AVwebFlash - Volume 20, Number 16b

October 22, 2013

"No Future" For Cessna Skycatcher: CEO Scott Ernest

Cessna CEO Scott Ernest told aviation media at NBAA 2013 in Las Vegas the company's made-in-China S-LSA Skycatcher has "no future" but he didn't have much to say about it other than that. His answers were also short when he was asked about the progress of the diesel-powered Cessna TurboSkylane JT-A following the test article's off-airport landing earlier this year. Asked specifically about the Skycatcher, Ernest responded "There's no future for the Skycatcher." When asked if the company was ending production of the LSA, Ernest answered by repeating: "There's no future." Ernest told reporters that Cessna's TurboSkylane JT-A program was supported by the company. He declined to directly address the mishap and when asked if that meant the aircraft hasn't flown since the incident, Ernest said, "I just answered the question." So, AVweb asked for more details in a podcast interview with Jodi Noah, vice president of piston aircraft for the company.

Regarding the diesel TurboSkylane, Noah said the company was continuing with the program, but offered few more details other than that the project had Cessna's support. Asked specifically about the Skycatcher, Noah said the company had sold about 20 of the aircraft and has an inventory of more that are available for sale. Ernest's comments after his presentation categorized the Skycatcher program simply. "That program didn't have a business model that worked," he said. Business models that appear to be working for Cessna include those for the company's line of business jets. Still in development, the Cessna Latitude is on track for first flight early next year. The new Citation X could be certified as early as March of 2014, boasting a top speed of .935 Mach and regaining the title of fastest production business jet. And regarding the recently announced Scorpion Jet tandem seat military offering, Ernest said it will fly this year, "sooner to this date than the end of the year."

Podcast: Cessna Update from NBAA

The future of Cessna single-engine programs caught the attention of media attending NBAA 2013 in Las Vegas.  AVweb's Glenn Pew talked with Jodi Noah about the full range of propeller-driven products.

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Dassault Introduces Falcon 5X

Dassault unveiled the only new clean-sheet design so far at NBAA 2013 in Las Vegas on Monday and it appears aimed at maintaining its standing in the mid- to super-midsize market. The Falcon 5X is described as the "biggest and most advanced Falcon jet." It's a fly-by-wire aircraft that boasts the largest cabin cross section of any purpose-built business jet and a six-foot-six cabin height and those dimensions are enhanced by design features that make the big space seem even more spacious. It will have Snecma Silvercrest engines the company says will make it as much as 50 percent more efficient than some of its direct competitors. "Using design and manufacturing software and systems pioneered by Dassault, we have been able to build a larger, more comfortable and more capable aircraft that is also more environmentally friendly and much more economical to operate compared to other airplanes in its class," said CEO Eric Trappier.

The new airplane is expected to enter service in 2015 and will accommodate up to 16 passengers with a range of 5,200 nautical miles. Integrated flight controls with flaperons on the wings allow for steep approaches; the aircraft also has nosewheel steering for better ground handling. Enhanced and synthetic vision on the head-up display will be standard.

Video: Dassault's New Falcon 5X Long-Range Business Jet

New range, new power, new jet with more room -- from Dassault.  Unveiled at the National Business Aviation Association exhibition held in Las Vegas in October 2013, the Dassault Falcon 5X is the company's latest offering.


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Wheels Up Gets First King Air 350i

Beechcraft delivered the first of perhaps many King Air 350i aircraft to Wheels Up, a start-up membership-based service that will take as many as 105 of the twin turboprops if things work out as hoped. "Today’s delivery is the culmination of many months of collaborative work between the Beechcraft and Wheels Up teams to structure a program for mutual success,” said Shawn Vick, Beechcraft VP of Sales and Marketing. Wheels Up is taking 35 of the newest King Airs by 2015. Wheels Up is planning to bundle special event services for clients as part of its operation and founder Kenny Dichter said the concept is catching on.

“In our early days of selling and taking our program to the consumer, we've seen an overwhelming response and interest in the King Air 350i aircraft," said Dichter. The Wheels Up King Airs will have custom interiors with "luxury" lavatories. The aircraft is capable of operating from unimproved airstrips.

Video: Beechcraft King Air 350i

Beechcraft's King lives on with new upgrades in the 350i model.


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True Blue Introduces GA Lithium Batteries

True Blue Power unveiled two new lithium ion batteries for general aviation aircraft Monday at the 2013 National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas. The Wichita-based company, which is a subsidiary of Mid-Continent Instruments and Avionics, introduced ship's power batteries aimed at both the twin business jet market and the turboprop and piston single segments. CEO Todd Winter said the batteries, which are rated at 44 ampere hours and 17 ampere hours respectively, are much lighter and require less maintenance than lead acid or nickel cadmium batteries. Although they cost more initially than the other types, the reduced maintenance and relative longevity of the lithium ion batteries make them less expensive in the long run, Winter said. They also offer some significant performance advantages, including more starting power and quick recharge. The big battery will charge from flat to fully energized in 15 minutes. "Pretty much by the time you're off the runway, you're at full emergency backup power," he said. The higher energy density brings some increased hazards but Brett Williams, who heads up the engineering team that designed the batteries, said built-in safeguards will prevent any sort of battery malfunction from damaging the aircraft.

