employees two years ago to 50 today. And when Cirrus’ jet production ramps up, Northstar probably will hire more people, Flemmen said.

Ramping up production of the jet after FAA certification will begin slowly and carefully, with improvements to the process made along the way, King said.

“First planes take forever,” he explained. “It’s hiring people, training and becoming efficient.”

He noted that with Cirrus’ first plane, the SR-20, the company delivered only nine planes the first year, 97 the second and 197 the third.

So filling the current 600 orders for the Vision jet will take several years. But in the end, the jet’s sales will boost Cirrus’ revenue by a total of $1.2 billion, King said.