Going Direct: A Legacy Of A Different Kind, Cirrus Welcomes A New Leader And Farewell To A Co-Founder

Dale Klapmeier
Dale Klapmeier. Photo by Cirrus

This summer, Cirrus Aircraft announced that CEO Dale Klapmeier would be retiring from the leadership of the company he co-founded and that he has helped guide for 20 years. Cirrus is the world leader in the light personal transportation aircraft market, and for good reason. The SR22 is a beautiful, comfortable and utilitarian ride that incorporates the best in new technology seamlessly. The SF50 Vision Jet is the world’s only civilian single-engine jet in production, and it’s arguably an even better plane than the SR22, which is saying a lot.

In years to come, we’ll look at Cirrus’ history of leadership in this arena and finally get it. Despite considerable friction from old-school elements in aviation, the company was able to create a new sales paradigm by selling very high-end aircraft to people who had the means to buy them despite not necessarily having the experience to fly high-performance singles.

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At AirVenture, I got the chance to spend the better part of an hour getting to know the new guy, Zean (pronounced just like “Sean”) Nielsen. His background is in other industries, most notably the electric mobility segment—he was a big ideas guy at Tesla. And he knows his stuff about electrics, which is a handy knowledge base these days in aviation, too.  

He also understands the need for players in this industry to be able to walk the walk, which is done in aviation by getting one’s wings and flying. He’s already working on his ticket. No one comes into an aviation company from other sectors and says, “Who would want to learn to fly?” or anything remotely like that, but I got the distinct impression that Nielsen will do more than take a few lessons.

Of course, the heart of a leader isn’t measured in sound bites but in how they run the show, and that’s accomplished day to day, one interaction, one personal investment with colleagues, customers and suppliers at a time over many years. You need attention to detail, because even seemingly little details matter ultimately in aviation. And you need to work alongside your people, the ones who are assembling part by part, component by component, the machines that define a company’s success. You also need to build relationships with those who educate your customers, as well as the people who take care of them after they buy the plane. All of it matters.

Time will tell how Nielsen writes that script, but if first impressions are to be trusted, he seems like a great hire.

Cirrus Aircraft is a different kind of company, too. It’s foreign owned, which is common in today’s aviation marketplace, but you’d never know it. Even after years of ownership by an outside hand, the company still operates the same way it did before, by all outward appearances, anyway. So Job One for Nielsen is to listen. The people at the company know it better than anyone. Besides, aviation is unlike any other pursuit. There are so many things about what we do that don’t make immediate sense to non-pilots, everything from stalls to chutes, that to truly understand our market, you need to listen to pilots and owners, too. We’re the ones who live with the products.   

The Farewell Part

At AirVenture, on the night before the show started, I stopped by the Cirrus Aircraft pre-show party to say hi and wish departing Cirrus leader and co-founder Dale Klapmeier a fond retirement.

By all accounts from folks who know him well, he’s already enjoying stepping back a little. He deserves it.

I’ve known Dale for a long time. I met him and his brother Alan at AOPA Las Vegas in the early 1990s when I had a chance to fly the company’s VK30 kitplane model. It wasn’t yet Cirrus Aircraft but, rather, Cirrus Design, and the VK-30 was the company’s only model, a kitplane to boot. If you’re wondering what happened to it…well, it was a bundle of cool ideas bonded together to make a really fast flying ball of risk. At some point when the brothers Klapmeier realized the big idea wasn’t the airplane but the company, they wisely moved on from the VK-30 and focused on a new lineup of more conventional-looking Part 23 planes. They, of course, would become the SR20 and SR22.

From Day One, I realized that this was a special company, one that had actual, identifiable DNA. That strand of belief integrated commitments to innovation, technology, sleek style and safety. Of course, I had no idea if they’d make it. Aviation history is littered knee-deep with companies that had great ideas and never made it past the design phase.

But Cirrus did. They somehow got the SR20 certified, and it was an immediate hit. The SR22 followed shortly thereafter, and everybody soon figured it was the real deal, a sense that subsequent chart-topping sales figures have borne out.

Safety came later, and only after the company was forced to up its game following a spate of accidents and vocal criticism from a number of directions, including pilots who thought that the company had relied too much on the chute—all Cirrus aircraft have an integrated whole-airplane recovery parachute system, which Cirrus calls “CAPS” for Cirrus Airframe Parachute System.

Cirrus surprised everyone not by stepping back from the chute as a means toward safety but by doubling down on it, incorporating into the checklist a number of chute-specific checks and call-outs. The idea behind it was this. Even with a well-trained pilot in the left seat and a bevy of high-tech safety systems, planes crash. Cirrus was out to prevent every one of those crashes and every injury and fatality associated with them by better training pilots on when and how to pull the big red handle.