Williams said there are microprocessors inside the battery case that monitor and prevent overcharging and overheating of the batteries. The battery health can also be monitored in the cockpit.  He said the type of reagents used in these batteries are inherently safer than those used in the lithium ion batteries that caught fire and caused the months-long grounding of Boeing's 787 fleet earlier this year. If something does happen, however, the steel case is designed to contain the failure. The safety features have all been thoroughly tested and the FAA is expected to issue TSOs on both batteries by the end of the year. True Blue is also mounting an education campaign to get accurate information about the potential and the perils of lithium ion power out to the industry and consumers. A series of seminars called Lithium Batteries 101 will be held throughout the U.S. and internationally in the coming year. The batteries will only be available to OEMs at first but the company says they may eventually be available as after-market items. Winter said there are a number of OEMs interested in the batteries but he wouldn't say who.

Podcast: Lithium Ion for GA

True Blue Power says it's created safe, reliable, and affordable lithium ion batteries for general aviation aircraft.  AVweb's Russ Niles spoke with the company's VP of Engineering, Brett Williams, at NBAA 2013 in Las Vegas.

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Large-Cabin Market Continues To Grow

The market is looking better than expected for business jet manufacturers but mostly for those with large-cabin, long-range aircraft, according to the annual Honeywell Business Aviation Outlook. The analysis, which is released every year on the eve of the National Business Aviation Association convention, says large-cabin platforms will account for 80 percent of the money spent on new business aircraft in the near term. "The trend toward larger cabin aircraft with ever-increasing range expectations and advanced avionics is seen more strongly than ever in this year's survey," said Rob Wilson, the president of Honeywell Business and General Aviation. The continuing shift to larger aircraft is behind Honeywell's increased revenue expectations for business jet OEMs.

The numbers have been skewed somewhat by delays in some development programs. "The reduced deliveries expected in 2013 are largely due to new program delays rather than deterioration in demand," the report said. More good news for manufacturers is the relatively robust recovery of the North American market. The report says 61 percent of new business aircraft are heading to North American buyers in 2013, up a healthy 8 percent.  "Stronger new aircraft acquisition plans in North America are welcome news and should support industry momentum as some of the higher growth regions work through a year of modestly reduced growth rates," Wilson said.

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Kromer Joins Blackhawk

Long-time aviation industry executive Bob Kromer has joined Blackhawk Modifications as its senior vice president of sales and marketing. Kromer will join the staff at Blackhawk's Waco, Texas, headquarters. “Bob’s technical experience and global market knowledge will further strengthen and expand our depth and capability in these two extremely critical areas of the company,” said Blackhawk CEO Jim Allmon, who announced the appointment at NBAA 2013 in Las Vegas. “Building on a lifetime of aviation experience as a qualified pilot, flight test engineer, and in several senior level sales, marketing, and management positions, Bob brings an added dimension to the company.” 

Kromer was most recently at SimCom and has held leadership positions at Cessna, Aero Design, Sino-Swearingen, Mooney and Piper. He's a commercial multi-IFR pilot with about 3,000 hours on a variety of piston and turbine aircraft. AVweb prepared this video on a Blackhawk modification for the Cessna Caravan at NBAA 2011.

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Mooney's Future With Chinese Investment

Not to be irretrievably cynical, but more than any other industry, general aviation has shown itself capable of reducing even well thought out business plans to smoking rubble. And never mind the half-baked ideas. I’ve always attributed this to the fact that flying and airplanes as a concept are so intoxicating, that only the most disciplined among us can avoid having our brains turn to mush when within, say, 50 feet of an airplane.

In that context, here comes Mooney to make another run at the market after a business history best described as checkered. Mooney is the aviation equivalent of the irradiated cockroach. It has survived more bankruptcies and sales—not to mention bad management—than any other brand I can think of. The last round of Armageddon Mooney weathered was the 2008 downturn.

Now, it has been picked up by Chinese interests who pledge to enter the world market with two of Mooney’s models, the Acclaim and the Ovation.  In this interview with the company’s new CEO, Jerry Chen, at the Xi’an show in China, you can gain a glimpse of where Mooney might be going. The venue is changing, if perhaps the products aren’t.

If Chen and his colleagues have fleshed out the details of the business plan, they haven’t shared them with us. But the top line idea is that Mooneys will have a sales appeal in China and thus the venerable M20 line becomes a world airplane. But are these aircraft really suitable for a world market or are we at the point where it’s time for the next generation of designs that are more efficient and easier to manufacture to emerge? Frankly, I’m voting for the latter. If the demand is strong enough, you can sell some airplanes just about everywhere, but “some” is not always enough to add up to a sustainable airplane business and if any company has proved that, it’s Mooney.

