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Tue, Jun 28, 2011

Rise and Fall: The Fortunes/Misfortunes Of The Cirrus Dream (Part 2 Of A Series)

Once The Leading Edge Of A GA Renewal, Cirrus Is Proving To Be A GA Embarrassment

News and Analysis By Jim Campbell, ANN E-I-C

Through most of 2008, the Cirrus revolution appeared to be in full swing -- even with the spectre of an uncertain economy on the horizon. A number of solidly successful years bode well for the first new company in a long while to boast the building of over 4000 new airplanes (at that time) and the unveiling and announcement of the radically new Cirrus single-engine jet program proved that Alan Klapmeier's vision was going strong... For well over a decade (including their experimental/kit-build years), the Cirrus program set the industry abuzz with imagination, innovation and (possibly best of all) a spirit of openness and transparency that had rarely been seen in GA. The industry felt moderately successful and what was good for Cirrus was turning out to be good for much of the rest of GA as the infectious enthusiasm for the SR20, the SR22 and the SF50 programs continued to grow.

This success touched a number of companies, some of them personally chosen by Alan. Companies like BRS -- who took the parachute technology that they had developed over for a number of years and adapted it to the SR series. Other companies that benefited by proving themselves and becoming "FoA" (Friends of Alan) included Avidyne -- who brought the first commercially viable GA glass panel cockpit to market, L3 Avionics Systems -- who offered a number of avionics innovations that found their way into Cirrus cockpits, and Tornado Alley Turbos -- whose turbo-normalized revamp of the SR22 line proved to be one of the most successful products in the Cirrus line. The SR22 Turbo was an aircraft whose ease of operation proved a runaway hit in no time at all.

Alan and Cirrus also reached out across aviation in an effort to 'aero-evangelize' the world -- even to non-Cirrus-centric companies, programs and persons that seemed to offer something positive to the aviation community. That included people like airshow pilot Patty Wagstaff, who sought corporate sponsorship to keep her immensely expensive airshow business going. Patty was known to be rather selective about whom she partnered with -- and even though her act couldn't possibly use a Cirrus for her actual airshow performances, Alan saw immediate synergies between a woman who inspired so many others to look to aviation, and the company he built that was looking to sell airplanes to those same folks.

As Wagstaff reported to ANN, she was pretty discriminating about seeking partnerships for her airshow efforts, "I wanted to represent aviation companies... companies that I could be proud of and would never worry me as I went before the public with their name on my airplane. I thought aviation companies were better than most other kinds of companies."

The Cirrus/Wagstaff relationship came together fairly well, early on... with Patty bonding readily with Kate Dougherty, then working PR for Cirrus and a member (as Alan's sister-in-law) of the tight-knit Klapmeier family -- and thereafter building an equally close relationship with Alan and Dale.

"I was really excited about working with Cirrus... I mean, these were people who were doing great things and I got the feeling they were people I could trust and work with," explained Wagstaff. The sponsorship was announced at Oshkosh 2005 to great fanfare... especially to Dale Klapmeier, who got quite a thrill when he held the pole on one side of the runway during one of Wagstaff's airshow performances as she came in to do an inverted ribbon cut.

The Oshkosh press conference over the Wagstaff/Cirrus pairing was an ebullient one. Dale Klapmeier told ANN in July of 2005 that, "We are really excited to announce that we are sponsoring Patty Wagstaff's airplane. This is something that absolutely thrills us." Dale went on to describe how it all started -- with a Cirrus demo flight.

Cirrus's Kate Dougherty told Dale, "Patty flew the plane."

"Wow, that's cool," Dale said.

"Oh, but there's more," Kate said. "She really liked it."

"Wow, Patty liked it!"

"Oh, but there's more," Kate said. "She wants one."

"THAT's cool!" Dale enthused. "She wanted our airplane, which started the whole relationship...."

After explaining that Patty would get the 2,000th airplane which was on display at Oshkosh 2005 in front of Cirrus's booth at AirVenture, Dale said, "What she means to aviation is what we're after: safety in flight, and the fun of aviation... she's the epitome of all these things."

