A Decade of Independence
Cessna celebrates another anniversary in 2006
BY JULIE K. BOATMAN
While the celebration of the Cessna 172's fiftieth birthday may steal center stage, another no-less-important anniversary is taking place in a town in southeastern Kansas.
In July 1996, Cessna opened its new facility in Independence, bringing single-engine piston-aircraft production to the town, population 10,000, and becoming its largest employer (well outpacing the local Wal-Mart), according to chamber of commerce statistics. When the 172 line at Cessna's Pawnee facility in Wichita shut down in 1986, no one knew for certain if the model would come back to life — but there was hope. And when Congress passed the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) in 1994, and Cessna made good on its promise to start building piston singles again, there was little doubt it would start with its tried-and-true favorite, the 172.
The company picked Independence from four contenders in the state of Kansas. "It was a green field — a clean-sheet, single-engine-piston facility" from the start, says Jack Pelton, current chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Cessna Aircraft. A facility that could handle not only the production of aircraft but also house a world-class customer delivery and acceptance center. And it brought jobs to one of the most economically depressed regions of the state, and, according to Pelton, that fit in well with Cessna's corporate culture.
Pat Boyarski was general manager of single-engine production at the time. "I watched the facility as it was built in Independence, as we hired and trained new employees, and as production ramped up." The company took a core group of about 50 employees from Wichita out to the new factory to help train local workers.
"We decided to call back a large number of retirees who had previously built [the 172] to help our new employees on the line," says Boyarski. Though the majority of the new hires in 1996 had no prior aircraft-assembly experience, Boyarski relates that for "key skilled positions, such as flight line mechanics, we did look for prior experience and preferred A&P-licensed mechanics."
While the transition wasn't without its challenges, there were advantages to starting with fresh employees. "You can develop an employee from scratch, teaching him or her the skills and behaviors for the particular job that they will perform," says Boyarski. Bringing back the retiree group also smoothed some of the rough edges.
Within a year of the plant's opening, the 172 was joined by 182s and 206s in production. Now, after a year in which Cessna's Independence facility rolled out more than 850 singles, the company is looking at increasing production significantly in 2006. Pelton indicated that the current order backlog supports production of nearly 1,000 piston singles for the coming year. So far, more than 6,000 airplanes have been delivered from the plant's wide apron.
In the early days of the Citation Mustang program, Cessna looked at its Wichita facilities and saw a full house. Pelton says the decision to move Mustang production was a way "to reward the folks in Independence while leveraging our floor space," and he likens the neighboring piston and jet lines to the same mix of Caravans and Citation Xs currently in the main Wichita plant. Efficiencies introduced with the combination of the 172, 182, and 206 lines freed up the space to allow for this new personal jet to come to roost. The company also broke ground on new buildings in late 2004 — a 90,000-square-foot flight and delivery building and an 11,000-square-foot aircraft completions building plus expansion of the customer service center — in anticipation of Mustang production.
The Mustang comes to Independence with modern tooling and manufacturing processes already in place, and the workforce — with 10 years of experience behind it — is ready. After all, the 172 goes out the door now with a very similar instrumentation and navigation system (the Garmin G1000 integrated flight deck) as the Mustang will — Mustang pilots of the future likely got their start in the company's prodigious singles. There's really no better proof that Cessna's good-faith commitment to invest again in single-engine production — and in a willing rural community — has paid off.
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Additional information about Cessna's Independence facility may be found on AOPA Online.