Crushing More Than Airplanes

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As I was flipping through the depressing photos of those Cessna Skycatchers being reduced to so much scrap metal, I felt a certain immune response kicking in. I’ve seen this before, so let’s not get too maudlin about it.

The time frame was 1995. The Air Force had bought a fleet of 113 airplanes from the U.K. called the Slingsby Firefly. It was designated the T3A and replaced the T-41, a militarized Skyhawk. They were intended for use in the service’s new Enhanced Pilot Screening Program to see if the incoming kids had hints of the right stuff before the Air Force invested a million bucks in training them. It was a bad idea to flip would-be pilots through high-G aerobatics before they had even completed basic flight training. The program itself lasted just two years. It cost $62 million for the airplanes alone.

The T3A had a fuel line and distribution problem that caused some engine stoppages and whether related to that or not, the T3A suffered three fatal accidents in which unrecoverable spins were mentioned. At the time, Slingsby said it could fix the fuel issue and knowledgeable people in GA told me an experienced homebuilder could have figured out the problem on the back of an envelope.

Whether that was true or not and probably thanks to the Byzantine internal politics that infect the services, the Air Force declared the T3A no longer had a mission, but refused to surplus them to the civil market. Instead, after sitting for nearly 10 years, the airplanes were crushed in place at the Hondo, Texas, airport where the screening program was based. Hondo is near Mooney’s Kerrville factory and I flew down there once to gawk at all the airplanes marooned in their sun-shade hangars. Surely the scrapper would have recovered engines, radios instruments and hardware for repurposing. Surely not, I was told at the time. Everything was pulverized.

Round two is the Skycatcher’s inglorious end. The one photo that ultimately got to me was the one I’m reproducing here, the image of a factory new airplane reposing like a squashed bug on the bottom of a dumpster. I’m trying to resist the urge to say that photo is a metaphor for the very industry it was supposed to revive, but my immune response proves too weak to the task. What the Firefly and Skycatcher have in common is not that they were both bad airplanes, but that they got snagged in coldly impersonal organizations whose calculus is insensitive to the utter waste of human effort smashing new airplanes represents. It’s not just metal crushing, it’s soul crushing.

I’m not trying to make a romantic or even a moral argument, but a practical one. An industrial economy is capable of such massive, efficient output that trashing small bits of what it does isn’t even a rounding error in the coffee budget. It’s a lost paper clip or a missing pen.

In the context of both of these crushed airplanes, the liability tail they represented seemed to outweigh any perceived value their owners could see for a few hundred customers. Goodwill in the marketplace has long since ceased to mar the thinking of U.S. businesses obsessed with the next quarter’s bottom line. So little worth did those airplanes have that I suspect no one could be bothered to even think of doing something useful with them, perhaps like donating them to a school maintenance program or, heaven forefend, putting them somewhere where they might actually fly. Am I the only one who hungers for at least a shard of encouragement once in a while?

If an aviation leader like Cessna has so little regard for its own products, little wonder the rest of an entire industry feels the same. About everything.        

Comments (31)

Not the first time for Cessna to scrap a model in this fashion--I remembered an article (presumably in Aviation Consumer; the story is also on Wikipedia) relating the fate of Cessna's CH-1 helicopter. Eventually Cessna bought back as many of the CH-1s they could, and broke them up to avoid liability issues.

Posted by: MICHAEL MATISKO | December 17, 2016 7:13 AM    Report this comment

The Beechcraft Starship comes to mind.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 17, 2016 7:42 AM    Report this comment

Cessna probably scrapped the Skycatcher in part because it could not be sold at a price high enough to cover it's liability insurance (this also figured into the scrapping of the Starship, which did not sell in any case). When I worked at Cessna in the late '60s, I was told that the 150 was sold at a loss to the company, but they wanted an entry level airplane for prospective pilots to start their training with.

The Slingsby is an interesting case. It could not be sold to the public because it did not undergo the FAR required Dynamic Seat Testing. The USAF instead used parachutes, and were trained in the use of them. It is interesting that all of the fatal accidents occurred at the USAF Academy and were being flown by instructors assigned there from C-141 units. Hondo instructors were civilian (GA) pilots and did not have any fatals. Most of the "problems" the USAF cited could be traced to how they were trying to fly the airplanes, but I won't go into that.

