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Cessna Downsizes Its Chinese Assembly Plans

Cessna Downsizes Its Chinese Assembly Plans

April 07, 2014
Credit: Cessna Aircraft

In late 2012, Cessna was planning to assemble two business jet types in China, working with two subsidiaries of Avic at two sites, while one of those partners also prepared to assemble the Caravan turboprop at a third location. The Cessna Skycatcher sport utility aircraft was being made at yet another site, and local assembly of the forthcoming Cessna Latitude was considered a prospect.

Now Cessna is far less ambitious. It has scaled back its Chinese program to only the Citation XLS+, which was the smallest of the two business jets, and the Caravan. The Skycatcher, a seemingly promising aircraft when launched in 2007, is out of production and has, according to Cessna CEO Scott Ernest, “no future.” Cessna is now working with just one Avic partner, general aviation specialist Caiga, and only two sites.

Production economics and a need to simplify the management challenge drove down the size of Cessna’s Chinese plans. The other partner, now dropped, was Avic Aviation Techniques (AAT), a fighter builder that also plans to move into business aircraft. It and Cessna were to assemble the Citation Sovereign at Chengdu while another Cessna-Caiga joint venture assembled the XLS+ at Zhuhai.

Cessna came around to the view that it would be more efficient to concentration production at one site, says Bill Harris, vice president for Asia-Pacific sales. “It was more an economic decision,” he says. “It makes more sense to have one factory.”

Easing the management burden was another reason to drop AAT, says an industry official familiar with Cessna’s thinking. In the end, the speed of talks with Caiga probably helped Cessna in choosing that partner. The XLS+ plan was announced in November 2012, eight months after the Sovereign plan, but within half a year it had progressed further (AW&ST April 22, 2013, p. 24).

Avic can be unrealistic in its ambitions, wanting to run before it has learned to walk, say Western industry executives who work with it. In the case of the Cessna joint venture, Caiga has willingly accepted Cessna’s urging that the joint venture must first learn to crawl. Its people are only painting the first XLS+ aircraft that will be delivered from Zhuhai, in southern China. Caiga’s plant at Shijiazhuang, south of Beijing, delivered its first Caravans in December—again, after only painting them.

Both programs will progress through steadily more complex processes until they put together aircraft with assemblies sent by Cessna; manufacturing is not planned.

The customers will be Chinese. The market seems clear for the Caravan, which could perform many useful roles, especially in western China, where ground communication links are poor. But Chinese buyers of business jets have shown little interest in aircraft of the size of the XLS+, which has a gross weight of 9.16 metric tons (20,200 lb.). The market is heavily skewed toward large aircraft and shows little sign of changing (see page 59).

Caiga, meanwhile, has its own project for business aircraft, the Primus 150. As a single-engine turboprop, it is even further from Chinese tastes than the XLS+ and therefore will have to rely heavily on export sales. It is now due to fly in the first half of this year, up to eight months behind schedule.

Ground tests are being conducted on the first prototype of the aircraft, which Caiga is calling the TP150. A General Electric H85 engine of 630 kw (850 hp.) powers the all-composite aircraft.

“It is hoped that the TP150 will achieve airworthiness certification and enter service in 2015, and that it will be able to perform at the 2014 Zhuhai air show,” says Caiga. The aircraft was due to fly in October 2013. The target for entry into service has not been changed, but the wording of Caiga’s prepared statement suggests it is no longer firm.

The Primus 150, variously described as having five or six seats, is based on the U.S. Epic LT kit-built aircraft. The Chinese manufacturer bought the design from Epic after trying and failing to buy the company in 2010, when it was in bankruptcy.

Caiga emphasizes that it is breaking new ground for itself in building a fully composite airframe for the 2.5-metric-ton aircraft. A particular selling point is its maximum cruise speed of 652 kph (405 mph), which Caiga says is among the fastest for aircraft in the class.

The Primus 150 is aimed at foreign as well as Chinese buyers. Chinese buyers prefer larger aircraft and are at least as suspicious of the safety of propeller-driven aircraft as are people elsewhere, however unjustified that feeling may be. The project was launched with approval from the Avic Group in 2012, in response to the government adopting a policy of opening low-altitude airspace. The Primus 150 is pressurized, however, and has a ceiling of 8,530 meters (28,000 ft.).

Caiga declined a request for information on the project for this report.

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