The headline on the press release caught my eye for two reasons: “Textron Aviation Independence facility delivers 10,000th single-engine aircraft.” One, 10,000 is a lot of airplanes. Two, the August 27, 2014, date reminded me of what general aviation looked like 20 years earlier in August 1994 when President Clinton signed the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA).
The Independence, Kansas, factory sprouted from the prairie less than a year after the bill was signed, with then-Cessna Chairman Russ Meyer breaking ground for the facility on May 19, 1995, in front of more than 1,000 industry and government representatives, including yours truly. By July 1996, the factory began churning out 172 Skyhawks and 182 Skylanes and later 206 Stationairs as well. Although it wasn’t delivered until February 1997, the first 172 delivered was the AOPA 1995 sweepstakes prize. The first new 182 was our 1996 sweepstakes prize, making its way to its winner in 1997.
Construction of the Independence factory was a direct result of GARA, with Meyer stating for years that if product liability reform occurred, the company would return to manufacturing piston airplanes; it had stopped producing piston airplanes in 1986. Within days of the bill being signed, Cessna announced plans to begin looking for a factory site, with several Kansas communities competing for the prize that promised thousands of jobs. By December, Independence community officials learned that their town and its airport would become home to the first Cessna factory outside of Wichita.
That first 172 out of the factory sported a fuel-injected 160-horsepower Lycoming engine, a new cowling design, new crashworthy seats and seat rails, a better ventilation system than previous Skyhawks, and a panel full of the latest avionics gear from Bendix/King, including a basic autopilot. The price: $124,500, which Cessna claimed was slightly less than the last one produced in 1986 when adjusted for inflation. Adjusted for inflation through 2013, the Skyhawk today should sell for about $180,000. However, today’s airplane comes with more power and much better avionics equipment. In 2014, a basic Skyhawk, typically with a 180-horsepower engine and a highly integrated Garmin G1000 cockpit and very capable autopilot, sells for some $370,000; $435,000 if you want the 155-horsepower Continental CD-155 turbo diesel engine.
Today, that Independence factory produces Skyhawks, the Turbo Skylane JT-A turbo diesel, the Stationair, TTx, and two Citation jets—the Mustang and the M2.
GARA accomplished a lot at a time when it seemed as if the GA industry was about to implode. Cessna returned to piston production; Piper emerged from a four-year bankruptcy less than a year after the bill was signed; Cirrus moved out of the kitbuilt industry and began development of the SR20; Lancair expanded from just being a kit company to also developing a production airplane, which became the Columbia—and ultimately the Cessna TTx.
While the GA future brightened in the later 1990s with those new airplanes and the maturation of GPS navigation and IFR GPS approaches, the sales figures and rebound hoped for never materialized.
In an interview in the June 1995 issue of this magazine, Meyer reiterated a prediction he had made for the previous couple of years that Cessna would build 2,000 single-engine airplanes a year. “I’ll make a statement that we will reach a level of 2,000 a year by 1998, and I think that 2,000 per year will be the lowest level annually that we’ll see for 25 years or more.”
Later in the interview he continued, “Two thousand airplanes will be our minimum by the year 2000. I can see us building 3,000 a year comfortably.”
The entire global GA industry did produce 2,750 piston airplanes in 2006, the highest number in recent decades. However, the most Cessna produced was 912 in 2000. Global production of all piston airplanes topped out at only 933 in 2013.
Many believe the manufacturers have priced themselves out of the market, which, with even most Light Sport Aircraft topping $150,000, is probably true.
The good news is that there’s still plenty of life left in the existing fleet, aged as it may be. While the flow from that 20-year-old Independence factory may have slowed to a trickle, the flow of airplanes out of mod shops and quality paint, interior, and avionics shops seems on the upswing. As we’ve shown over the years in our sweepstakes projects and now with our Reimagined 150/152 project, a refurbished airplane can fly on for more decades, bringing pleasure, utility, and value to new generations of pilots.
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Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines learned to fly in a Cessna 150 and 152. The first airplane he owned was a 1977 172N.
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