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My trip to AvGeek paradise: Visiting Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Center

Oct. 24, 2022
11 min read
plane at Cirrus
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Cruising at 25,000 feet above Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, I was fulfilling a lifelong bucket list item: sitting in the captain's seat of a jet. I was talking to air traffic control, monitoring the jet’s progress and manipulating the jet’s autopilot system. I did almost everything except actually perform the takeoff or landing of the aircraft, a Cirrus Vision Jet.

You might think there’s a catch to this — perhaps I was describing an experience in a full flight simulator.

The one-of-a-kind Cirrus Vision Jet full flight simulator. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

But nope, this was most certainly real life.

On final for runway 23L at McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

The flight capped off a day at what can best be described as an AvGeek paradise: a visit to Cirrus Aircraft’s Vision Center at the McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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Minnesota-based Cirrus is known for producing some of the best-selling general aviation aircraft on the market, and the manufacturer uses the Vision Center as its customer headquarters, where it performs aircraft deliveries and training. During the visit, I got the full experience: flying an SR20 simulator, experiencing an aircraft delivery, learning about how Cirrus works with customers to produce bespoke aircraft customizations and meeting the team that produces videos — instructional and promotional — for the company. And yeah, they let me fly the (real) plane too, a single-engine Cirrus Vision Jet.

Flying the (simulated) plane

Some of Cirrus' Audis at the Vision Center. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

After picking us up at our hotel in a sleek Audi Q8 — joining me was Mimi Wright, a colleague on TPG’s social media team — our guide for the day, Nadia Haidar, brought us to a simulator bay, where we spent an hour flying an SR20 fixed-base simulator around Knoxville. The SR20 is a single-engine piston propeller plane that helped catapult Cirrus to commercial success 25 years ago. It’s now the company’s entry-level model. Believe it or not, United Airlines is a recent customer for the training version of this model, deploying it to train the airline’s next generation of pilots at the United Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona.

A United Aviate Academy Cirrus SR20 in Goodyear, Arizona, in January. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Here, I actually did perform a simulated takeoff and landing as an instructor pilot coached me. Departing Knoxville’s runway 5R, I climbed to 4,500 feet, then performed some turns in the area, impressed at how responsive the aircraft was to my sidestick commands (Cirrus aircraft don’t use traditional control yokes; a sidestick is ergonomically similar to the joystick you’d use to play a video game). I capped off the flight with a simulated instrument approach, where we couldn’t see the runway until 500 feet above the ground. My landing won’t win any awards, but we made it in one piece.

At the controls of a simulated Cirrus SR20. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Then, Mimi took control, and she didn’t land the plane. Instead, we ended the flight with a (simulated) parachute deployment. Cirrus’ planes come with a Cirrus Airframe Parachute System system. If an aircraft is in danger, you can deploy a parachute that brings the plane to a landing similar to that of a space capsule. More than 250 lives have been saved thanks to a pilot’s deploying the CAPS when in danger, Cirrus says.

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Placards on the exterior of a Cirrus Vision Jet mentioning two safety systems: CAPS, and emergency autoland. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

The Vision Jet features another safety system: Garmin's Safe Return autoland, which, at the push of a button, will automatically find the nearest suitable airport, inform ATC of the plane's intentions and land the aircraft. It's designed to be used in case the Vision Jet's pilot becomes incapacitated.

More: Inside one of the world's cheapest and most efficient private jets

Delivery or dance party?

Our next stop was the delivery center.

Back in the Q8, we were driven a few hundred feet into a darkened hangar where a brand-new SR22T, the company’s high-performance single-engine piston plane, awaited us. We were there to see what an aircraft delivery was like.

These are boom times for the company, and aircraft production has a long lead time once an order is placed. Of course, customers are also sinking significant amounts of money into these planes, and a high degree of customization is available to allow owners to make the plane theirs. Some customers even purchase their planes as they’re first learning to fly.

A Cirrus SR22T GTS in the delivery hangar. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

So, it would be an understatement to say that these aircraft deliveries are emotional events for new owners — and the company wants to make the experience feel special.

Along with an impressive light show, the company will also play some of the customers’ favorite music for them. For us, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by the Rolling Stones was playing. (I felt like I was at a dance party — the only thing missing was a smoke machine.)

