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Visiting Car Dealership and Auto Shows Is Part of the Process of Designing a Plane

DULUTH, MN — Alan Klapmeier wants to sell more airplanes. To do so, he turned to the automotive industry to help him make small planes more attractive to the general public.

Fifteen years ago, Klapmeier, president and CEO of Cirrus Design Corp. took three of his engineers to a dealership to get inspiration for designing a new plane.

As they climbed in and out of several vehicles, a car salesman watched with interest. After asking a couple of times if they needed help, the salesman's curiosity won out.

“There we were — the four of us in a vehicle with our tape measures and notebooks making calculations and this guy finally asks us what we were doing,” Klapmeier says. “I told him we were designing an airplane.”

The last several years, Cirrus engineers also have visited the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit.

“Auto makers do things right,” says David Coleal, president and chief operating officer for Cirrus, and a former Toyota Motor North America Inc. executive. “If you look at the fit and finish, even on the lower-end vehicles, it is nearly perfect. We want more of that automotive-type fit and finish in our airplanes.”

The result was a design of a four-seater, single-piston engine aircraft that resembles a luxury vehicle, Cirrus officials say.

It is made of composites, which help make a significantly smoother and quieter ride.

“We really wanted to focus on comfort,” Klapmeier say.

Greg Cole, who owns dealerships in Idaho and Georgia, and a recent purchaser of a Cirrus plane, says he wouldn't go so far as to compare it to a luxury vehicle, “But they have made a real effort.”

Still, many car-like features are throughout the interior of the plane. The aroma of a rich leather interior is similar to that of a new-car smell.

The instrument panel resembles a car's dashboard, from the curved design to the way controls are laid out. On Cirrus's newest model, which includes air conditioning, the temperature controls are similar to those in a car.

Pilots are able to pipe XM Satellite radio or music from an I-Pod through the headsets.

Important, for the U.S. market at least, is addition of a cup holder for each seat.

Cirrus also incorporated automotive cues into its assembly process when it began implementing Toyota's lean manufacturing processes in 2001. Doing so enabled Cirrus to reduce its build time from 44 days to 21. The company now is producing four aircraft a day.

“We brought in a number of people from the automotive industry who could connect the dots for us,” Klapmeier says.

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