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: B-17 Crash Ignites Warbird Controversy

Photo by Everett Historical/Shutterstock

The crash last week of Boeing B-17 Nine-O-Nine that killed seven people, including both pilots, has sparked a reaction among both friends and foes of warbirds. In my piece last week about the unfortunate and, to be honest, largely ignorant commentary by non-experts on the crash, I laid out my views. In this case especially, we pilots need to just shut up and wait for the NTSB report, which will in all likelihood take a year to complete.

To be honest, it wasn’t the ignorance of the type and the skills it takes to fly the B-17 that set me off. Lord knows, my knowledge of that spectacular aircraft is scant. It was the fact that a number of commenters believed that they knew precisely what they would have done in that instance to save the day. And they actually said so online while still not knowing what happened. Do they have any idea how complex an aircraft the Flying Fortress is? I could go on but won’t.

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Instead, let’s discuss another infuriating trend in the aftermath of the crash of Nine-O-Nine—the call to in various ways more heavily regulate warbirds.

Ignorant commenters on the tragedy are in good company, as United States Senator Richard Blumenthal wasted no time in calling for a review of the exemption that the FAA granted the Collings Foundation to be able to fly the B-17 with paying passengers.  He also wondered aloud why such planes aren’t required to be equipped with “black boxes,” by which we’re guessing he means flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs).

Depending on the state of federal regulations at the time a commercial aircraft is certificated, flight data recorders capture a handful to hundreds of flight parameters. In order to do this, they need to be equipped in airplanes “smart” enough to be able to “talk” to the recorder. It’s for this reason that commercial airliners of a certain size that were built in, let’s say 1990, that are still flying, are only made to meet the requirements that were in place when they were originally approved. So, not only was the Boeing B-17 not equipped with a flight data recorder, but it wasn’t required to be, and it couldn’t accommodate an FDR if it were mandated. You’d have to redesign and rebuild the airplane from scratch. So that’s why, Senator.

His other point, that we need to look at exemptions granted to warbirds to carry paying passengers, is actually well taken, although he seems to misunderstand the very nature of that issue, as well.

The Collings Foundation, among many other historic aircraft and warbird conservationists, get an exemption from the FAA to carry passengers and charge them for the ride based not on how the aircraft is certificated, as he seems to suggest, but on how the organization cares for the planes, how its pilots are vetted and trained, and how safe their operations are. It has nothing to do with how those planes were certificated in the first place because, surprise, Senator, they weren’t. They were built for the war effort in order to pave the way for our ultimate invasion of Nazi Germany. Their design wasn’t predicated upon the safety of the people flying aboard, but on the plane’s ability to perform a mission, which was to drop a lot of bombs on Germany to bring the rogue nation to its knees, which it did.

Warbirds should be flown and not prettied up and put on a post somewhere (though I’m not opposed to doing that when the circumstances demand). Preservation is the key. These machines are masterpieces of design and historic mileposts in the history of aviation and the history of the modern world.

But part of that preservation is to keep them flying, which organizations like the Collings Foundation and the Commemorative Air Force and EAA, all do, to their great credit, I might add.

Should the people who pay to fly on these old planes be apprised that they’ll be flying on an aircraft that in terms of safety features wasn’t built to airliner standards, thank goodness? And should they be told that flying on these incredible historic artifacts a few times around the patch is riskier than flying on an Airbus to Burbank?

The answer to both of those questions is a qualified “yes,” the qualification being that they already are informed of that fact and sign on the dotted line that they have been so informed.

Why do they sign anyways? You and I know the answer to this question in our bones. It’s why we fly. Senator Blumenthal, on the other hand, seems to be at sea on this one as he works to protect people from their own wishes and dreams.

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Going Direct: How People Are Talking About The B-17 Crash At Bradley Airport

Earnest “Mac” McCauley and David Volpat
Earnest “Mac” McCauley, the pilot who perished in the crash of a Boeing B-17 bomber earlier this week. To Mac’s right is fellow Collings Foundation pilot David Volpat, who died in the crash of the Northrop Flying Wing in California earlier this year.

The emotions surrounding the crash of the Collings Foundation Boeing B-17 are still raw as I write. Every airplane crash is one crash too many, but some just get to me. This is one that has. And I didn’t even know any of the people aboard the WWII-era bomber, at least not directly. No matter—the aviation universe is so small that are only one or two degrees of separation between us all.