Since its decision to rethink its training approach, Cirrus has developed a culture of safety that could be a model for many other companies. It’s not the only company with a world-class approach to cutting risk, it’s true, but in this segment, high-performance singles and very light jets, Cirrus is the leader.

Dale and Alan Klapmeier each brought a special world-class set of skills to their leadership at the company. Alan, a brilliant and charismatic thought leader, was the face of the company for more than a decade. He departed Cirrus years ago, when it was purchased by CAIGA, and Dale remained with steady hand to guide the company to where it is today.

His legacy will be lasting. And a big part of that record is the fact that Dale knows how to get things done. He’s not alone in that. But here’s the part that is extraordinary. He got things done while empowering his employees, who were always his colleagues, too, making them a part of the success. It was never about Dale winning. It was always about everyone winning. That’s real legacy

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Going Direct: Huge Questions For Aviation In NTSB Final Report On Embry-Riddle Crash

Embry Riddle Crash
A photo from the scene of the crash shows the separated left wing in the foreground, and main wreckage in the background. Photo courtesy of the NTSB

When the wing of an airplane separates in flight, it gets people’s attention. So last year, when the left wing of a Piper Arrow came off of an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University training plane, it was big news, not only because it’s a horrifying scenario over which the pilots had no control, but also because everyone wanted answers. The 30-page final report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) not only goes into the minutiae of how it happened but asks bigger questions about how we think of training and training aircraft.

On April 4, 2018, two were killed in a crash of a Piper Arrow retractable-gear single-engine trainer that happened during a commercial certificate FAA checkride in Daytona Beach, Florida. The immediate cause of the crash was obvious from the start. The left wing of the Arrow separated in flight, causing the Arrow to immediately go out of control and crash. The failure was catastrophic and unrecoverable. The two who died in the crash were the commercial pilot applicant, Zach Capra, 25, a private pilot at the time of the crash, and the pilot examiner, John Azma, 61, who was an ATP.

The Board released an update on the investigation a couple of weeks after the crash. In the release, it shared photographs of the wing structure that had failed due to fatigue cracking. The plane, a 2007 PA28R Piper Arrow, had a lot of time on it for an 11 year old plane, 7,662 hours, but that is not uncommon in a training environment. The plane had gotten an inspection about 30 flight hours before the accident flight.

You can read the report here.

I won’t go into the metallurgical, aerodynamic or physics data in detail that the NTSB gets into, but in short, the report asks this question: Do airplanes utilized in the training environment get subjected to more abuse than those used for personal flying?

The answer they arrived at, in conjunction with Piper, is yes. Why that’s so is a complex calculus, one that’s open to differing approaches and interpretations, but in short, the conclusion is that trainers get more and stronger loads than their non-trainer counterparts. To most pilots, that never seemed like a big deal. We know that planes are built with plenty of margin over the certificated load factors for every component and system. So if a plane gets landed, a maneuver well within the plane’s capability, thank goodness, what does it matter if it gets landed 100 times instead of seven times?

Fractured Spar
Close view of the fracture surfaces in the left-wing main spar lower cap. Unlabeled
arrows indicate fatigue origin areas and dashed lines indicate approximate fatigue boundaries

The conclusion the NTSB reached, and this is a big deal, is that it matters a lot, over time that is. Here’s the Board’s statement of probable cause:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: Extensive fatigue cracking in the left-wing main spar lower cap and doublers, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the left wing. The fatigue cracks initiated and grew to a critical size due to flight and ground loads associated with flight-training involving flight-training maneuvers, significant operation at low altitudes and frequent landing cycles. Previously established inspection criteria were insufficient to detect the fatigue crack before it grew to a critical size.

What precisely the FAA will choose to do with this information remains to be seen, but it’s likely that more and more involved inspections on training aircraft, especially their wing spars, will be mandated at some point.

But more than that, it’s likely that from now on everyone will be looking more closely at the differences between the punishment personal use planes get compared to trainers, and how we address those differences in terms of design, manufacture, maintenance and operations going forward. That is a lot.

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Going Direct: Why So Many Plane Crashes?

Young pilot and veteran instructor
A young pilot found themselves in a tough situation when flying with a veteran instructor.

I sometimes hear non-aviation folk asking aloud why pilots “like reading about crashes so much?”

