Cirrus to unveil new aircraft

Jun. 25--Hundreds of aviators and aviation press members will descend on Duluth later this week for their first glimpse of "the-jet."

That's what Cirrus Design Corp. has dubbed the jet aircraft it's developing. And this week, the Duluth-based airplane manufacturer will unveil a full-sized mock-up of the

single-engine jet.

Until now, Cirrus has been stingy with details about the airplane, which is likely to hit the market no sooner than 2010. Cirrus representatives have dribbled out scant details of the new aircraft, which is to sell for about $1 million. The plane will be able to cruise at a speed of more than 300 knots and at an altitude of up to 25,000 feet. The aircraft also will feature retractable landing gear and a whole-plane emergency parachute system, similar to what Cirrus installs in all its piston-engine airplanes.

Cirrus hasn't committed itself to a certain timeline and hasn't even revealed the-jet's seating capacity yet, except to say that it will carry at least four people.

Despite the paucity of details about the-jet, Cirrus has had no trouble attracting customers.

More than 150 parties already have placed orders for the-jet, each sending Cirrus a $100,000 deposit to secure a place in line. Consequently, Cirrus already has more than $15 million in hand and a commitment from would-be customers to fork over at least another $135 million for completed jets as they become available.

That may sound like a lot of money, but Jim McDonald, editor of Aero-news.net, an online publication dedicated to general aviation, pointed out that getting a new jet to market will cost Cirrus "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Dale Klapmeier, who co-founded Cirrus with his brother, Alan, declined to disclose the development budget for the company's new jet but said he would not quibble with McDonald's characterization of the costs involved.

McDonald considers the strong response to Cirrus' jet offering a testament to the company's reputation.

"They have a phenomenal order book for an aircraft that's being sold sight-unseen," he said. "It shows the faith that people have in Cirrus, based on their experience with the company."

Klapmeier said that when last he checked a few weeks ago, past customers accounted for about 50 percent of all orders Cirrus had received.

It's no small wonder then that Cirrus' unveiling of the-jet was timed to coincide with the fifth annual Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association "migration" to Duluth. The event provides Cirrus aviators an opportunity to gather at the birthplace of their aircraft to swap stories, visit, learn about the latest available upgrades and brush up on training and safety.

Mike Radomsky, COPA's president, said two weeks before the event that 550 people already had registered to attend, and about 270 parties planned to arrive in Duluth flying Cirrus aircraft.

This year's migration promises to be the largest ever, and Radomsky said attendance has definitely received a significant boost from Cirrus' plan to roll out a mockup of the-jet.

A number of COPA members have placed orders for Cirrus' new jet, and Radomsky said that even those who haven't are watching the company's development efforts with keen interest.

"Our members are diehard Cirrus fans, by and large," he said.

McDonald likened Cirrus to Harley-Davidson in terms of the sort of customer loyalty the company has inspired.

Klapmeier said Cirrus is committed not to building a super-fast jet, but rather one that's user-friendly and appealing to the kind of pilots who already fly piston-engine airplanes such as the Cirrus SR20 and SR22.

"We've designed the-jet to be the next step up from an SR22. It should be a logical progression," he said.

True to its promise, Cirrus will offer the first view of its jet mockup to those who have placed orders for the aircraft. These position-holders have all been issued security cards that will give them access to the secure area where the-jet will be placed on display Wednesday. The general public won't gain access to images of the-jet until Thursday.

Kate Dougherty, a Cirrus spokeswoman, expects Thursday coverage to include aviation press from the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, as well as domestic publications.

To stir anticipation, Cirrus has created a 36-piece jigsaw puzzle featuring a picture of the-jet, and it has been doling out these pieces individually to position-holders in the days leading up to the unveiling. As of Friday, just six pieces of the puzzle were missing, leaving the shape of the aircraft's tail a mystery.

The mockup will give people a sense of the-jet's cockpit, cabin and body design, but it won't fly yet.

Dougherty said the aircraft continues to be developed in secrecy by the company's Advanced Development Group -- known internally as "the moose works" -- a Northland take on the special project teams called "skunk works" by the likes of Lockheed Martin.

PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at ppassi@duluthnews.com

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