Posted by: Roger Chudy | December 17, 2016 11:10 AM    Report this comment

There is also a certain amount of irony in the fact that the story of the FAA "modernaztion" of part 23 comes on the same day as Cessna's crushing of their remaining Skycatchers. Who says life isn't strange?

Posted by: John McNamee | December 17, 2016 12:05 PM    Report this comment

The sight of those beautiful airplanes being crushed must bring tears to the eyes and a dagger to the hearts of plaintiffs' attorneys around the world. All that glorious award potential lost to the smelters oven, such a waste, such a pity.

Posted by: Richard Montague | December 17, 2016 12:45 PM    Report this comment

Somewhere out there there is a little child who will not be able to go to Aruba for Christmas because their lawyer parent won't be able to sue Cessna for accidents that did not happen. Perhaps the trial lawyers can still recoup some $ by suing Cessna for loss of income due to the product being removed from the market. Stranger cases have been brought and litigated successfully. Too bad that we can't get tort reform. It would help GA quite a bit.

Perhaps too, Cessna knew more about the lack of quality control exercised by their Chinese partners that they are not sharing. After all we are not talking about spontaneous ignition of a hover board or cell phone.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | December 17, 2016 2:45 PM    Report this comment

A solution to the liability insurance problem may lie in an industry-created captive group/association insurer that acts as a re-insurer for liability. That could spread the risk out and perhaps lower the per-airframe liability insurance cost. Captive insurance entities are common, particularly to cover low probability hard-to-insure risks.

A likely part of the Skycatcher story was not just the liability tail, but the on-going costs of supporting the aircraft; destroying them draws a sharp line in the warranty accounting and other costs associated with having the product in customer hands.

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | December 17, 2016 3:23 PM    Report this comment

Another stupid move by Cessna. Crushing brand new engines and Avionics is insane.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 17, 2016 8:41 PM    Report this comment

Cessna probably had to crush the engines and avionics along with the airframes due to purchase agreements, not lawyers.

Continental and Garmin no doubt sold the engines and avionics to Cessna at a discounted, volume price, with the provision that they be used in the Skycatcher and not resold on the open market. Otherwise, Cessna could undercut Garmin and Continental pricing.

So, when Cessna decides to scrap the airframes their hands are tied as to the engines and glass panels. They can't sell them cheap, they likely already had a sufficient spare parts inventory, and they can't return them.

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | December 18, 2016 7:31 AM    Report this comment

Crushing brand new engines and Avionics is insane.
Give them back to Garmin and Continental.
Give the airframes to Embry Riddle and to A&P tech schools.
Crushing them in a dumpster is a crime against aviation.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | December 18, 2016 5:46 PM    Report this comment

Crushing those Skycatchers isn't only "a metaphor for the very industry they were supposed to revive" ... in a larger sense, those pictures are also emblematic of the slow, painful and unnecessary demise of GA, in general. Won't be long before rising costs associated with keeping older airframes and engines airworthy reaches the eutectic cost point and those older machines start joining their Skycatcher brethren in the next bin over, as well.

The rising costs of everything associated with operating GA airplanes, an intransigent non-proactive FAA which just doesn't "get it" and a graying pilot population are among many issues conspiring to put more nails in the coffin of what was once a thriving and vibrant industry. The codification of third class medical relief may help slow it some but I remain strongly skeptical. Time will tell.

I will bet that the owners of the 188 Skycatchers in use will likely be receiving letters from Cessna offering to buy them back real soon ... ala the Starship. And if THAT doesn't work, Cessna will hike the cost of parts to the point where owners have no choice.

Who knew it'd come to this!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 18, 2016 8:52 PM    Report this comment

It's not personal, it's business.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 18, 2016 9:36 PM    Report this comment

Hi Paul, what a great article! Especially the second part where I believe you really put your finger on so much of what is wrong in the world today.