In late June 2019, a Beechcraft King Air 350 crashed on takeoff at Addison Airport, seven miles north of Dallas Love Field. The two pilots and all eight passengers perished in the crash. The NTSB is investigating and is months away from issuing a statement of probable cause. But accidents of this type—an apparent loss of control on takeoff—are most often the result of the loss of power in one of the engines at a high angle of attack and resultant roll into the good engine and into the ground, or in this case, into the side of a hangar.

That day, I covered the story on and for our eNews twice-weekly newsletter. Many thousands of people clicked on the link to read it.

All of this is to say that, yes, we report on aircraft accidents. Like us, competing magazine brands do, as well. I know the numbers on these stories, too. They’re historically the best-read articles in the magazine, and they’re closely followed on digital media, as well.

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But why are they so…popular, though I use the term advisedly. We pilots don’t “like” reading about accidents. In fact, the extreme opposite is true. We read them despite the fact that they’re often very hard to read. It’s virtually impossible to explain to non-pilots just how devastating it can be for us to read about aviation accidents. Even if we didn’t know the people involved, and we seldom do know them personally, we have hundreds of friends just like them. It’s a good bet, in fact, that we’re very much like them, as well. We read these stories in part to honor the experience of the pilots who were lost or injured in these accidents.

There’s another arguably more important reason. It’s hard to articulate it to non-pilots, but here we go. We read about accidents in order to come to a better, more nuanced understanding of the potential or likely causes, so we might formulate and update a personal safety plan to cut our risk in this inherently risky activity that we love so dearly.

From personal experience, I know this works. Many years ago shortly after I went to work at a large aviation publication, I started flying a lot, 150-250 hours a year, in single-engine piston planes. I was a new instrument-rated pilot, and most of my flying was for one of two purposes—for business transportation and family travel. At the time, I was working with legendary aviation journalist Richard Collins, and I had gone down to visit Richard for a story we were doing on used airplanes. He knew a guy with a beautifully restored Cessna 170. As we were pulling Richard’s Cessna P-210 out of his hangar at Hagerstown, Md., to go meet his friend at a nearby grass strip runway, we got to talking about how my flying was going. I told him that I was doing pretty well with it, but I had two big concerns: icing and thunderstorms. In his famously laconic way, he replied simply that, “Those are pretty good concerns to have.” The message was clear. Keep your ears open and keep learning.

And I did. Over the past many years, my understanding of the web of safety, for lack of a better term, has changed continuously as I’ve read, watched, listened and learned. And I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the best mentors in the business, in the history of the business, really.

GA Safety Culture

Around the same time that Richard Collins validated my concerns about my personal flying, we were also at the beginning of a much needed sea change in the way we looked at aviation safety, focusing on how we can prevent the kinds of accidents that made up most of the FAA docket on any given day.

Over the years, the FAA—chief regulator of all things with wings—has viewed safety chiefly from a punitive perspective. Their operative mission was always to find out who did what and, once that was determined, arrive at how best to assign blame and punishment. Of course, they also worked to educate pilots, but their efforts, as well as the best attempts of general aviation education organizations, did little to move the safety needle.

A file photo of a Short Brothers Tucano Mk 2 turboprop single-engine fighter trainer. It was the model that famed Hollywood composer James Horner was flying when he crashed while maneuvering at low level around rising terrain in Southern California in 2015.

A few years ago I had the chance to visit with the people with the United States Air Force Safety Center, headquartered in Albuquerque, N. M. The command isn’t well known. In fact, before I visited I was only remotely aware of its existence, and even then only because of its accident investigation lab, an outdoor site with multiple aircraft crash sites that the USAF put together in order to teach its personnel how to investigate mishaps. Every week a new class of investigators arrives in Albuquerque for training in mishap investigation. The use of the lab is only a part of the training. The larger part is coming to understand the mission, a mission, I should add, that we in the civil aviation world have benefitted from a great deal over the years. The gains have not been in improved investigation but in informing how we think about accidents. The idea is to look at them as events to help us prevent accidents instead of as events that trigger an investigation. The latter approach has more in common with a crime probe than a safety mission and, as such, focuses on the accident from exactly the wrong perspective.

Some wildly successful civil programs are modeled after the Air Force’s harm reduction paradigm. The Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) program, an FAA-airlines partnership, monitors flight recorder data to spot risky trends. NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System emphasizes data over enforcement by giving pilots a self-reporting system that will help stop problems that previously pilots hid for fear of, as pilots say, “getting violated.” 

So how to explain the widespread coverage of, and interest in, aviation mishaps? The word, I know, sounds strange at first. “Mishap” seems an intentional effort to downplay the seriousness of what we’d normally refer to as “accidents” or “crashes,” but it’s not that at all. The Air Force uses the term to underscore that there’s nothing accidental about the incident. Mishaps, in its view, are complex events that require a careful analysis into what happened, how it happened, and how it can be prevented in the future. The idea is not to assign blame, but to fix the problem with the goal of keeping Air Force personnel alive and safe from harm.