I didn’t know the pilot of the B-17, Mac McCauley, but I have dozens of friends who did. And while I’ve never flown on the Collings’ B-17, I’ve flown on and flown more than a few warbirds, and I have the ultimate respect for the talent, dedication and commitment to safety that these men and women have. If there are any of these pilots, many of who are volunteers, who don’t measure up to that standard, I have yet to fly with them.

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In 2014, Plane & Pilot published an article about the Collings Foundation, an organization with dozens of planes and many, many pilots, but in it, we happened to feature McCauley.

“About the big Boeing he flew, he said, ‘The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane,’ McCauley answers when asked about flying this piece of history. ‘But, it’s so big that it’s like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track,’ he laughs. He explains that the bomber is heavy on the controls because all the linkages are mechanical. There are no hydraulics to assist the pilot. ‘It’s all cables, so it’s slow on the controls.’ And, the trickiest part of flying the B-17? ‘It doesn’t like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.’ McCauley adds that there are three other pilots that fly the iconic bomber, though he spends some 300 days touring with the airplane as a volunteer pilot. ‘I realize how lucky I am,’ says McCauley, ‘and it is an honor to fly it.’”

According to the piece, McCauley had more hours in B-17s than any pilot in history, more than 5,000 as of 2014, a total he surely added to in the intervening five years. From his friends on Facebook, I learned that Mac liked good coffee and would visit the local animal shelters when he was on the road, to walk the dogs, because he missed not having one with him as he traveled on Collings’ nationwide flying tours.

So when people talk about what the pilot should have done differently, I get red. These are people who have never flown a B-17 or any big warbird for that matter. I’d rather they keep their mouths shut. When they weigh in on how a pilot flying this kind of plane should’ve responded, they’re not only showcasing their ignorance, but insulting people they didn’t know a thing about on a subject about which they know just as little. Pilots are sometimes guilty of acting as though they know everything about every facet of aviation. We don’t. Sometimes we need to shut up and listen. Practice respect.

On a different but related subject, yes, it’s sad that a great old warbird, the B-17 known as Nine-O-Nine, is gone. Is it irreplaceable? It’s not. But even if it were, that wouldn’t matter much. This is not about the loss of a plane. It’s about the loss of the people aboard that plane, people your friends or friends of friends knew, perhaps knew well. And it’s about those passengers that almost none of us knew, non-pilots for the most part—men and women who were going on the kind of flight they’d probably dreamed of making for years.

It’s that gulf between dreams like those and the reality of crashes like this that hit so hard. That flying can in one instant breathe the wonder into our souls and in the very next moment crush it. It’s not fair. But it’s the way it is.

The thing to do next is simple. Go flying. I can’t explain why exactly, but it’s the right thing to do in times like this. And while you’re out there, wag wing for those flown west.  


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Going Direct: People Are Saying They’ll Stop Flying To Save The Planet

Jet Emissions
Contrails. Photo by pinta.t.s/Shutterstock

I just got finished reading a piece on by self-described futurist Blake Morgan, and it was an eye opener. Many people, she says, are declining to travel by plane because it uses too much fossil fuel. Moreover, she points out that globally in 30 years, aviation is slated to contribute 25% of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. She even shares that there’s a word in Swedish—flygskam—which I do not know how to pronounce, that Swedes use to describe their shame over flying. She uses as her source material an article on that one in four Swedes have chosen not to fly over the past year.

Sweden, bear in mind, is a relatively small country with a good rail and ferry system. The choice Swedes have to make between traveling by rail and flying is a much different choice than most people in the world are faced with. I live in Austin, Texas, a large city about 200 miles south of Dallas, Texas. If there were decent high-speed rail between Austin and Dallas, would I choose train over plane? I would. Austin to Kansas City? No, thanks. And if we work my personal plane into the equation, my calculus changes. Truth is, I’d fly a 50-mile trip if it took me a 50-mile round-trip drive to do it. In fact, I’ve done it more times than I can count.

The choice by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, an eco-activist from Stockholm, to travel by sailboat to the United States to address the UN General Conference was a publicity stunt, a really successful one, I might add. But the thought of returning to sailing vessels instead of jets, and ditching our cars for bikes and road trucking for, I don’t know, teams of oxen, is a childish notion.

But the wishful thinking is only the beginning. Morgan goes on to say that “zero- emissions planes could soon replace traditional fuel-powered airplanes to drastically cut back on air pollution,” a statement she makes in the paragraph following a list of bullet points in which she points out, last on the list, that in order for this to happen both “batteries and regulations need to improve.” The regulations part is a mystery to me. Experience shows that when they build it, the regulations will come. Think drones and cheap autopilots.