Posted by: Chris G | December 19, 2016 2:25 AM    Report this comment

In some sad way it is to be expected from an industry where it is normal for jets to use use in an hour the equivalent of the oil used to heat a house for a winter. Something does not work out exactly as planned? Throw it away. The message it sends to youngsters who are, these days, likely to be environmentally conscious in a way relatively few people over 60 are, is not a good one. (Those same youngsters though hop into jets burning at least a litre a second to travel to a party on the other side of the planet...)
The contrast with the thousands of 20 year and older GA plans, lovingly maintained and flying long after their carbon footprint from manufacture has been reduced to tiny size, with miles per gallon not too far from large autos, is striking.

Posted by: John Patson | December 19, 2016 4:20 AM    Report this comment

Not a very good move from a public relation and perception stand point, especially if you're planning on buying any new Cessna product. The action by Cessna has to make many existing and potential owners pause and take notice at the very least. I fail to see any value for anyone in this move. Looking at pictures of a perfectly good airframe being deliberately destroyed for no good reason in my mind is very disturbing to the point of nauseating.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | December 19, 2016 5:51 AM    Report this comment

Soul-crushing commentary just before a rough (for us adults) holiday...

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | December 19, 2016 7:19 AM    Report this comment

"In the context of both of these crushed airplanes, the liability tail they represented seemed to outweigh any perceived value their owners could see for a few hundred customers. Goodwill in the marketplace has long since ceased to mar the thinking of U.S. businesses obsessed with the next quarter's bottom line."

Paul, either they're worried about next quarter's bottom line, or they're worried about the liability tail. You can't have it both ways. Don't just fall by rote into repeating anti-corporate verbiage lifted from your local Progressive political document. In this case, it's actually the long term they're worrying about. If they only worried about next quarter, they'd have sold the airplanes for whatever they could fetch.

"So little worth did those airplanes have that I suspect no one could be bothered to even think of doing something useful with them, perhaps like donating them to a school maintenance program or, heaven forefend, putting them somewhere where they might actually fly."

I'm sure people did think about doing something useful with them. But there's no way to void product liability, so in the end, long-term thinking argued for destruction. The lawyers will say that this actually increases total social value, by avoiding the deaths and injuries that would have resulted from using them. As pilots, we disagree - but when an OEM tries to get us to sign liability waivers we suddenly complain about their complex contract, so maybe we don't, really. And, even if we really did, it's an open question whether courts would enforce liability waivers.

The enemy, unfortunately, is us.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | December 19, 2016 8:59 AM    Report this comment

Paul - you are mourning the loss of a soul where one does not exist. Cessna, like it or not, is part of a publicly traded conglomerate that not only thinks twice about doing this, they probably dont even understand the adverse attention it is getting. A publicly traded company, by definition, has no soul. I wouldn't waste one more iota of energy mourning the loss. Focus instead on the success - or supporting those who deserve success, and are privately owned, with passionate visionary owners and management.

Compounding that is a legal industry that allows widows to sure the gasoline makers, windshield makers and rivet makers for the accident when it was the pilot who simply ran out of gas. I am surprised that ANYONE is making airplanes...or cars...or toy wagons.

Goodbye 162. And goodbye Cessna. As for me and my vision of a vibrant positive future of a lucrative aviation, it will be with low wing airplanes, anyway.

Posted by: Richard Matthews | December 19, 2016 9:18 AM    Report this comment

This isn't confined to aviation. All manufacturers live in fear of the plaintiff's attorney.

Search "MV Cougar Ace"

On December 15, 2006, Mazda announced that all vehicles on the Cougar Ace would be scrapped.[13] After an extensive process to deploy all the airbags in each vehicle, all of the Mazda cars were crushed onsite at the Port of Portland by Pacific Car Crushing

Posted by: Gus Funnell | December 19, 2016 9:58 AM    Report this comment

I was referring to your soul, Richard, not Cessna's. Evidently you share the view, since you've said goodbye to Cessna. Who can be encouraged by seeing perfectly new airplanes being crushed?

And I'm not singling out Cessna or Textron by any means, but in general a business evolution that values short term profits above all else, including customer and worker loyalty and thus sees little point in repurposing useful industrial production, perhaps even in the name of good will.

