Has Cessna Suddenly Grown Cold On Diesel?

(Corrected)

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Cessna’s admission this week that it now has no definite timeline for its diesel 182 JT-A invites speculation. Or maybe I’m the only one who can’t resist asking what’s going on in Wichita.

Earlier this week, we got an email from a reader trying to snag some hangar space at Independence, Kansas, where Cessna builds piston singles. None available, he was told. Cessna has them temporarily occupied, breaking down new airplanes and replacing diesel engines with gasoline powerplants. Moreover, the diesels were being shipped back to the manufacturers.

A check with Cessna yielded no confirmation or denial of that, merely the non-committal statement that the company has no definite timeline for the 182 project. But they are aiming for approvals on the 172 by the first quarter of next year.And by the way, it’s also resurrecting the Lycoming-powered Skylane 182T, which it discontinued in 2012 when it announced the Skylane JT-A diesel at AirVenture.

This is a curious turn of events on multiple accounts. First, while missing promised cert dates by months, if not years, is a grand tradition in aircraft manufacturing, Cessna doesn’t play that game much. If the company pronounces that the newest Citation will fly in the third quarter of next year, it’s a good bet that it will. Multiple queries about the status of the Skylane JT-A always yielded a reply of “in a few months.” Now, it’s no definite timeline. Are we looking at a soft cancellation here? Cessna isn’t saying specifically, but after I wrote this blog on Tuesday, the company phoned back to say the 172 has a definite projected schedule of next spring. It insists it’s still committed to the idea of diesel piston engines.

Textron is unlikely to favor us with any detail about why this decision was made or, more accurately, why these two projects appear to be in drift mode and what thresholds will trigger more aggressive development and date-certain deliveries. Does Cessna just see market softness that makes the 182 a short-term loser? Is the erosion in fuel prices, admittedly minimal for avgas, causing them to rethink diesel economics? Are the engines just not robust enough for Cessna’s standards? Or is it some combination of these factors? I invite you to offer your own speculation. I’m quite certain I don’t have these answers.

One concern, however, is the engine choice for the 182 JT-A, the SMA SR-305. I first clapped eyes on this powerplant in a surprise showing at Sun ‘n Fun, probably around 1999 or so. It was then flying on one wing of a Piper Seneca and it looked real enough. Yet 16 years later, the engine still lacks significant industrialization and has nothing like the installed OEM base of Continental’s diesel line originally developed by the now-defunct Thielert. Does this lack of traction indicate a latent developmental snag in this engine that even Cessna can’t solve? It certainly raises doubts.

Whether Cessna is in or out of diesel–and it says it’s still in– the fact that it’s non-committal on timing is not a good thing for the market. It’s kind of a reverse overhang when a major airframer—the major airframer—gets into diesel, cancels it, gets back in and then waffles on deliveries, at least on one model for three years. It’s bound to send a chill into buyers although, in my view, the diesel market will ultimately shrug it off. Diamond Aircraft long ago established the viability of Jet-A piston aircraft and although the market has never shown signs of explosive growth, it has been steady and poised for more solidity now that Continental is investing in new development for existing engines and new higher-horsepower variants. In Austria, Austro just announced delivering its 1000th AE300. Nope, they’re not exactly setting the world on fire, but who in general aviation is? Cessna is still the big dog in new training airplanes, but it’s no longer necessarily the lead dog in the sense that it drives and owns markets.

I know from a source selling new and converted Cessnas that demand for the Skylane JT-A appears to be good, with 50 to 70 orders booked. Almost all of that is offshore business, which confirms what everyone in the diesel segment has learned: Europe, Africa and Asia are the drivers. With relatively cheap avgas, U.S. buyers aren’t feeling much love for diesel yet. I suspect uncertainty at Cessna won’t change that much. Let’s see if the diesel conversion market steps intro the breach.

P.M. Revision: Cessna spokesperson Lindsay Adrian phoned to say that while the diesel Skylane timing isindeterminate,Cessna is still committed to delivering diesel Skyhawks sometime next year. I’ve rewritten the blog to reflect that statement.