Cessna’s High Performance Turboprop Single Has A Niche

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We in the aviation media went to the National Business Aviation Association convention prepared for a show that reflected the general state of the business but there are surprises at every show. On balance, the biggest news out of the show was the redesign of the PiperJet into the Altaire, something that looks like a pretty cool airplane as opposed to the awkward looking first attempt. Not only will it be easier to sell, it may well be the first single engine light jet to hit the market in the post-VLJ bust that took so much energy out of the low end of the jet market.However, Piper’s genuine step forward in exploring an uncharted market segment paled, in terms of hallway whispers and knowing glances, to the rumor that Cessna is developing a turboprop single. The rumor has been around since Oshkosh with a handful of people claiming to have seen it or talked to people who had seen it. Apparently none of them had cameras on them at the time or we’d know what it looks like. By the way, if you Google the presumed N-number of the prototype, E350CE, you’ll get a photo of a Lancair IV taken by a guy in Camarillo, Calif. who misread the registration. It’s an L on that photo, not an E. Anyhow, the actual airplane has been commonly referred to as the “turboprop Mustang” which suggests a pretty substantial turboprop.I’ve only asked Cessna directly about the project once and I blew the question. I asked their communications department if they were going to introduce it at NBAA and they answered quite truthfully that they weren’t. During the Cessna news conference introducing the “new” Citation Ten, a correspondent whose whole job revolves around new aircraft asked CEO Jack Pelton about sightings of the aircraft and whether a purported photo of it circulating on the Internet was Photoshopped. Pelton said only that he hadn’t seen the photo. Nudge nudge. Wink wink.He finally all but spilled the beans to AOPA in what looked like an impromptu interview at the static display at Dekalb Peachtree Airport. Petty journalistic jealousy aside, I found what he had to say to Tom Horne and Warren Morningstar (Warren ran the camera) illuminating in the context of something Piper VP Randy Groom had talked about earlier.In his presentation on the Altaire, Groom said his company was offering to discount the price of a turboprop Meridian by the $75,000 deposit put on the jet. Groom said the idea was to get owner pilots used to the different world of high altitude, high speed operations incrementally and it makes sense.Although there have been some who have said it’s possible, even preferable, to put piston pilots directly into the left seat of aircraft capable of 350 knots and 41,000 feet, I know it’s not something I’d be comfortable doing. I’m guessing a lot of Cessna Mustang pilots felt the same way. I bet that while they were waiting for their Mustangs, they were buying Meridians or maybe used TBMs to ensure they had the skills needed to make the transition to jets. It exposed a gap in the market that Cessna had to fill to ensure its self- imposed mandate to have customers advance through their product line as their skills and wealth permit.Piper and Daher Socata pretty much own that market now (the Pilatus PC-12 is in a slightly different league) and they’re doing well with those aircraft. Cessna’s forthcoming announcement further validates what will probably remain a niche market. In that way it’s not all bad news for the established planemakers, or, for that matter, Kestrel Aircraft, which is trying to get its own design into production.While I haven’t seen the photos, Photoshopped or otherwise, the economics of this kind of development dictate at least six seats, a range of at least 1,000 miles and a steady supply of Corvalis and, at least for the foreseeable future, Cirrus pilots with jet dreams. Despite the economy, they seem to be out there.