It's easy to get smug and just say we're naive to expect any better. That may be true, but it doesn't bode well for any industry, much less aviation, which is already staggering. And by the way, the Chinese appear to have a longer view. Where western investors weren't interested in Cirrus, Continental, Superior, Mooney and now Diamond, they were. Those may be bad investments...or not. But at least someone made them.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 19, 2016 10:49 AM    Report this comment

It's not just planes that got crushed, Aviation as a whole is being crushed. The few young people entering the industry are far from enough. Everyday has less aircraft flying then the day before. Cessna is just graphically showing us what is happening to the 113 year old Aviation industry.

Young people today don't even want to drive cars, "flying" isn't in their vocabulary. The country needs a complete psychological turn around or the crushing will continue.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | December 19, 2016 12:58 PM    Report this comment

You took the words right outta my next thoughts. The aviation industry doesn't have a five, ten, twenty or longer strategic plan. Unless and until they do, scenes like this will continue. I have NO idea who Cessna thinks will pilot their serious airplanes, long term. Even I -- a registered member of the geriatric set -- am now receiving postcards asking if I want to join some flight department because they can't find enough live ones. Sigh.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 19, 2016 3:36 PM    Report this comment

Just as Uber's long-range plan is driverless, flight departments' long-term future is pilotless. Autonomous vehicles are the future of all forms of transportation. Cessna/Textron knows this.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | December 19, 2016 4:56 PM    Report this comment

Guess I'll be ridin' Amtrak, then, Yars ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 19, 2016 6:04 PM    Report this comment

Well Paul, the answer here is simple.

Cessna was just selling the skycatchers at too low of a price. If they would have bumped up the price another hundred-grand or so, the remaining inventory would have flown out the door..literally. Or, at least that's what you've tried to tell us in past articles regarding "affordable" airplanes, especially LSAs.

But I digress.

Cessna can suck it. Instead of one(1) AOPA sweepstakes airplane this go around, Cessna could have sponsored 80. Heck, sponsored 40 with plenty spare parts.

Posted by: Robert Ore | December 19, 2016 8:34 PM    Report this comment

Larry, my guess is trains are probably going autonomous before airplanes. Compared with airplanes and autos, trains are a much simpler matrix.

Posted by: Richard Montague | December 20, 2016 7:26 AM    Report this comment

"Vogelenzangseweg Savona" ... what kind of MAD scientist is running Captcha ?? OH ... probably the same guy who is going to write the code for the unmanned airliners, cars and trains :-)

Yeah, Dick, as soon as I pressed send I KNEW someone would say that trains would be automated, too. I gots a SawBuck that says no one reading this blog will ever see a pilotless airplane or an engineer free train in REGULAR commercial service. If it comes to that to save money and make a profit, the economy will fail, first. While technically possible, the DOT / FAA -- who had to be forced, by law, to back off just a little on the third class medical -- will never allow it. The potential for carnage on a massive scale if one line of code is erroneous is just too great. Now then, making a computer the 1st officer ... maybe ?? Didn't Cessna just do that with a Caravan?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 20, 2016 8:20 AM    Report this comment

And if the DOT somehow loses their mind and allows such a total 'autonomous' idea, the insurance companies will surely step in ... if not at first, then after the first A380U augers in ... filled with passengers making the MCO to LAX run for $20 a seat.

Some poor guy watching a movie in his Tesla in Florida lost his head over this crazy idea, didn't he? I have a new "G" GPS in my car which visually warns me when I'm speeding, audibly warns me if I'm in a school zone and tells me if there's a traffic problem ahead. Reading the Tesla crash info, the Tesla was SPEEDING! How the heck could THAT happen if the car was on 'autopilot' with all this technology? Wrong code? So the Beta test modes require carnage before they're certified?

The whole point of the Skycatcher was to attract and train to certification new pilots at a reasonable cost. With the student pilot start numbers tanking and drop out rate SO high, the marriage of "Light Sport" and the Skycatcher was supposed to be the magic elixir that would start fixing that. At $109,500, with the Cessna brand name and light sport rules helping, they sold ~1200 of 'em. I know ... I bought one. So how Cessna could go from the euphoria of the Skycatcher at Airventure 2007 to crushing them in 2016? There's more to this story, methinks? Starting with the China decision.

