Aviation

‘We’ve had a really good year.’ Here’s what’s ahead for Cessna’s newest, biggest planes

It’s an especially busy time for Textron Aviation.

That’s particularly true at its Cessna division, where a chunk of Textron’s 9,000 employees are immersed in developing the single-engine turboprop Denali and twin-turboprop SkyCourier, and certifying the Citation Longitude, its biggest business jet to date.

All of this is happening as senior executives are expressing more optimism about the company’s fortunes and prospects for the future.

“We’ve had a really good year,” said Rob Scholl, Textron Aviation’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “I think overall we’ve seen market conditions improve. Across our product lines I think we’ve enjoyed pretty good activity in pistons, turboprops and jets, but also with the entry into service we’ve had with the Latitude and the progress we’ve made with our new programs.”

Ahead of their industry’s biggest event of the year — the National Business Aviation Association Convention & Exhibition Oct. 16-18 in Orlando, Fla. — Scholl and Brad Thress, Textron’s senior vice president of engineering, talked about progress on the company’s two newest airplanes, where the long-awaited certification of the Longitude stands, and their expectations for a resumption in the development of the Hemisphere, an even bigger and longer-range jet than the Longitude.

All four planes represent new and expanded sources of revenue for the company that is the area’s second-largest aircraft employer.

‘Very good path’

It was almost three years ago that Textron unveiled a prototype of the Longitude jet on a windy and brisk November afternoon at the NBAA convention in Las Vegas. Textron officials said they expected the company’s first entrant into the super-midsize jet category to attain Federal Aviation Administration type certification in 2017.

But that certification, which allows a manufacturer to deliver aircraft to customers, didn’t happen last year. Nor did it in the first, second and third quarters of 2018.

“We’re not going to say a lot about it . . . other than we’re close,” Scholl said.

Previously, company officials said the delay in certification was mostly because of an FAA aircraft certification process that had grown more complex since the last time Cessna had certified a wholly new design business jet, the Citation Sovereign in 2004.

Scholl acknowledged that Textron had sought and received a temporary FAA exemption over the design of the Longitude’s fuel tank, which the FAA approved in August. But he would not discuss further the exemption or any other issues related to the Longitude’s certification.

“We and Brad’s team feel that we have a very good path that’s going to have minimal impact on the aircraft and on the customers for this airplane,” he said. “For various reasons that I won’t go into, we’re not really going to go into the details.”

“We feel very confident where the airplane is and we’re working for TC (type certification) as soon as possible.”

Business aviation forecaster Rolland Vincent said he thinks Textron could announce type certification of the Longitude as early as next week, at NBAA.

“Maybe we’re being pretty optimistic,” Vincent said. “(But) they’ve been pretty clear about wanting to deliver the airplane this year.”

The $26.9 million jet is also Textron’s longest-range aircraft, at 3,500 nautical miles. It’s expected to open a new market for Textron, allowing customers of smaller Citations to move up to a bigger jet. The bigger jet also is expected to attract customers who haven’t owned a Citation before.

Scholl said since Textron began flying the Longitude on demonstration flights for customers, the plane has been all over the world. The airplane flew nonstop from Columbus, Ohio, to Paris, France on a flight Scholl was on last month. That flight of more than 3,600 nautical miles exceeded the airplane’s published range by more than 100 nautical miles. Scholl said a 52-knot tailwind helped the Longitude extend its range on that flight.

Hemisphere still in play

Meanwhile, development of the Denali turboprop is progressing with the manufacturing of three aircraft for the test fleet, as well as three others that will not fly but serve as structural test articles. The $4.8 million airplane will compete directly with Pilatus’ PC-12 and, like the Longitude, open a new market for Cessna.

It’s a market that Textron officials have said could mean deliveries of more than 100 airplanes a year.

Still early in the development stage is the Cessna SkyCourier, a $5.5 million airplane aimed largely at the air cargo and airline markets. The SkyCourier — first announced last December with FedEx officials , who have a firm order for 50 of the airplanes with an option for 50 more — can also be configured as a 19-passenger airplane for regional airlines.

Thress, Textron’s engineering chief, said wind tunnel testing of a scaled-down version of the SkyCourier has been completed and engineers are about 80 percent complete on designing and sizing of the airplane and its systems layout.

Textron will have a mockup of the SkyCourier’s cabin at NBAA next week, along with a mockup of the Denali.

Textron hasn’t given up on what would be an even bigger Citation jet, the Hemisphere, Thress and Scholl said.

Despite word earlier this year that the program was officially on hold, plans for the large cabin, long-range jet are still in play.

Scott Donnelly, CEO of Textron Aviation’s parent company, Textron Inc., told analysts earlier this year that the Hemisphere had been suspended because of continuing development problems with the plane’s proposed engine, the Silvercrest.

They are problems that ultimately led business jet manufacturer Dassault Falcon to end its plans to produce the Falcon 5X business jet late last year.

“We are still very much committed to the Hemisphere,” Scholl said.

Thress, following a visit last month to the engine maker with Textron Aviation CEO Scott Ernest, said he’s optimistic about Safran overcoming its problems with the engine and a problematic compressor. The engine is set to be tested next summer with a redesigned compressor, which will “kind of prove that the ending is where it needs to be.”

“I couldn’t be more confident, honestly,” Thress said. “I mean, these are competent people. They’ve built 40,000 CFM56s (jet engines). They’re the largest turbine helicopter engine maker on the planet. They have a host of military engines. They absolutely know what they’re doing. So I’m very confident.”

In the meantime, Scholl said, customers continue to express interest in the plane and tour the cabin mockup of the Hemisphere.

“It’s an aircraft I get a lot of questions about from customers,” he said. “We’re still looking . . . to the Hemisphere going forward as a program.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark
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