"Most of you know, I really like airplanes with performance," Patty said. "And this is what drew me to Cirrus in the first place."

About Dale's story of how she came to the negotiating table with the Duluth, Minnesota manufacturer? "It's true what Dale says. I did fly the airplane recently. I was super impressed with it; I gave Cirrus a call; we started talking... and I have to say I've watched Cirrus for a number of years -- they're very leading-edge."

"I wasn't skeptical, I just watched. And I'm not a believer in buying first-generation anything. Whether it's a TV or a computer, I like to see it get proven a little bit." She praised many of the features of the Cirrus, especially its safety features, which she called "outstanding" and "extraordinary."

And for a number of years, the Wagstaff/Cirrus partnership was definitely both outstanding and extraordinary... as Cirrus spokesperson Kate Dougherty praised Patty's professional attitude whenever she represented the company and the very positive vibe the company received off their association with a woman who was more than just a world-class aerobat... but a true aviation icon. Wagstaff reportedly performed well... putting up with the demands of local media, helping with aviation and non-aviation media campaigns, working various other press and Cirrus-centric PR events -- and all the while still managing to pull off the intricate performances that made her a serious draw at major airshows all over the world.

Wagstaff had high praise for her partnership with Cirrus, "It was great... it was an easy relationship with just about everyone I worked with. It was SO great... they were extremely responsive to my ideas and how to maximize our relationship and I think it generated some sales for them." 

The feelings seemed to be reciprocated. "We received tremendous exposure from Patty, and we loved working with her -- this was a match made in the heavens," noted Dougherty... or, at least it was until 2009 and Alan Klapmeier's fall from grace.

Those feelings started to change soon after Brent Wouters took over as the CEO of Cirrus in early '09. Cirrus' tight and well-orchestrated marketing program started to appear "confused" and many of the people that she was used to working with left the company, often creating a lot of uncertainty about what Cirrus wanted from her. While Wouters seemed supportive, at first, and promised to be open to working with her, she soon found that getting Wouters to respond to her requests for dialogue became "a  really frustrating experience."

Things continued to evolve, and not in a good way... "I'd come to them with an idea for something and it became very hard getting any answers... it wasn't like with Kate and Alan where they'd get back to me right away and we worked well together to make sure we were doing great things for the company."

In a pattern that others have reported in dealing with the new Wouters-led Cirrus Aircraft company, Wagstaff noticed that the relationship was trending even more negatively when Cirrus started having problems paying her --without explanation or apology. Her first out and out conflicts revolved around money -- and Cirrus' failings in meeting their agreements to pay her as per their contracted agreements. Over time, Cirrus became more and more in arrears and Patty found herself in the unenviable position to cajole and convince Cirrus to meet their promises. Cirrus would occasionally pay her "just enough" to get her to the next big airshow and promote Cirrus, but the payments grew more sporadic and less timely, leaving Wagstaff to have to deal with a number of internal problems when her own organization had to meet its own obligations. This, while Cirrus was not meeting hers. At about this time, Patty heard that others doing business with Cirrus were dealing with the same issues and her concerns multiplied.

Ever-increasing efforts to resolve her concerns, with Cirrus, fell on deaf ears. Calls, requests, emails. No progress.

Polite complaints to the (then) Cirrus Marketing lead, Todd Simmons, were outwardly sympathetic but wholly ineffective. Excuses were made... and made... and despite the financial issues forced upon her, Wagstaff continued to work hard to meet her own obligations to Cirrus, fearing that ANY hesitation on her part would be used as an excuse for non-payment, by Cirrus.

Wagstaff finally sought legal advice as she started dipping into reserve funds, and the amount owed by Cirrus started adding up to a hefty sum. Still; she tried hard to work with the new regime, even suggesting to Simmons at one point, that she would take part ownership in the demo airplane Cirrus provided (an SR22) for press rides, in exchange for some of the monies owed to her.

