I think one of the defense mechanisms we in the aviation industry have developed is the ability to not take ourselves too seriously. By many normal standards, it can be a preposterous business where the leadership roles are populated with wide-eyed dreamers who almost invariably make their money in more mundane enterprises and promptly squander it on their passion.
We tolerate it, sometimes even celebrate it, because it occasionally works spectacularly for the benefit of the whole industry. Where would the homebuilt industry be without Vans? What if the founders of Garmin had stuck to the far more profitable marine and consumer sectors? What if Bill Lear had settled for a piston twin?
And what would we do without Cessna? It's a question that entered the collective consciousness when Cessna's current CEO Scott Ernest stared down some aviation media reps and pretty much hung some of his executives out to dry in an uncomfortable exchange at NBAA in Las Vegas on Monday.
We're the first to admit that aviation journalism is not generally a hardball affair. We're mostly here to relay the positive developments that companies announce and keep pilots and others in the industry abreast of the latest and greatest. We do have the ability and the responsibility to ask some tough questions at times and it's squarely in the CEO playbook to deal with those issues in a manner that best reflects their company.
In my opinion, Ernes gave petulant and peevish answers to legitimate questions about the future of the Skycatcher and Skylane diesel projects on Monday and these were as surprising as they were unsettling. It's no secret that the Skycatcher program has been in trouble since the first one got off the ground in 2006 but Ernest's snippy and dismissive "no future" comment was, in my view, both uncalled for and ill advised for a company that still has about 100 of the little airplanes left to sell. Those who have the responsibility to turn those airplanes into money must have been even more surprised than us.
Ditto his dismissal of questions surrounding the off-airport landing of the diesel last month. There are a lot of people watching and hoping that a name like Cessna can create a new heavy fuel aircraft that works in the real world, just like its entry into the LSA market helped legitimize that part of the industry. Part of that means addressing the bumps and bruises of aircraft development with honesty and, frankly, a little dignity.
And that was part of the problem with his performance Monday. CEOs come to NBAA, in part, to put their companies in the best light. Ernest, in my estimation, did just the opposite. He clearly likes the fast and flashy stuff his company produces but his attitude toward some pretty benign questions about the Skycatcher and Skylane suggested contempt and derision for at least some parts of his company and his staff. It was an embarrassing public episode that should get the attention of the Textron board, in my view.
But because it was Cessna, that attitude reflected not just on the company but on the industry as a whole and that was the other part of the problem. Like it or not, when someone takes over the biggest little airplane company in the world, his responsibilities extend far beyond his own shop floor. Cessna is an industry leader and should behave like one.
Ernest knows that because he told me so. Two years ago when he was newly installed in his job I interviewed him at NBAA and commented that it was important for us to get to know him because "as Cessna goes, so does GA." He agreed enthusiastically and said: "That's absolutely right; as Cessna goes, so does GA."
Which brings us to the fact that Ernest is not a pilot and based on his post-press conference exchange with one of the reporters who challenged him during the news conference, appears to have little interest in becoming one (even though he has said in the past that he intended to learn to fly). Now, it's quite possible that Textron chose Ernest to replace Jack Pelton specifically because he is not a pilot and the board wanted someone whose judgment wouldn't be clouded by passions or perceived alliances that might not be productive to the Textron bottom line.
Fair enough, but the pilots before Ernest who led Cessna to its current position did so in part by using that passion and those alliances to their company's advantage. When they made the inevitable tough decisions necessary in any business, they did so with the respectful understanding that their actions would be felt throughout the industry. As pilots, they were part of the world that could be shaken by an announcement like the death of the Skycatcher.
Even so, it's probably not absolutely necessary for the leader of Cessna to be a pilot. He or she should, however, at least be polite.