“Not many companies can say that they have been in business for 80 years, especially not many aviation companies,” noted Cessna President and CEO Jack Pelton when we sat down with him at EAA AirVenture in 2006. “But Cessna can. 2007 is our 80th anniversary.”
Pelton then quickly noted that the company has been marking many milestones of late. In 2006, for example, the Cessna 172, the aircraft that has become synonymous with flight training for many people, and the Cessna 182 celebrated 50 years in production.
As proud as it is of its past, Pelton noted that the company is aggressively planning its future with the development and introduction of new products on both the piston and turbine sides of the house.
According to Pelton, Cessna officials are following the development of the Sport Pilot/Light Sport Aircraft movement very carefully.
“We think that the single engine market is expanding to include LSA and we want to be a part of it,” he said.
Since the two-place Cessna legacy aircraft — the 120, 140 and 150 series — are too heavy to be included in the LSA category, the only option was to create a new design.
“It was a challenge of me saying to the designers and engineers ‘I don’t think you guys can build an LSA’,” Pelton recalled. “And 10 weeks later they’ve got one and they are asking, ‘okay, now what do you want us to do?'”
At AirVenture the Cessna LSA proof-of-concept model, sans the interior appointments, sat on a raised platform inside a pen in the LSA area. Visitors dutifully filled out survey forms under the watchful eyes of Cessna employees, who collected the surveys and listened to comments and answered questions.
“Oshkosh was an excellent opportunity to collect feedback on whether we have a product that will satisfy the light sport market,” said Pelton. “Bringing the aircraft to the show also gave the company an opportunity to get information about the customers’ expectations of the light sport aircraft, how much they are willing to spend for one, and what they want in terms of ease of maintenance and service.”
Between AirVenture and AOPA Expo, held in Palm Springs in November, the Cessna LSA went into flight testing and was able to make the journey to Palm Springs via air.
At Expo the LSA was displayed at ground level and many pilots pressed in close for a better look. The gull-wing doors and the stick, as opposed to a yoke, caught the attention of many.
“It doesn’t look at all like a C-150,” one visitor remarked as he studied the wings and fuselage.
That’s because Cessna didn’t want something that necessarily looked like a scaled-down C-150, said Pelton. “But we wanted something that has the benefit of all the years of development and experience Cessna has when it comes to building single-engine piston aircraft.”
What the public saw at Expo, according to Pelton, “was really the raw inside of the airplane. We created it so that we would have something to fly. We are still working on it. We are continuing to refine the ergonomics of the airplane from a pilot’s prospective, such as the seats and the glare shield and the avionics suite, while trying to achieve cost targets.”
You won’t find a G1000 in this airplane, added Pelton, because G1000 technology would make the aircraft too expensive.
“For the cockpit of the LSA we want to go back to the days of the Cessna 120 and the Cessna 140 in terms of the instrumentation that was available then and combine that with what we are capable of now,” he said.
There haven’t been any surprises, good or bad, during the testing process, he noted, adding, “The flight test program has either validated our assumptions or refined the numbers that we came up with.”
The powerplant is still a Rotax, said Pelton, “because it was the engine available to us to get us into the air the fastest. We have ongoing studies to see what the final engine will be. The big issue here is weight.”
The challenge in building an LSA is that in order to be certified as a Light Sport Aircraft the aircraft must have a gross weight of no more than 1,320 pounds.
“We are working with that figure while trying to make the useful load more optimal,” he said. “We are moving ahead very aggressively. So far the response from the public has been very favorable, of course operating under the assumption we can bring the aircraft to market at an appropriate price point.”
That same experience that helped create the Cessna LSA has gone into the development of the Next Generation Piston (NGP) aircraft. That project, according to Pelton, has been underway for several years.
When it flew over the show grounds during AirVenture there was a gasp from the crowd and those with telephoto lenses on their cameras took aim at this new species of Cessna. The aircraft did not stop at AirVenture, but there was a mockup on display in the exhibit hall at Expo. Local Cessna dealers were invited to the airport to see the actual aircraft.
“It is not so much a new species of Cessna as it is the next logical evolution in our single-engine family,” said Pelton, beaming like a proud parent. “The C-172 and C-182 are now 50 years old and while we have been able to keep them as modern as we can with existing technologies, we think it is time to move forward with a replacement family of products.
