The roots of Cirrus Aircraft go back to the mid-1960s in DeKalb, Illinois, where Larry and Carol Klapmeier were hard at work on a start-up nursing home business with the intention of reinventing assisted living. These young aspiring entrepreneurs were the parents of three boys, Ernie (the eldest), Alan, and Dale (the youngest). Carol had her hands full helping her husband run their new business while taking care of their sons. She would often drive to the local airport where she could relax and read a book while the three toddlers watched airplanes and played with model aircraft toys. Those hours spent parked alongside that small midwestern runway would ultimately lead to some of the most significant personal transportation advancements in the 20th Century and beyond.
The three brothers grew more interested in aviation over the years and in high school put their wallets together to purchase a 1947 Cessna 140. Dale, just 15 at the time, learned to fly in this aircraft even before learning to drive a car. Alan became so enthralled with airplanes that he would visit nearby airports scoping out the latest designs and dreaming of the future. By the time college came around, Alan and Dale remained steadfast in their dream of developing an aircraft manufacturing company. They began honing their skills by rebuilding a broken-down 7GC Champion in 1979. The following year, at the 1980 EAA Expo in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Alan and Dale witnessed the introduction of a new kit plane: a Glasair TD. From the brothers’ experience building this kit and being inspired by its styling, performance and composite construction, their direction in aircraft development began to emerge.
It was a cancelled flight in the Cessna 140 and a resulting short drive from Wisconsin to Illinois that provided inspiration in an unexpected way. The poor forecasted weather that grounded the brothers’ takeoff was nowhere to be seen – only clear skies and cirrus clouds for the entire drive down. Thus, a name for their future company was born.
The Early Days
Alan attended Wisconsin’s Ripon College and there met a talented engineer whose expertise became rooted in airfoil and laminar airflow designs. This aeronautical engineer, Jeff Viken, started collaborating with Alan in 1979 on some recent kit-design sketches still in Alan’s school notebook. Along with Dale, who was three years younger and attending the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, their discussions about this aircraft and the evolving vision of a company would lead to the founding of Cirrus Design–and the concept would become known as the VK-30, standing for “Viken-Klapmeier”.
As soon as Dale graduated college in December 1983, the brothers formed Cirrus shortly thereafter. Alan and Dale, as well as Jeff and his wife Sally Viken, began the VK-30 prototype building process in the basement of Larry and Carol Klapmeier’s barn in the rural farmlands outside Baraboo, Wisconsin.
The VK-30 was a four-to-five-seat futuristic-looking kit that had retractable gear, a pusher-propeller and large fowler flaps. As it matured with additional help from family and friends (and advisory help from homebuilt industry titans like Molt Taylor and Tom Hamilton), the brothers realized that their space would be limited on the farm, so they moved the project to the local Baraboo airport.
The Klapmeiers’ first paid employee was Dennis Schlieckau, hired in January 1987, a creative fabricator, welder and ultimately the ideal problem solver the team needed. The following year they hired Pat Waddick, who eventually rose from intern to leading all operations for Cirrus. And after that joined Paul Johnston in 1989, a brilliant engineering mind from the University of Minnesota. Their later collective contributions to the design and development of the SR-series would
prove crucial to the success of the company.
Expansion & Innovation
Cirrus moved from Baraboo to a much larger facility in Duluth, Minnesota in 1994, to focus their efforts on developing and certifying a new kind of aircraft. They continued to expand, building an additional facility for composite production in Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997. After the VK-30 came the ST50, first flew in December 1994, which was conceptually similar to the VK-30 but designed as a pressurized five-seat turboprop. It was a design commissioned by an Israeli company known as Isravation. It wasn’t until the certification of the SR20 in 1998 that Cirrus would be considered a game-changer in the world of general aviation, coming at a time when the industry was stagnant and in need of disruption.
The SR20 changed the light aircraft industry with its large comfortable cabin, a 10’’ multi-function display, a single power lever, side-stick flight controls, 26G seats, all-composite construction, and later on, a complete glass cockpit with the very first primary flight display incorporated in a small certified aircraft (which revolutionized general aviation and quickly prompted virtually all other manufacturers to follow). These technological advancements helped improve the way pilots move around the planet – altering the aviation landscape forever. But it’s perhaps a unique feature that makes the Cirrus so globally popular: The Cirrus Airframe Parachute System® (CAPS®).
CAPS® was inspired by a mid-air collision that co-founder Alan Klapmeier experienced in 1985. Though he had lost over 3 feet of wing, Alan was still remarkably able to land on a nearby runway.
Alan did not quit flying after this – nor did he advocate for others to quit flying. He did the opposite. Alan and Dale began a quest, searching for a new way to make aviation safer, and that is what led to their decision that a whole-plane parachute would be installed, as standard equipment, on all Cirrus aircraft. The Klapmeier brothers began this challenge in the early-1990s by enlisting Paul Johnston as Cirrus’ Chief Engineer, to figure out how to make a parachute work on the SR20. The idea was adapted from a southern Minnesota pilot and inventor named Boris Popov, who had been equipping ultralights and other two-seat aircraft with ballistic parachutes since 1980.
The task of developing CAPS took years of research, testing and a lot of trial and error. As a way of understanding loads and achieving the right descent velocity, in 1997 Cirrus went to Arizona and used a C-123 to drop barrels of sand to conduct parachute tests. It was then flight-tested in the summer of 1998 by the late Cirrus Chief Test Pilot, F-16 Air National Guard pilot and widely respected Duluth figure, Scott Anderson. It is because of the efforts of Anderson and all those who helped design and test the SR20 that today over 150 people have been safely returned to their families as a result of CAPS.
From the very first conceptual sketches of the SR20 in the early 90s, Cirrus knew that the aircraft must come with a parachute. This impacted the team’s decision to implement a leading edge cuffed wing (an initiative developed earlier by NASA). The FAA was willing to work with Cirrus to try and bring about new and safer ways of avoiding spins. Some have thought (incorrectly) that because of the Cirrus wing design the company had to put a parachute on the plane to get through FAA certification. Because of the parachute, the FAA certified the SR20 in October of 1998 without the need for certification spin testing.
Cirrus now continues to change the industry. Today, the Cirrus customer center in Knoxville, Tennessee, dubbed the “Vision Center”, is open to bring about the best aviation experience to all Cirrus customers. As the SR20’s successor, the SR22 & SR22T-line, continues to be the world’s best-selling GA airplane for the past 16 years, we look to our next industry-revolutionizing aircraft: the single-engine SF50 Vision Jet.
Once again Cirrus is cleared for takeoff.