An SR22T GTS in the delivery hangar. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Once the lights come up, the new owners perform a walkaround acceptance inspection to check for any possible defects. The aircraft are built in Duluth, Minnesota, and a company pilot ferries them to Knoxville for delivery. Following that, a customer acceptance flight takes place, where customers make sure everything feels right. Then, the formal handover happens.

An SR22T GTS in the delivery hangar. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

The company does as many as six of these fancy deliveries per day, with additional aircraft being handed over more informally. Time in the delivery hangar is at a premium, the company said.

Bespoke customizations

For its deepest-pocketed customers, the company will customize its product line to their heart’s content through its Xi program.

We were shuttled to another building where we checked out the Xi design studio, a room full of different customization options.

Some of the customization options available for Cirrus Xi customers. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Different-colored rudder petals. Tail emblems and unique paint schemes. Even a picture of a piece of cheese embossed in the aircraft’s leather for a hardcore Green Bay Packers fan. It’s all part of the Xi process.

The Green Bay Packers Cirrus Xi customization. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Customers generally come to Cirrus with rough ideas about what they want and are paired with an account manager whose job it is to make those ideas a reality. The Xi process plays out over a few months and involves an in-person meeting with the Cirrus team — including dinner — which allows the team to get a good sense of a customer’s personality and what, exactly, will be the perfect customization for them.

Bespoke is the keyword here; I lost track of how many times that word was used during this part of the visit. Cirrus aims for its Xi aircraft to have just 10% commonality with other aircraft. In other words, the company wants each plane to feel unique – something the high degree of customization allows. Simultaneously, Cirrus is attempting to grow Xi while keeping its designs unique and special — which can be a challenge.

You can even customize your rudder pedals — something that most people won't see. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Even if you don't shell out the extra money for a special Xi design, Cirrus prides itself on having a product line that was designed around pilots and customer feedback. For example, some of Cirrus' seats feature built-in phone and headset holders.

A flight of a lifetime

We then met our pilot, Travis Wellik, for a flight on the Cirrus Vision Jet, Cirrus' unique single-engine jet. Travis is a flight instructor and about as skilled as Vision Jet pilots get, having developed the training program for the type, which began deliveries at the end of 2016.

A Cirrus Vision Jet. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Nadia mentioned that I'd be able to sit in the right seat of the Vision Jet G2+'s flight deck — a spot traditionally occupied by the first officer (though the aircraft doesn't need one; it's certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for single-pilot operations). Then, Travis arrived and sweetened the deal: he'd let me sit in the left seat — the captain's seat. I was over the moon.

I'm probably one of the biggest AvGeeks out there and had never flown a plane before. I do have countless hours of experience flying high-quality simulated aircraft on a home computer, and virtually communicating with air traffic control. I also hold an FAA aircraft dispatcher certificate.

The view was incredible! ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

All of that came in handy for this flight.

I offered to take on ATC communications for the flight, and after I copied and read back our flight plan clearance — typically one of the wordiest and most complex types of transmissions out there — I seemed to have earned Travis' trust. Under his watchful eye — yes, this was perfectly legal — he even let me taxi the jet to our departure runway.

The author in the left seat. MIMI WRIGHT/THE POINTS GUY

OK, I didn't actually fly the takeoff or landing. I left that to Travis. But I handled the radios, manipulated the autopilot, learned about the aircraft's systems and deviated around some storms, all while enjoying the view of the Smokies from 25,000 feet during our 45-minute flight. I very much felt like the pilot flying, even though Travis was our skillful pilot-in-command. I was in awe of the Vision Jet and how much automation is integral to it.

For our approach, we left the autopilot on until Travis took over at 500 feet.

In other words, I was pumped. Who else gets their first flying experience in a jet? The whole adventure wound me up for the rest of the day; I was on cloud nine. While I had been looking around at flight schools to begin training for my private pilot license, my day with Cirrus definitely has motivated me to make that happen sooner rather than later, encouraging me to start building hours.

It's a core strategy that Cirrus employs. By exposing non-pilots (who can afford to purchase or finance a plane, many of which sell for over $1 million) to their product line, the company hopes to not only inspire them to make a purchase but also to learn how to fly. The hope is that pilots will be licensed by the time their planes roll off the Duluth assembly line and arrive in Knoxville for the handover ceremony.

While I don't have any Cirrus purchases in mind for the near future, I can say definitively that the strategy works. I'm hooked.

Featured image by ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees