With much fanfare, Cirrus Aircraft opened its new $12.7 million finishing plant in Duluth Monday and celebrated the first delivery of its new single-engine Vision Jet.
It took Cirrus and more than 1,000 employees a decade to design, build, test and win federal approval for the propeller-less aircraft that costs just under $2 million. A recession, layoffs and company sale delayed — but never derailed — the project over the years to create the first single-engine "personal jet."
Some 700 employees and dignitaries on Monday celebrated the milestone, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, Cirrus co-founder and CEO Dale Klapmeier and the company's first Vision Jet customer Joe Whisenhunt.
The jet, which seats seven, features a lone 500-pound engine on the roof and a built-in emergency parachute.
The company said it has received scores of orders for the new jet, and hiring is way up.
The Vision Jet received FAA certification in October.
This month, Cirrus finished its newly expanded factory in Duluth and announced the opening of a customer service center in Knoxville, Tenn. It also is bulking up its Grand Forks, N.D., workforce, which makes the fuselage, wings and other component parts that ultimately are assembled in Duluth.
Duluth now boasts two Cirrus operations.
The older plant that sits at the edge of the Duluth Airport Industrial Park will continue to be the site where Cirrus makes its legacy product, the small, personal "SR" propeller airplanes that are sold to executives and corporations. That building's employees now also assemble the Vision Jet.
Once assembled, both the Vision Jet and the SR prop planes will proceed next door to Cirrus' new 68,000-square-foot Duluth Finishing Center.
There, the planes will be painted and receive final touches before being delivered.
Ben Kowalski, Cirrus' vice president of communications, noted that the company has beefed up employment in Duluth and is now ready to "ramp up production" of the new jet.
The company is simultaneously enjoying a surge in orders for its SR prop planes.
Eighteen months ago, Cirrus had nearly 600 employees in Duluth. Today, it has 800 and plans to hire roughly 70 more in the next year or so, he said.
Cirrus' Grand Forks facility has nearly 200 workers and is growing.
Cirrus' new "Vision Center" in Knoxville will serve as a customer service operation and should grow from 35 to nearly 100 workers in the next year, Kowalski said.
"It's pretty exciting," he said. "We began production on the jet earlier this year and we will continue ramping up through the year. We are very excited to get the [aircraft] into the hands of our customers."
Cirrus, which nearly collapsed during the Great Recession, was bought in 2011 by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co.
In 2014, the company opened a sales hub in India. By 2015, it was expanding its manufacturing plant. The state of Minnesota and city of Duluth each provided $4 million in loans to help with Cirrus' $13 million expansion project in Duluth.
Klobuchar, Nolan and others in Congress successfully lobbied for new streamlined FAA regulations that would cut red tape for small airplane makers and hasten new product and safety introductions. Word of the FAA's final approval of regulatory changes came Friday.
Cirrus has a direct sales force in North America and has authorized sales agents in 60 countries.