Make no mistake, the Acclaim and Ovation are as good as any aircraft out there in terms of performance and utility. But they are complex airframes with high build hours and unless the volume soars to unimaginable numbers, there’s not much  economy of scale to be eked out in manufacturing riveted airframes with retractable gear. In other words, heading into the second decade of the 21st century, they’re still old school airplanes in an industry desperate for innovation.

There seems to be an all but unquestioned assumption that the Chinese airplane market is about to explode which begets a secondary assumption that buyers there won’t be choosy about price, features, complexity and operability in the way that car buyers are. This may be true. Or not. My crystal ball, such as it is, is utterly opaque on this question. But my gut tells me we’re going to be writing stories about demand in China being weaker than many first assumed and that it's taking longer to mature than anyone believed.

Stipulating that China has interested buyers and the wealth to buy $600,000 airplanes and that the airspace opens up, as we are assured it will, what does Mooney need to be a true world airplane? And world means not just China, but India, Russia, Brazil and, eventually, Africa. To me, the obvious answer is Jet A options. Both the Acclaim and Ovation are wedded to legacy Continental engines that require 100-octane avgas. In the west, no replacement for endangered leaded 100-octane appears ready for fielding and although China has its own homegrown 100-octane fuel, for how long will these exist? China is not disinterested in the lead issue, we’re told by businesses working the China trade.

Sooner rather than later, Mooney will need a Jet A option. At the moment, there’s no piston engine suitable for this. Continental’s Centurion 4.0 is likely to be too heavy and because Continental knows this, it’s clean-sheeting other options in the 300-hp range that these two airframes need. In 2008, Rolls Royce and Mooney signed an engineering agreement to fit the RR500 turbine into the long-body airframes. A few months later, the downturn iced that idea.

And now we get to the bright side of this deal. If the Chinese buyers have lots of capital—and we always assume they do—they can get that Rolls project re-heated while also putting some developmental energy into Jet A pistons so the line will have some engine options other than reliance on 100-octane gasoline. If you pencil in a new model onto the to-do list, you can come up with a hundred million in capital requirements, if not more. It’ll take some volume to return that kind of investment, which explains why it’s often more practical to squeeze what you can out the existing technology and take profits—or survival—where you find both. Of course, we’re also told that at some level, Chinese aviation companies care more about building industry and infrastructure than short-term profits. Who would argue that light aircraft manufacturing has proven fertile ground for foundation businesses in which profit hovers over the horizon?

Bright spot two is turning the lights back on at Kerrville. This alone is positive news. It may make new models available again domestically and Mooney can always find some buyers for what it builds. That’s made easier by having a financial benefactor with deep pockets. With the factory perking, people answer the phones, the parts chain improves, used prices stabilize and the outlook is just altogether better. Oh, and we’ve gotten to the point in the global economy where we can stop ringing our hands about the Chinese snapping up another American company. That’s the way the world works now and we should just get used to it.

So personally, I’m okay with the sale of Mooney to a China-based company, but only if it pulls in some investment to get the company to the next stage. Let’s just see if that happens.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: Mooney's Fortunes Tied to China

A Chinese-based company recently bought Mooney and pledges to restart production, keeping the company at its Kerrville, Texas headquarters.  In this exclusive interview from AVweb's CIGAC/ATCC coverage of Chinese aviation, Jerry Chen reveals new details about where Mooney will be headed.


Video: AVweb's China Tour

This week, AVweb is attending the China International General Aviation Conference (CIGAC) and the annual Aviation Training Congress China (ATCC).  We'll have coverage all week of our visits to Beijing and Xi'an.


Video: China Looks to the EU for Airport Design Help

As China struggles to expand its aviation infrastructure at a breakneck pace, it's seeking help from every corner of the globe, and the European Union is stepping up expertise in airport design.  AVweb's Tim Cole interviews Norbert Gronak of Aviare Consult GmbH about China's airport design needs.


Video: Autogyros at China's Xi'an Aviation Trade Show

In Europe, autogyros are a mainstay in the recreational aviation market, and the same trend may develop in China.  In this exclusive video report from the China International General Aviation Conference in Xi'an, AVweb's Tim Cole reports that autogyros may be uniquely suited to China's developing GA market.


Video: Xi'an Is China's Wichita

Geographically, technologically, and spiritually, Xi'an is poised to be the heart of general aviation in China's emerging GA market — much as Wichita, Kansas is to the U.S. GA scene.  Perhaps that's why Wichita is opening a bureau in Xi'an.  AVweb spoke with Cessna's William J. Schultz and Wichita mayor Carl Brewer at the China International General Aviation Conference 2013.


Video: China Flightline Sampler

China is building new, modern, and capable airports at a blistering pace, and many of these will eventually serve the developing general aviation market.  AVweb's Tim Cole visited Peucheng Airport in east central China and filed this video sampler of what's on the flightline there.