Patty's offer was rebuffed (even though she had heard that others had ultimately made similar deals to get paid by Cirrus). As her contract term came to a close, and after a number of unsuccessful offers to compromise on her part to get past the financial logjam, the amount owed to her comprised a sum close to $200K and Patty was forced to resort to letting the attorney go to work... who put a lien on the Cirrus demo plane, while Wagstaff personally padlocked the prop out of frustration and desperation. According to sources close to Cirrus and Wagstaff, Patty was "put through the grinder" and it became obvious that Cirrus was undertaking some pretty desperate measures to keep from paying her what was owed.

When ANN heard about the matter, Wagstaff (on advice of counsel), couldn't talk at that time... but questions to Cirrus' Todd Simmons found him denying, categorically, that there were any issues with Wagstaff -- intoning that, "both Patty and Cirrus are working very happily together."

Wagstaff notes that while performing for Cirrus at the Reno Air Races, that her Cirrus was in a nearby hangar, with a chain around the prop since that's all she had to protect her interests. It was her feeling that if Cirrus got the airplane, first, then she might never be paid.

With the threat of continued legal action, the lien against the airplane, and the possibility of some very bad press if Wagstaff was forced to sue Cirrus publicly, Cirrus eventually backed down -- a bit -- and finally paid her. Patty did not get all that she was due, though she remembered feeling, "thankful to get what I did... I had a feeling that I was making out a lot better than so many others were."

Wagstaff feels great upset over what happened... "I loved this company and I loved the people and I knew so many bad things were happening to the employees and suppliers and other people. If I could have done anything to help I would have, but what I really had to do back then was just stay in business, and that was getting hard. And even after being treated so badly, I still miss working with the 'old' Cirrus. It wasn't all about money. We did great stuff. I'm proud of what we did. "

Patty did impart one particularly sad detail... as the situation grew more and more in arrears, she reached out to Cirrus Co-Founder Dale Klapmeier for help in breaking through the issues that were harming her. Dale, at first (like Simmons) seemed sympathetic (although he tried to persuade her to drop the use of an attorney to seek redress) but did little to ease the issues that kept her from getting paid. Eventually, though, the tone changed and Wagstaff could not believe it when, at one point, Dale opined that since Patty was 'a celebrity,' that he expected "all celebrities to have a lot of money... so we really didn't think you needed it that much."

Patty admitted that she was, "stunned at that... I couldn't believe he said that."

Ms. Wagstaff has her doubts about the future of Cirrus, "I don't expect anything fair to happen there at this time... not since that shakeup (in early 2009). Its kind of a tragedy. In aviation we try to set ourselves above being petty and try to be better than other industries -- like Enron and such -- we try to be higher class, but Cirrus shows we're not always that way. Before this, I only wanted to be associated with aviation companies because I liked what they stood for... its all kind of sad."

Still, Wagstaff does, ultimately, believe in the better side of aviation. When asked if the Cirrus problem detracted from her once-lofty opinion of the aviation industry, she said, "No, I guess, not really... these (Cirrus) really weren't the aviation people I know -- it makes me believe more in aviation, really -- those (Cirrus) owners and investors are not real aviation people -- they're just in it for the business. I still believe we have some honor left in aviation -- though it did put me off the sponsor game for awhile -- which is why I got a job."

E-I-C Note: In 2010 Patty started flying for Cal Fire as an Air Attack pilot in the OV-10 Bronco. Cal Fire pilots fly both the OV-10 and the S2T Tanker out of 13 different bases helping keep California safe from fires and supporting firefighters on the ground... though she still flies the occasional show.

After all this, Wagstaff remains upfront about her respect for the 'other' airplane she flew for a number of years when she wasn't flying her beloved Extra monoplane, "I love the airplane... the Cirrus is a fantastic product and I miss having one."

Like the L3 story previously detailed, Aerobatic Champion Patty Wagstaff ran into a process that so many others would soon describe to ANN (and one that we saw for ourselves); of deception, misdirection, broken promises, threats, damage and the horrific toll of having to fight with a company that seemed intent on allowing ill to befall others in order to improve their bottom line. But instead of improving their bottom line, the once proud image of Cirrus began to tarnish with each and every tale of bad business emanating from a once-proud airplane company decaying away in Duluth, MN.

More info to follow, shortly...

FMI: www.pattywagstaff.comwww.cirrusaircraft.com

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