According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, some 14,398 single-piston-engine aircraft were made in the U.S. in 1978. Then came the 1979 recession, soaring fuel prices and shortages, and double-digit interest rates. The late 1970s also saw an explosion of lawsuits filed against light-aircraft manufacturers. Virtually any time a small airplane crashed, no matter the cause, the manufacturer was sued. Settling or defending the suits dramatically raised the price of each aircraft. Manufacturers’ liability insurance rates increased, as did the rates of insurance for private pilots.
Demand for light airplanes starting dropping, and general aviation manufacturers started to scale back. By 1986, the number of single-piston-engine aircraft produced by all U.S. manufacturers dropped to just 985.
Cessna’s light-airplane dealer network had been shrinking, and in 1986 Bruce Keller was one of only four district sales managers left. He was working in New Hampshire when the phone rang in his hotel room. The voice on the other end said, “Bruce, come to Wichita.” Keller got on the phone to his three remaining colleagues, who had all received the same foreboding call. Cessna had decided to pull the plug on piston-engine aircraft production (the company had a much more profitable business jet division). Keller and the others were let go. “It was a tough day,” he says.
Keller found work managing a small airport and later as a customer service manager for United Airlines at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. The work was unsatisfying, but he can joke about it now. “My job was handling problem passengers and the FAA, and I could get the two groups mixed up.”
In 1994, after much industry lobbying, Congress passed the General Aviation Revitalization Act. The legislation immunized general aviation aircraft manufacturers from liability related to defects in aircraft that are more than 18 years old. The law enticed Cessna to restart single-piston-engine aircraft production, and by 1996, “Old Bruce” was back in the saddle selling the company’s Skyhawks, Skylanes, and Stationairs.
The industry, however, has yet to return to the halcyon days of 1978. Last year, the total number of U.S. single-piston-engine aircraft produced was just 2,024, a little more than double the 1986 low. Cessna accounted for 822 of the total, while relative newcomers Cirrus and Columbia delivered 600 and 114, respectively.
The introduction of sleek fiberglass composite airplanes like those from Cirrus, Columbia, and Liberty are clearly giving the old-line metal airplane manufacturers like Beechcraft, Cessna, Mooney, and Piper competition in what is already a tight market. Add in the 261 single-engine models produced last year by Canada’s Diamond Aircraft, and new-line manufacturers account for almost half of all single-engine aircraft produced in 2005.
So far, the old-line companies are surviving by exploiting their name recognition and established product support. All of them have also adopted the “glass cockpit” technology first popularized in light airplanes by Cirrus. Cessna saw demand double for its piston singles after it began replacing “steam gauge” instrument panels with the Garmin G1000 system. So did Mooney. “Your product doesn’t have a shelf life today if it doesn’t have a glass panel in it or you have plans to put it in there pretty darn quick,” says Mooney’s Woods. “If you let your product go stale, you’re dead.”
“Cessna called me and asked my opinion about glass cockpits,” says Cirrus chairman Alan Klapmeier. “I told them it was the best thing we did, and they should definitely go for it.
“I guess I shouldn’t have done that,” he jokes.