Along the way, Morgan points to successful experiments with an electrically powered plane, seemingly as proof that electrics are on the horizon. I wish she had taken some time to understand what’s really going on with those planes. They are extreme experimental machines, designed to be exceptionally light and low in drag. Even with millions in engineering to achieve those results, they can fly for barely an hour. And these are very light planes that in no way resemble anything that could be certificated, never mind carry paying passengers. I’m hopeful we have passenger carrying four-seat airplanes in 10 years. Airliners? I think not.

Weight in airplanes is everything. In planes designed to carry paying passengers, it’s more than everything. That’s why the improvement of engine technology to provide better than 30% improvement in fuel efficiency and an even greater reduction percentage wise in emissions over the past three decades is big news, news that Morgan seems unaware of or chooses not to mention. And her claim that aviation emissions have increased leaves out the reason for the increase—that more people have the means to travel by air, so there’s more flying. But it is being done in far more fuel-efficient planes than ever before, a trend that continues.

Morgan’s brief note about batteries, however, could have been, I’d say, should have been, the main subject of the piece. Yes, if battery storage capacity improves to rival that of jet fuel, or even be in the same conversation, then yes, I agree, we “could soon have” zero-emissions airliners. But if I were calling myself a “futurist,” as Morgan does, I’d rather focus on where were are now and how far we have to go.

So what is the difference between the energy density of today’s batteries and that of jet fuel? The fossil fuel is 50 times more energy dense. Morgan claims that predictions are for battery energy density to improve threefold in 10 years, a claim I’m doubtful of, but let’s say it’s true. And let’s say that in those 10 years, jet engines get 10% more energy efficient, a modest prediction considering that ,with fleet replacement, more efficient planes will push relative fuel hogs out of the picture in large numbers over the next decade. Batteries won’t be gaining on fossil fuel at all. And while engine efficiency improvements are fact, the idea of improving battery capacity is based more on hope than on science.

I hope it happens, too. But I wouldn’t base a prediction for how our aviation future will play out based on a dream of a spectacular scientific breakthrough when even tiny improvements in battery capacity are hard fought.

As pilots of small planes could we, if we really wanted to, defend our use of fossil fuels to do what we love? Not really. But we can reassure ourselves with the knowledge that our impact is incredibly small. Relative to cars and buses, small planes represent a tiny fraction of 1% of the impact to the environment. For some planes, that impact is comparable to driving a big SUV.

I have little shame in admitting that while Swedes might be victims of flygskam, the term I use for my guilt over flying is a different one: “toperoff.”

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Going Direct: Explosive New York Times Story Lays Blame For Boeing 737 Max Crashes

A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8
A Boeing 737 Max 8 similar to the one seen here was involved in the deadly crash of Lion Air 610 in October of 2018. Photo by PK-REN from Jakarta, Indonesia [CC BY-SA 2.0].

This week, the New York Times published a remarkable story by aviation writer William Langewiesche that details the horrific crash of Lion Air 610, a crash that killed all 189 aboard the Boeing 737 Max. After the similar crash of Ethiopian Airlines 302 that killed 157, regulators worldwide grounded the 737 Max amid concerns that a new system called MCAS had failed, resulting in uncontrollable runaway trim that doomed the two airliners and all 346 souls aboard the two.

From the start, the discussion of what caused the crashes has been a polarized one. On one hand, the design of MCAS was poorly thought out and rushed through both design and certification. Boeing and the FAA are being grilled by a Congressional committee about this process, though at this point what will come of the probe remains to be seen.

On the other hand, many pilots disagree that MCAS is ultimately to blame, regardless of what the investigations determine. That system, which automatically trims the airplane nose-down to overcome what the angle-of-attack sensors are saying is an aerodynamic stall, will trim at regular intervals and high-speed until the trim is fully nose down and impossible for pilots to outmuscle.

The problem that these pilots have with the “blame MCAS” mentality is that the automated stability system is easy to overcome, if you know what you’re doing, that is, and if you’re a competent pilot, the claim goes.

