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Mon, Jul 24, 2006

Cessna LSA Proof of Concept Wows Crowd At Airventure

Unveiling Is A Hit; Will This Plane Be Built?

"It's beautiful!"

"It's like a 150 -- no, it's not. Look where the struts attach, behind the doors!"

"The doors open up."

"It's a fastback like a 1950s 172 -- back to the future!"

"It really is beautiful."

Cessna President and CEO Jack Pelton beamed from the podium as the audience reacted to the latest Cessna rollout. The introduction was as choreographed as a Thunderbirds performance or a display of the Marine Corps Precision Drill Team -- or a Citation introduction -- but this time it's wasn't a multi-million-dollar jet.

The recently-announced interest of Cessna in the Light Sport Aircraft market has borne its first fruit in the form of the Proof of Concept aircraft shown to the public today. Judging from the reaction, it's a hit. Cessna will be looking for feedback -- they are collecting surveys from pilots and pilot wannabees at the show this week, and Cessna marketeers will pore over the data, trying to discern the future direction of the company -- and possibly, a large part of the market.

The weather was perfect for the introduction. Oshkosh's blowtorch summer weather has abated just enough to make it a lovely morning with a fresh breeze, suggestive of outdoor pursuits. You know, like flying. The POC aircraft rested under a black, billowing cloth, under the exact sort of sky that its progeny might one day launch into, bearing thousands of new pilots on airborne adventures.

The cloth was held in place by grinning Cessna employees in yellow Cessna Sport shirts, Pelton stressed that the airplane that we saw was not necessarily going to be produced in this exact format -- or even at all. But he personally is clearly excited about Sport Pilot and the Light Sport Aircraft, which he described as key to "stimulate feeding the important pipeline of human talent," the future pilots that are the future aviators of the world.

Underlying Cessna's logic is a marketing fact; the pilot that learns in a Cessna aircraft often retains a career-long partiality to Cessna airplanes, even when he or she reaches career pinnacles that may include flying jets, running operations that fly jets, or -- significantly -- buying jets for others to fly. That model is never far from the mind of Jack Pelton, who told Aero-News in a two-part interview in 2004 of his early days learning to fly (in, appropriately enough, a Cessna 140) and the pleasure he still finds in flying light aircraft. 

An overview: The aircraft is a conventional high-wing monoplane with a conventional swept tail, straight wings with flaps and ailerons each of about half-span, and tricycle landing gear with a castering nosewheel. The main landing gear resemble those of the 152 at a glance, and may be a similar steel-strut in alloy fairing arrangement. It's powered by the Rotax 912S four-cylinder four-stroke motor.

The struts join the fuselage at the same station as the main landing gear, behind the doors, which open up in a gull-wing arrangement.

It has a "fastback" design like the first 150s and 172s; the back windows of mid-1960s-up Cessnas lead to a light, airy cabin but create significant drag; air running along a surface doesn't like having that surface yanked away. This helps the plane make speed; while Pelton said it was too early to expect specifications or performance numbers, he did promise that the plane would come in at the LSA gross weight of 1320 lb, and meet the maximum LSA permissible speed of 120 kt. (The fastback design also appears on the Next Generation Prototype, another (surprise!) plane briefly shown at this introduction -- see the other story).

The wingspan is 30 feet, about 10% less than that of the Cessna 152 (33'4") and the chord seems less. The height of the aircraft overall and of the wings seems less (a tall man can check the fuel level with his feet on the ground), and the cabin is significantly wider than even the 172's at 40 inches.

The plane is pretty, small, and clearly designed for rapid, low-cost manufacturing. It is in a way a compendium of best practices in high-wing SLSA design, comprised mostly aluminum alloy.

One of the things that we thought might be significant about the airplane was the N Number: N158CS. "CS" is Cessna Sport, of course, but is this plane potentially the Cessna 158? Your guess is as good as ours; Cessna isn't saying.

How much? Cessna isn't saying that either. "It will be priced competitively with similar LSAs," is what Jack Pelton says. What that means in dollars and cents, it's too early to know.

Cessna's planes are popular enough; they expect to manufacture as many as 900 new single-engine aircraft this year. But the company isn't going to rest on its laurels in the single-engine line any more than it does in its jet line, where it keeps up a feverish pace of product introductions and upgrades.

Cessna doesn't need a SLSA. That's one way of looking at it.

But Cessna does need an SLSA, Pelton seems to think, despite his cautious verbiage. He is not thinking about this year, an expected banner year for Cessna single-engine production; he's looking decades ahead. But it's fair to close on his note of caution.

"We're not going to build this, unless we have a high level of confidence we can meet expectations for quality and performance," he told the throng. From the oohs and ahhs that greeted the unveiling of the red and white Proof of Concept, they're well on the way.

FMI: www.cessna.com

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