In this way the Safety Center helped change the Air Force’s culture of safety for the better.

That’s what is going on in our neck of the woods, as well. We’re late to the game, but at least we’re in it now, and the great news is that we’re making progress. And when it comes to aviation mishaps, “progress” is measured in lives saved.

Show Off Your Flying Photos

If you like taking photographs of airplanes, and who doesn’t, why not show your skills in Plane & Pilot’s kickoff photo contest, which begins in September 2019? There’s no entry fee for this contest, and the winner will be eligible for great prizes. 

The theme for this first contest is Your Flying World, and if you’re thinking that’s a pretty broad category, you’re right. We want to encourage as many of our readers as possible to enter this first contest. If it’s flying related and you care about it, then we’d love for you to give it your best shot.

Serving as judges for the contest will be myself along with a couple of famed aviation photographers. Steve Zimmermann, whose incredible work we shared with you (July 2019) in our Air-to-Ground II feature story. Our second guest judge is none other than Jim Koepnick, the famed aviation photographer whose brilliant work you’ve seen in aviation magazines far and wide. It’s one of Jim’s shots that graces the cover of this month’s issue, as well. Between the three of us, we’ve got nearly 100 years of professional aviation photography experience and many hundreds of magazine covers to our credit.

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Going Direct: Why NBC’s Coverage Of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Crash NTSB Report Should Embarrass Them

NBC screencap
A screenshot of NBC’s coverage of the NTSB preliminary report about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s plane crash.

Details of the initial investigation into the crash of a Cessna Citation Latitude carrying Dale Earnhardt and his family have begun to come out. This is good, as we’ve been able to get the basic facts behind the mishap, the where, when who and what. That’s really all an NTSB preliminary report is:  a basic outline of the facts. What it isn’t is a conclusion. Such first reports by investigators specifically leave out any mention of a cause. And there’s a good reason for that. The investigators don’t know why what they’re seeing on the ground happened. That is, after all, the point of an investigation. And if the feds decide to blame anyone or anything, they’ll wisely wait until they’ve had a lot of time to consider all the details.

So when I read yesterday on that the NTSB had named a suspected cause of the Earnhardt crash, I knew it wasn’t true. But I only knew that because, well, because I do. I’ve been writing about aviation accidents for a long time. And I’m a pilot. The person who wrote that report can clearly claim neither.

Granted, aviation is complicated. If any of us pilots were at any point in our flying careers unsure of this, we were convinced in primary training with details such as, in order to steer a plane, you use the “gas and brake pedals” and not the “steering wheel.” It’s a humbling process—to unlearn so much that seems obvious and accept that aviation is unimaginably complex. To ask someone with no aviation experience and limited knowledge of it to understand that is wishful thinking. 

So I like to give non-aviation types some leeway when I see their coverage. But I can be tolerant of their misunderstanding only to the point where it becomes blatant misinformation.

Such was the case when I saw NBC’s story on the NTSB preliminary report on the Earnhardt Cessna Latitude overrun crash in Tennessee on August 15th, I was immediately drawn to one word: “malfunction.” Indeed, the headline was that the “NTSB Says That Mechanical Malfunction Contributed To Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Crash.”

Great headline. There’s only one problem. The NTSB’s report doesn’t say that and investigators surely don’t believe it (though they will keep an open mind on the subject, I’m sure).

So how did get to “malfunction,” a word not used in the short NTSB report? I have two guesses, ignorance of basic aviation concepts being central to both.

My first guess was that the report mentions in passing that the pilots said the plane didn’t respond to their attempt to take off again following the second bounce of the bad landing. As pilots we know, the pilot’s comments don’t necessarily represent a set of facts. Why the plane didn’t respond as expected is at this point mystery, and experience says that it very likely has to do with the pilots’ perceptions and misunderstanding of the position they were in at the time rather than anything to do with the airplane performing unexpectedly. The preliminary report really only says what the pilots said and doesn’t in any way weigh in on whether there’s anything to it.

But the reason that arrived at the word “malfunction” in its reading of the NTSB’s description is surely that investigators reported that the right main gear of the Cessna Citation Latitude collapsed on the third reunion with runway. Now, landing gear is surely not meant to collapse, so when it did, I can only presume the writer must have imagined that it was a “malfunction.”