“The NGP,” continued Pelton, “is designed to be an aircraft that will get you from Point A to Point B and can be used in business operations for trips 300 nautical miles or so where being in a jet would not be effective from a cost standpoint. It will be the airplane that people will step up to after they have learned to fly.”
Cessna was one of the first manufacturers to put G1000 technology in its aircraft. At first, glass was offered as an option.
“We were surprised at the interest in the option of the glass cockpit,” said Pelton. “The acceptance of glass cockpit technology happened very quickly. Now we don’t have any demand for new airplanes with non-glass cockpits. For the Next Generation Piston, for example, we have no intention of offering anything but glass. As far as the evolution of the G1000 goes, it is a great system and there are continued refinements.”
The exterior of the NGP aircraft continues to be refined as well. The maroon and gold mock up at AOPA Expo got a lot of attention because white is the prevailing color of most Cessna aircraft.
“I had asked our marketing people to come up with something different than white,” Pelton explained. “The concerns people have with composite aircraft is that they have to be white to reflect heat because excessive heat is bad for composites. It causes the material to break down over time. So our airframe had to be made of something that, over its lifetime, can offer colors other than white.”
The ability to offer color choices is important to keeping customers happy, he added. “Year to year your airframe may not change, but you want an aircraft that is aesthetically different from the airplanes the year before,” he said.
As this issue was going to press there were no performance numbers available for the NGP.
“I felt it was important for us to show progress of the aircraft so we stressed making a proof-of-concept aircraft,” Pelton said. “The whole purpose of the proof-of-concept airplane was to develop what the performance can be.”
THE TURBINE SIDE OF THE HOUSE
There are developments on the jet side of the house as well, noted Pelton.
“In the next 50 years I see our jets entering markets that we are not into today,” he mused. “I see us applying new technologies, perhaps even getting hydraulics off the airplanes and making the airplanes more environmentally friendly.”
The market for Very Light Jets is a crowded one. Who is leading the market depends on who you talk to. Cessna has been described as a strong competitor, but Pelton stressed that the company does not underestimate or minimize its competition in the VLJ market because each aircraft has its attributes that appeal to specific customers.
“You may pay more for our product than you do some of our competitors but with ours you will get a bigger cabin and better features that go with it,” he said.
One of the first things that owners of older aircraft models ask when a company starts a new line of designs is “Will our aircraft continue to be supported?”
That can be a challenge, noted Pelton.
“Part of our value position is not only our product but the company that stands behind it,” he said. “It can become more difficult to do when you have more obsolete models out there. I have talked to lots of customers who get cranky because they think that older airplane parts prices are terribly high. But you have to understand that when you are making one-off parts you have to find the tooling and there is a lot of cost involved in making just that one part.”
But that doesn’t mean Cessna has forgotten the legacy aircraft, he said.
“We clearly have a lot of things in the works, but we wanted to make sure that people know we are committed to general aviation as a whole and that we are not just about Cessna Citations,” he said. “We are about the single engine market and we want the world to know that as we taught the world to fly in the past we will continue to teach them to fly. At the same time we have a lot more exciting products up our sleeve.”
How do you celebrate 80 years in business? By throwing a party for your employees, of course.
“We are planning an open house in June,” said Rhonda Fullerton, manager of corporate and community affairs. “We are inviting the employees to bring their families.”
The company is proud of its history and its place in Wichita, so much so that a display showing the history of the company and the timeline of its development is on display at the Mid-Continent Airport (ICT).
“The display has a genealogy chart that shows all the airplanes Cessna ever made,” she said. “We are also working with Jeffrey L. Rodengen to update the ‘Legend of Cessna’ coffee table book that we did 10 years ago. In addition we are working on a historical DVD to give to employees closer to the 80th anniversary, which is actually Dec. 27. The historical piece will show where we have been, where we are and where we are going.”
The company also is the sponsor for the new penguin exhibit at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita.
“The two most asked for exhibits were gorillas and penguins. They already have gorillas,” said Fullerton, noting with a laugh that, “Yes, penguins are one of the birds that can’t fly.”
The penguin exhibit is slated to open in late spring.
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