This lack of competence is, in fact, exactly what Langewiesche focuses on in his cutting analysis of the Lion Air crash, blaming that lack of airmanship (a term he describes as “anachronistic”) on a culture of poor training that has arisen in countries like Indonesia and has been tolerated by aircraft manufacturers who were eager “to sell their airplanes to any airline without restraint.” Indonesia deregulated its airline industry in the late 1990s, the author writes, “ the hope of providing for the sort of fast, low-cost travel that might help bind its islands together.”  The problem, Langewiesche continues, is that, “The free-for-all soon raised questions about how to manage safety. That is a polite way of putting it. A race to the bottom comes to mind.”

This approach, the Times article says, “reduces pilots to journeymen and ignores the role of airmanship in safety.”

Langewiesche contends that that lack of airmanship was exposed because Lion Air flies Boeing aircraft, and Boeing planes, he writes, rely on pilot skill as a last line of defense against mechanical and electronic failures.

And Lion Air’s safety record is abysmal. “From 2003 to 2007,” according to the article, “the Indonesian accident rate as measured by fatal flights per million departures had grown to be 15 times as high as the global average.”

I’ll let you read Langewiesche’s brilliantly crafted narrative of the Lion Air accident, one that he details step by step, describing the malfunctions the crew encountered and the steps they took in attempting to overcome them, measures that were ultimately, as the world now knows, were insufficient to save the lives of those onboard.

Again and again Langewiesche returns to the question of airmanship, or, rather, the lack thereof. It is, indeed, hard if not impossible to explain the failure of the pilots in the Lion Air crash to reduce power—extremely high airspeeds greatly exacerbated the aerodynamic forces they were battling against to regain control of the 737 Max. Langewiesche says of the Lion Air captain, that even though “he did not know about the MCAS … he had just experienced a violent runaway trim after flap retraction, and you might think he would have had the wherewithal to leave the flaps alone and throttle back to slow or, alternatively, pull into a climb to achieve the same result while also buying time. But no, he stuck obediently to 5,000 feet, left the throttles forward and retracted the flaps.”

Langewiesche doesn’t defend the design of MCAS—why, for instance, does it trim to a fully nose-down configuration?—or the approval process that ended with the stability augmentation system being fielded on production 737 Max planes, but he ultimately lays the blame on the pilots who, he concedes, are the product of a flawed safety system driven by economic forces, corrupt political and corporate oversight, and maintenance organizations, and questionable recurrent training practices.

Still, the author suggests that were he in a position of authority to do so, he would return the airliner to service as it’s currently configured. He writes in conclusion, “What we had in the two downed airplanes was a textbook failure of airmanship. In broad daylight, these pilots couldn’t decipher a variant of a simple runaway trim, and they ended up flying too fast at low altitude, neglecting to throttle back and leading their passengers over an aerodynamic edge into oblivion. They were the deciding factor here—not the MCAS, not the Max.”

It’s a tough conclusion for me to wrap my head around. The author admits that the economic model of low-cost airlines like Lion Air is antagonistic toward safety culture, that Boeing failed to reveal, or one might even say “hid” the existence of MCAS from its customers, that parts suppliers ship substandard replacement components to airlines, and that pilots in many parts of the world are overworked and under supported. Yet he still concludes that the fault of the two 737 Max catastrophes was on the pilots.

The pilots probably should have been able to overcome the baffling mechanical malfunction they faced, true. But Langewiesche fails to address the fact that in simulator reenactments many pilots here in the United States have been hard pressed or unable to overcome a sensor malfunction that drove the repeated automatic deployment of rapid and repeated nose down trim of MCAS, even though those same pilots entered the sim knowing in essence what they would be encountering. That foreknowledge was a hedge against disaster that the pilots of Lion Air 610, whatever other mistakes they made, did not have in their favor.

Ultimately, the author’s attitude about airmanship and the pilot’s role in safety is sadly outmoded. The view of the pilot as the hero, the one who stands as the last line of defense against disaster is the stuff of John Wayne movies. The truth, which Langewiesche admits, is that a very small percentage of pilots who think they would be up to the task when faced with a difficult challenge in a flight simulator actually succeed at the task.

The dream of every pilot being a hero, like Tammie Jo Shults or Sully Sullenberger, is wishful thinking. Even worse, it gives rise to accepting inadequate aviation infrastructure, systems and training.

As poorly as the pilots of Lion Air 610 performed, they had the deck stacked against them, and if studying accidents shows us anything, it is that when things start going south in a complicated cockpit, even good pilots can have a very bad day. We need to expend our energy on keeping those bad days from happening instead of hoping in vain to have a pair of heroes in every cockpit.  

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