We know that it wasn’t. Might it have been a malfunction? I guess, but it’s really unlikely. By far the most likely scenario is that it broke due to the forces of that last bounce that turned into a skid across the airport boundary. Calling that a malfunction is as silly as saying the wing of the jet “malfunctioned” when it hit the runway after the gear collapsed. Almost certainly, both did all that could have been asked of them under the circumstances, and to call it a “malfunction” is an aspersion against the manufacturer, in this case, Textron Aviation. Landing gear can’t be made to never break. Its matter, and the forces involved in the crash of an aircraft, are staggeringly powerful. In this case, the landing gear leg was no match for it.

That’s obvious to us pilots, and it should’ve been to the writer who chose to use it. I can only presume that the assumptions that went into the choice are as unfortunate as the choice of the word itself. That assumption is all too common in today’s world. Its central premise is that all products should be able to withstand any degree of use or misuse and that their failure to do so means that it malfunctioned, or worse.

Don’t get me wrong. Products can malfunction. But the NTSB made no such claim about the landing gear leg of the Citation in the mishap and almost certainly never will. Sometimes in life, things break for reasons better explained by how they’re used than how they’re designed or constructed.

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Going Direct: Not So Fast: Do Small Plane Pilots Make A Deal With The Devil?

Small plane

A recent story on the webzine Air Facts Journal characterized the decision we pilots of small planes make as being a deal made with the devil.

Without ruining a good read for you, the story by former Flying and Sport Aviation editor Mac McClellan (you can find it here) discusses the difference between transport category jets and Part 23 planes, and the observations he makes are undeniably true. In fact, our entire certification paradigm is built on the concept that standards for planes designed to carry lots of passengers are going to be a lot more stringent than little four seaters. Everything from the level of software certification to the degree of redundancy is more demanding for transport planes, which leaves less chance for error and less reliance on dumb luck to keep the crew and passengers in one piece.

And, as Mac points out, it has worked. Accidents at the airlines are so rare it’s hard to remember when the last crash of a U.S. passenger plane operated by a major airline even occurred. The uncontained engine breach of Southwest Airlines earlier this year resulted in the death of one passenger, but you’d have to go back to Colgan Flight 3407, a commuter plane that crashed in Buffalo 10 years ago, killing 50, to find a crash of a U.S.-operated airliner (a turboprop, not a jet) with multiple fatalities. Flying the airlines is almost inconceivably safe. The drive to the airport is truly a much greater risk.

One risk that remains is the loss of two engines on a big jet. Strangely, in his piece, Mac mentioned the controlled crash of U.S. Airways 1549 into the Hudson in 2009 as a once-in-a-lifetime occasion…only to have the exact same thing happen to a Ural Airways Airbus A321 days after the Air Facts Journal piece was published! And for the past week, we’ve seen dozens of people floating the idea of redesigning engines so they’d survive such multiple-birdstrike incidents—which is how airline flying keeps getting safer. We learn from our mistakes. And it should be noted that in neither accident was anyone killed. 

When we fly our single-engine airplanes, even turboprop- powered ones or single-pilot approved light jets, are we giving away a lot of safety? Yes, we are. Your chances of getting hurt or killed in a small plane are far, far greater than if you were flying the airlines, and your safety in a light jet is far greater than in a small piston-powered single.

That all said, things are changing, and that’s not because the devil is being kind these days, but because we’ve made progress in finding ways to make our flying safer, despite the fact we’re still working under the same limitations—one engine, limited redundancy, one crew member with no professional certification required. For that improvement, we can thank the advent of small, light and affordable digital technology, and improvements in user interfaces and the proliferation of affordable safety systems, everything from runway safety utilities to collision avoidance gear. This has advanced to the point where pilots of light planes have extremely affordable and capable flight control gear available for their planes, some of them featuring advanced-envelope protection that can keep the pilots out of trouble should they begin to lose control, or even consciousness.

And let’s not forget the incorporation of the whole-airplane parachute recovery system by Cirrus Aircraft in all of its planes, even its jet, and by just about every LSA maker in the world.

And we’re just seeing the beginning of all of this. New, affordable and even better technologies will emerge, and they will continue to drive down accident numbers.

Combine this with greatly improved training philosophy, including an emphasis on aeronautical decision making, and you get a compelling array of safety technologies and methodologies working together, sometimes by design, to make our flying safer.

Will flying small planes ever be as safe as flying the airlines? Not even close. But we’re tackling safety in ways our grandparents couldn’t have imagined and at price points that I still have a hard time believing.

So if we really are making a deal with the devil when we go flying in small planes, then the old goat’s hand is getting weaker and weaker, and our odds are growing better by the year. 

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