Build Me an Airplane

Kansas Born

August 1, 2004

On the line at Cessna Aircraft's Independence plant

The open hangar door at the end of the production line lets a big Kansas wind blow in. When that same wind, still howling, first crossed the doorstep of Cessna Aircraft Company's Independence plant seven years ago it coursed over three aircraft production lines — those of the Cessna 172,182, and 206 — and a manufacturing crew composed of both new hires and workers called back from when the line last ran in 1986. But now there's just one line — Cessna integrated the three into a single stream of airplanes moving from start to finish — and an experienced team putting together those airplanes from data plate to spinner.

Terry Clark leads this crew. He's the director of operations for Cessna Aircraft Company's Independence, Kansas, and Columbus, Georgia, plants, and Clark is a safety guy. That's the reason why, if you visit the plant in Independence, where single-engine piston Cessnas come into being from parts and drawings and jigs, you'll need to don wraparound glasses and earplugs just like everyone working on the floor. Specific attention to the details of safety, along with lean manufacturing processes that the production team has implemented, have helped the plant go for more than 600 accident-free days at the time of this writing — and become the division of the company with the highest safety rating.

What does this mean to future Cessna owners and pilots? More productive time for employees translates into more time on the job paying close attention to the details that make up your airplane.

Semi-monocoque construction — maybe you haven't thought about it much because it isn't on the checklist. But an airframe must carry and respond to a certain amount of loading as the result of gravity and its opposing aerodynamic force, lift. Early airframes incorporated truss forms inside fabric to shoulder the load — think Brooklyn Bridge. And yes, that bridge is a little too heavy to fly fast. So engineers developed a way for the skin of the airplane to take the burden, saving weight. Monocoque means "stressed skin"; semi-monocoque implies that the skin carries just part of the load. And Cessnas are born of a semi-monocoque construction.

When Cessna receives each engine from its sister Textron company Lycoming (all variants of Cessna piston singles currently come with Lycoming engines), the engine emerges from the crate naked save for its starter. Wes Kaspar adds the accessories that turn a stock IO-540 into one meant for a 182, including all baffles, the vacuum pump, and mounts to attach it to the airframe and firewall. Preservative oil replaces the packing oil that came with the engine. The preservative oil will stay in place from the time the engine is hung until the aircraft moves into flyable storage.

Up in the Electrical Balcony, wiring harnesses are assembled for avionics and electrical systems, as well as circuit breaker panels and other electrical accessories. Diana Young is working on the circuit breaker panel for the Nav III package that has become the most popular option (currently on 182 and 206 models) since its debut last fall. The Nav III package features the Garmin G1000 primary flight and multifunction displays (see " Cessna 182T: Setting the Standard," March Pilot). The Nav I and Nav II instruments use traditional instruments. Helen Jeter is a router, feeding wires along a routing board to bundle into a harness. "There's an electrical side and an avionics side," says Jeter. The electrical side connects items such as lights and pitot heat to the electrical bus, while the avionics side connects navigation and communication equipment to an avionics bus which is then tied to an electrical bus. She starts with a bunch of wire that is inspected — "every inch of it" — and tagged, then routed from point to point before it is tie-wrapped together. Then the bundle goes to a soldering position where pins and plugs are attached. At that point the bundle returns to Ring Out where it is tested once more.

Jeter, like many of the workers in the Electrical Balcony and throughout the plant at Independence, has been with Cessna more than six years. In fact, many of the current workers on the line trace their employment back to 1997 and the restart of single-engine production at Independence. Their experience shows. The quality of workmanship has improved by the plant's own standards since the early days of the current line.

In another room in the Electrical Balcony, avionics are bench-tested for function prior to installation in the final assembly line, and configured according to the model of airplane in which they will be installed. A Garmin repair station is on site for correcting squawks during the airplane's manufacture. Garmin employee Bruce Showalter, whose brother, Jim, works downstairs on the final assembly line, configures the Garmin G1000 for installation into a 182.

Down on the line, at position 12, the wire bundle is routed through the fuselage, threading through mounts on the bulkheads placed there by Allen Heller. He'll also drill holes for the antennas — about seven on a 182 — and mount them. The wire bundle for the Nav III package has a larger diameter than does the Nav II installation. Not only must more wires route to the tail of the airplane (where the line replaceable units — LRUs — are stowed), but other improvements also add complexity. For example, each cylinder in the engine takes a probe that sends data to the G1000. In the past, a single probe collected cylinder head temperature data for the analog gauge on the panel, with a single probe for the exhaust gas temperature as well.