Oh goody ... I get to fight Captcha again ... "Salerno Place Aime-Lefrancois" :-)))

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 20, 2016 9:02 AM    Report this comment

" So how Cessna could go from the euphoria of the Skycatcher at Airventure 2007 to crushing them in 2016? There's more to this story, methinks? Starting with the China decision."

The China decision probably had a part in it, but I do have to say the entry/exit of the aircraft was poorly designed. It also felt somewhat claustrophobic in the cabin, and that was when there was just me in it. I only sat in them on the ground and never flew one, but I didn't really have a desire to fly one just from that experience.

That's not to say I'm happy to see them being crushed. That's still a sad sight to see.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | December 20, 2016 9:46 AM    Report this comment

There are self driving trains at major airports KMCO and KDEN come to mind. When I was flying out of KDEN, I remember more than one time getting stuck at the B concourse (United at the time) because the trains had a computer crash. A while back, I read that the train was given a bad code update and went speeding through an intersection causing some injuries. When traveling out of KEDN back then, I would try to use an airline out of A concourse that allowed walking to the main terminal (novel idea).

So self driving trains are here. I think that the first real use of self driving road vehicles will be heavy long haul trucks. That will really get interesting when one takes out many cars. The reality is that these things will slowly creep in. The problem may not be the cost of the driver/pilot but the availability. When i was flying Part 135, the pilots were not a major expense. The fuel was more costly than the crew. The insurance was a big killer as were the costs of parts.

That being said, the bean counters will always look at the company's business through a toilet paper roll core. All they will see is they can save a few $. They can't see the huge costs that are incidental to the cost savings not going as planned. Like it or not, we will be displaced from the driver's seat or cockpit. Now is Cessna looking that far down the line? I doubt it. Their bean counters and lawyers could care less about the customer. They think that you can just put a posting on line for a pilot and hundreds os resumes will flood in.

p.s. "Carrier 3232" won the Captcha lottery.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | December 20, 2016 9:59 AM    Report this comment

So is a "computer crash" an oxymoron ... or a Freudian slip, Leo ? :-))

Rather than belabor the off-topic subject, I invite fellow bloggers to google the review of the book, "One Second After." Then be afraid ... very afraid. It's one thing for a train at MCO to go to "Fail Safe" mode if the worst case scenario unfolds; it's quite another to be trapped on a pilotless airliner. In the first case, you get to become chummy with the guy next to you while the FD figures out how to rescue you. On the second, you get to spend eternity with the person next to you. Of course, if a giant CAPS system is installed in that A380U ... maybe it'd be OK?

At that point, however, only PB's Cub and steam gauge airplanes and the old cars in Cuba will be usable.

On topic, here's what the scrapping of these airplanes means to me ... personally.

Based predominantly on the Cessna brand name and trust, I ordered one early on the first day of Airventure 2007 to secure what I was TOLD would be a first ordered, first delivered position of an airplane which would be built in Wichita. I was looking forward to owning my first new airplane. Before that week ended, however, my bubble burst. I learned of Cessna's CSTAR scheme to deliver only 3 of each group of 10 to private purchasers from a CSTAR dealer who blabbed. Later that year, when I learned of the China decision, I was literally aghast. Then delay after delay occurred; I came to the conclusion it was time to pull the big yellow handles and try to get my $5K back despite the contract saying I wouldn't if I walked.

Getting NO SUPPORT from my local yokel CSTAR man (who basically told me to go pound sand), I went directly to Cessna and pled my case. Based on my unique background, I found a sympathetic ear (Thanks again, JD) and managed to get my bucks back after I satisfied Cessna's law dept.

Then came the 50% price increases for others who were -- fortunately -- then able to get their deposits back if they so desired. Most did. Then came the announcement that the party was over. The latest decision not only doesn't surprise me ... it adds insult to injury. I have two airplanes sitting in a hangar and one of 'em is a C172. I now think Cessna would like to be out of the piston GA business and I no longer trust them to support me. One of my airplanes has to go and I'm now thinking ... the Cessna. I no longer trust them; they've injured their "brand" in my mind.

And all I have to show for all of this is a nifty glass Skycatcher desk paperweight which they didn't ask me to send back. Hmm ... I should list it on eBay before it, too, becomes worthless.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 20, 2016 2:39 PM    Report this comment

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