Although relatively new compared to other iconic aviation brands, any seasoned private pilot will likely be able to rattle off a few Cirrus airplanes that they’ve flown — likely an SR-20 or SR-22. But, for those new to the game, your knowledge may not be as extensive. n Since Cirrus has become one of the most important airplane manufacturers in the industry, and iconic in its own right, it’s in your best interest to learn a bit more about their background. Because, one day, you may likely find yourself in the pilot’s seat in one of these planes. With that being said, let’s take a look at Cirrus Aircraft, from the company’s humble founding on a family farm to the history of their planes, impact of their designs and how they’re transitioning toward the future.
The Founding Years of Cirrus
Even though today, Cirrus Aircraft is a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, their beginnings remain humble. In 1984, founding brothers Dale and Alan Klapmeier constructed what would be the first of many home-built kit airplanes, a pusher-propeller, five-passenger VK-30. But to understand the roots of this revolutionary company, you have to start the story much earlier than that.
Background of the Klapmeier Brothers
Raised in the rural but growing Chicago suburb of DeKalb, both Alan and Dale Klapmeier had a strong interest in aviation from a young age. From an Airport Journals interview, Alan even claimed that as a needy baby, “Mom said the only way she could get any peace was to drive out to the airport and sit at the end of the runway. I’d watch airplanes and stop crying.” As the two progressed into DeKalb High School, Dale learned to fly, even before hopping behind the wheel of a car (licensed, at least). He mastered his basic pilot courses in a Cessna 140, while his brother Alan joined the Civil Air Patrol at the young age of 17. Because the love of airplanes was a family affair -— with older brother Ernie an avid military equipment enthusiast and father Larry an owner of a Cessna and C-Skylane — the next natural step for the pair was to buy their own aircraft, a 1947 Cessna 140, which they slowly grew into. Shortly after, the two would embark to college, and although both knew they wanted to have a career in aviation, their degrees may not display that much; Dale graduated with degrees in business, finance and economics from Wisconsin’s Ripon College, while Alan studied physics and economics at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. It would be the latter brother who, in his senior year, first developed the outlines of what would soon become VK-30.
Background of the VK-30
Though the idea of the VK-30 was dreamt up in 1979, the Klapmeier Brothers started their first foray into the world of aircraft design when they purchased a Glasair kit plane at the 1980 Oshkosh Fly-In. It took four years, but in 1984, the brothers had completed their first flight in the newly built Glasair. This coincided with Dale’s graduation from Ripon College, who with his newly received degrees, built the initial business plans that would lead to the formation of Cirrus Design Corporation. The next step was to build an aircraft that people would want to buy. Thus, Alan dug up his old designs for the VK-30, a composite pusher-propeller airplane, which offered four to five seats. The design promoted an improved natural performance due to increased laminar flow over the fuselage, with a low-drag tail and wings. Plus, rather than have the engine in the front of the aircraft, they moved it to the middle, while repositioning the three-bladed prop and exhaust on the rear. It seemed they had found a path forward with this unique assembly. By 1985, they had acquired space in a barn on the family’s property, and began manufacturing the first components of the VK-30, the fuselage. Soon enough, they had the bones of the first Cirrus airplane, and a working prototype just a few years later. The brothers, along with friend Jeff Viken, formed Cirrus Aircraft Corporation, eventually becoming Cirrus Design Corporation in 1987. The same year, the VK-30 was introduced at AirVenture Oshkosh, and underwent its first official flight in 1988. Although the company delivered approximately 40 kits and introduced four additional prototypes, while making waves with a cover story in a 1990 issue of Aviation Week Magazine, the Klapmeier brothers had their sights set on something larger.
Although the VK-30 is no more, its legacy lives on in many ways — the most important of which is setting the foundation for what would become some of the highest-selling general aircraft of the last two decades.
Transition to the Future
Alan and Dale Klapmeier realized that the best path forward for the growth of Cirrus Design Corporation was to discontinue production of the VK-30 kit airplane in 1993 and focus on gaining FAA certification through a new model of aircraft.
Background of the Cirrus SR-20
With a move from Wisconsin to Duluth, the Klapmeiers set out to build an airplane that redefined general aviation, with higher performance, easier operation, better comfort and improved safety. Thus, they began work on what would soon become the Cirrus SR-20. Reworking the basis of the VK-30, a new design simplified the layout with more conventional wings, body and tail. With this, the first SR-20 was first flown in 1995 and FAA certified in late 1998, and started selling the following year. Because of their revolutionary parachute emergency system known as CAPS (Cirrus Airframe Parachute System), a quick cruising speed of 155 knots and its first-in-class dual flight displays, this plane became a major player in the small aircraft industry almost overnight. The SR-20’s technology was transformative among the aviation community, which was attractive to both veteran and new pilots alike. Its popularity led Cirrus to draw up plans for other models within the Self Reciprocating series, perhaps most importantly the upgraded SR-22, the most-produced airplane of the 21st century, accounting for over 30 percent of the entire piston aircraft market. Other models within the SR series include the SRV, and SR22T, offering their own special amenities and capabilities.
The SR-20 and SR-22 continue to be some of the best selling airplanes of the 2000s, but Cirrus has ventured into other designs and technologies. For instance, in the early naughts, the company introduced the first full-glass cockpit Primary Flight Display (PFD). And, their recent venture into lighter aircraft came to fruition in 2016, with the introduction of the Vision SF50 very light jet, the first civilian single-engine jet to enter the market.Today, now known simply as Cirrus Aircraft, the company remains one of the most significant manufacturers in the industry, and the maverick-like spirit of the Klapmeier brothers still runs deep throughout every airplane they design.