But the extra wiring bulk is worth it to Clark. "The accessibility of the LRUs is tremendous," he says, noting that their rear location means that an avionics technician need not remove the instrument panel or squeeze behind it to make repairs — a much tougher job than going into a simple access panel in the tail. The rear location also aids center of gravity — especially in the nose-heavier 182s and 206s.

At the same time that the fuselage is coming together, the wings start their lives at the other end of the line in the center of the assembly building. And the airplane doesn't go without the juice. A wing begins with its stomach — the fuel tank.

At the same time the airplane begins life in the jigs, Linda Driskill leads the upholstery team in creating that airplane's interior in a separate shop within the plant. She has been with Cessna for 32 years, working on everything from singles to jets. Driskill's team inspects the raw leather that comes into the shop and tags it, then sets out patterns for each piece according to whether the leather is bound for a pilot's, copilot's, or bench (rear) seat. Once cut, the seats are sewn and mounted to the frame. As a way of tracking the leather and craftsmanship, each upholsterer in the shop signs the interior of every seat on which he or she works. "We're proud of what we put out," says Driskill.

While up in the upholstery shop, Clark demonstrates the ergonomic tools used by the upholsterers and made by the Swedish company Atlas Copco. These tools aren't cheap, explains Clark, but they are another investment made by Cessna to help reduce the number of repetitive-motion injuries suffered by factory workers. "The tool fits your hand well," says Clark, and indeed it does.

Before the airplane rolls into the Paint Building, its surface is colored a matte celadon green, the result of a corrosion-resistant polyamide epoxy coating that covers almost every piece of metal on the airframe and cannot be stripped off. "The only unprocessed part is the firewall," says Clark. "That's stainless steel."

Philip Hoskins leads a crew of up to 10 maskers and eight sanders who prep up to four airplanes a day. "There's too much area to cover without the team of folks," says Hoskins. This is where some Cessna workers get their start. Chris Short began his career at Cessna at this position, and has worked his way up to topcoat.

Short — despite the fact that it's 4 p.m. and he's been around the 85- to 90-degree oven all day — shows enthusiasm for his new job. He notes that each completed airplane carries around about 40 pounds of paint.

Once the airplane is appropriately dressed, it makes its date with the prop, hung by Gary Simpson. He builds up the bulkhead and attaches any deicing accessories. The prop comes inspected and balanced from McCauley, another Textron company with production in Columbus, Georgia; Simpson bolts it onto the airplane and inspects the prop torque bolts. The installation on a 172 takes him about an hour.

Melissa Beougher applies decals to a 172, a process that takes her about two and a half hours. The 182 takes an hour, primarily because the only decals used are the logo on the tail, the N number, and some minor adornments — the 172 acquires its stripes by decal. Because of the 182's (and 206's) more likely exposure to rain in the IFR environment, paint is used for its color scheme.

Cessna waits until the last minute to do two things: install a leather interior on those aircraft so equipped and put on the chrome spinner. All told, it takes about six days for an airplane to make its way through the paint building and proceed to flight.

Jerry Butts retired from the military to his Kansas ranch, but succumbed to the call of Cessna's test-flight program and joined the team of four pilots who fly each airplane through a series of first flights. On the first mission, the pilot flies a standard profile lasting at least an hour and 15 minutes — chutes are optional. "If it turns, I turn it; if it flips, I flip it," says Butts. The pilot then writes up a squawk list, and the second flight is made once those items have been fixed. The pilots complete third and fourth flights only if necessary: A fifth flight is rare.

Once the airplane has been declared trouble-free, it falls into line for delivery. Sharon Fisher works at this position, checking lights, looking for exterior dents and dings, adding winterization screws, checking for foreign objects, and replacing engine oil. If the airplane won't deliver in the next 30 days, it is placed in flyable storage — each airplane must be flown every 30 days for at least one hour and 15 minutes after the oil temperature stabilizes, says Clark. Yes, a few lucky souls have pulled this hard duty, and he's among them. So after his weekdays on the floor of the plant at Independence, you can find Clark in the skies overhead, putting his own and his colleagues' efforts to the test.

E-mail the author at [email protected].