At 6,000 planes delivered, Cirrus Aircraft is soaring

Cirrus Aircraft hit a major milestone — delivering its 6,000th new airplane. The company recently celebrated with company meetings at its production centers at the Duluth International Airport and in Grand Forks, N.D., where employees received hats marking the occasion. In Duluth, staff then gathered outside for a picture with the 6,000th plane — an SR-22T.

Its SR-series, with its signature airframe parachute system, has been the best-selling four/five-seat single-engine piston plane in the world for 12 years. The milestone delivery for the Duluth-based airplane manufacturer came 16 years after it shipped its first plane. It came as production of Cirrus' new Vision SR-50 personal jet begins. And it came on the heels of Cirrus' best year since 2011 as its shipments and job growth continued to rebound after the industry-wide tailspin from the recession.

In the company's first quarter of 2015, however, Cirrus' 43 shipments — the preferred industry term for unit sales — were down from the 60 in 2014's first quarter, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association's quarterly shipment report. Last year, company officials said 2014 had started with a backlog of orders which helped boost numbers. "We're not concerned about that," Cirrus spokesman Ben Kowalski said of the first-quarter results. "There's always seasonality, cyclicality about that. The first quarter is always the slowest quarter." Cirrus plane shipments generally build as the year progresses. "We feel good about the year," Kowalski said. "The market is picking up. We strongly feel we will have a good year."

Meanwhile, after years of development, production of Cirrus' long-awaited personal jet has begun in Duluth. Production — which is starting with the fuselage or cabin area — is allowed to start even though the jet isn't expected to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification until later this year, according to Kowalski. "The first one started down the line about a month ago," he said on Friday. "And we're continuing to build behind it."

The groundbreaking aircraft — which will be the first single-engine personal jet on the market — is expected to be delivered by the end of the year, "This is going to be an exciting time, when the Vision jet goes into the hands of our first customer," Kowalski said. But more space is needed to gear up production of the $2 million jet to fill its more than 550 orders. So a series of expansions have been announced in recent months:

• To free up space for jet production at Cirrus' headquarters at the airport, 40,000 square feet of space was added at an off-airport location at 4950 Miller Trunk Highway. The space is used for sub-assembly production, equipment testing and research and development, done by 50 employees.

• A 60,000-square-foot completion center for painting and finishing work on the jets is planned on land adjacent to the production center at the Duluth airport. To ensure Cirrus' manufacturing stays in Duluth, the city plans to build the $10 million facility with $4 million in state funding and $6 million in tax increment financing. Cirrus will lease the facility from the city.

• While its airplane production will remain in Duluth, Cirrus plans to move its delivery and customer service center for its planes to Knoxville, Tenn., next year. A warmer climate with more consistently favorable flying conditions was sought for customers. The move will also free up more space at its Duluth headquarters for production.

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