Cessna's SMA Diesel Play
When Diamond launched its diesel-powered DA42 in 2004, no one knew how well it would sell or if it would sell at all. But sell it did, despite later maintenance and support issues with the Thielert engines. At the time, the doubters said diesel wouldn't really fly until Cessna got into the game and this week at AirVenture, it did just that with the announcement of the 182 NXT powered by the latest version of the SMA SR305. So now the notion that as Cessna goes, so goes the world will get a test.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Although Cessna once drove the light GA market as the dominant player, that's not necessarily true anymore. All aircraft sales are global now and Cessna isn't the only player around. Diamond and Cirrus are also out there and active in Europe in Asia in ways we don't necessarily see because of our U.S.-centric tilt. In briefing after briefing here at AirVenture, companies downplay aircraft sales in North America and say the rest of us should do the same. So when you're forming an opinion on diesel, think on the scale of world sales, especially China.
The 182 NXT will replace the turbocharged version of the Skylane, the 182T. This model has never been a huge seller for Cessna even before the 2008 downturn. Since then, Cessna has sold 30 to 40 a year. I'm sure the thinking at Cessna is that with a Jet A/diesel burning engine, the airplane now has far greater appeal in Europe, Africa and Asia. Even if that increases sales five fold, we're talking under 200 airframes a year. For now. On the world scale, that's hardly a market mover. But it is a trend driver and since Jet A is seen as the fuel of the future, it now becomes a question of how rapidly the trend develops. It's accepted wisdom that this is inevitable and that gasoline for aircraft engines is a sunset product.
My view is—and has always been—that diesel powerplants for airplanes aren't the universal killer product some believe them to be and that the diesel revolution isn't a revolution at all but an evolution with a shallow ramp. Gasoline as an aircraft fuel is ramping in the opposite direction, gracefully downward. But the fact remains there are still thousands of aircraft gasoline engines out there and Michael Kraft at Lycoming likes to say that at current production rates, it will take almost 100 years to replace them. That's one reason Lycoming opted to sit out diesel for now and why Cessna went with the SMA engine for the 182 NXT. It didn't have many choices. The Thielert 2.0 Centurion doesn't have the power for a 182 and I doubt the Austro AE300 could work, either. Both are heavier than the SMA, too.
The fact that press conferences at AirVenture this year were characterized by Chinese executives speaking blandly through interpreters gives rise to more accepted wisdom that no one seems inclined to challenge: China is on the verge of explosive growth in general aviation to the extent that some people have visions of the golden max of 1978 dancing in their eyes. While it may be true that China may become the next big impossibly huge thing and that companies need to position to prepare for it, let's not get too woozy over the potential volume, which thus far remains more imagined than proven. Not that I doubt the market, just that people playing this game should leave a little room in their mental engine rooms for disappointment.
But in a market where companies stay alive selling 50 to 100 of a particular model every year, China isn't the only place to sell diesel airplanes. Wherever avgas is getting scarce or more expensive than it already is—Europe, Africa, South America, India—Cessna will find takers. Continental senses this, too. They're going after the STC retrofit market that SMA used as a proof-of-concept to try to move real volume for the SMA-derived TD300 engine. Maybe the timing will be right. It certainly wasn't for SMA the first time around.