As one of the most popular small aircraft manufacturers of all time, Cessna has a rich history and as a company, has been integral to the development of general aviation for nearly a century. Today, let’s take a look at the fascinating background of Cessna Aircraft.
Early Years of Clyde Cessna
The name Cessna comes from its founder, Clyde Cessna. Born in a small, southwestern town in Iowa, his father moved the family’s farm to Rago, Kansas when the boy was just two years old. As he grew up, tending to crops and livestock, Clyde became a master at repairing and improving machinery like tractors and automobiles. Even though he only received a formal education up to fifth grade, Cessna was a wildly intelligent engineer. And ultimately, the hard-working spirit he developed helping on the farm followed him throughout his career and the founding years of Cessna Aircraft.
Clyde Cessna’s First Monoplanes
By the age of 30, Clyde had moved from Kansas to Enid, Oklahoma, a town which he would soon put on the map. At this point in time, the future aircraft designer worked in the automobile trade, selling and fixing cars. But he had become enamored with this new phenomena of flying – particularly after Louis Blériot successfully completed the English Channel crossing in a monoplane in 1909. Just two years later, a flying circus would come to Oklahoma City, and a young Clyde Cessna happened to be in the audience. This event would be the catalyst for the founding of Cessna Aircraft.
After learning how much airplane barnstormers made, he quit his career in automobiles and used the payout to fund a different venture. Since airplanes were such a novelty in the early 1900s, people would pay a pretty penny to see one in action, zipping around the sky. The lure of thousands of dollars and aviation fame was too much for Clyde Cessna to ignore. He moved to New York for a short time, where he got a job at Queen Aeroplane Company, allowing him to fine-tune his already mechanically inclined skills. Soon thereafter, he purchased a Moisant Blériot airplane kit for $7,500, and began putting it together at his home. Cessna constructed the monoplane out of light spruce wood and fine linen and assembled it with a two-stroke, four-cylinder 50-hp Elbridge modified boat motor.
Cessna famously tested his new aircraft, endearingly called “Silverwing,” on the flat, barren Great Salt Plains of Oklahoma in 1911. Crowds of spectators would gather to watch him attempt to get his monoplane off the ground. Remember that not even a decade earlier, the Wright Brothers achieved flight for the first time, so there were still much-needed improvements. As you would expect for an inexperienced Cessna, the maiden flight was unsuccessful. The plane experienced heavy, costly damage and spectators wrote Silverwing off as nothing more than a novelty. But that wouldn’t stop the man from trying again. Over and over, he brought his monoplane to the Great Salt Flats and failed to become airborne a dozen times. Finally, the 13th attempt saw Cessna’s Silverwing leave the ground, even though it ultimately crashed into the brush. By June of that same year, Cessna made his first successful flight, earning him the nickname, the “Birdman of Enid” and gaining some regional notoriety for his piloting capabilities. By December, Cessna had become skilled enough to take-off and land on a five-mile flight, becoming the first person to fly between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
Founding of Cessna Aircraft
With an invigorated spirit after a series of successful flights, Clyde Cessna started work on several new monoplanes, which he showed off at various exhibitions, fairs and barnstorming events to help finance his operation. Soon, he was making hundreds of dollars per show, enough to support his manufacturing vision. In 1916, he opened the Cessna Aeroplane Exhibition Company with his brother and acquired factory space in a Wichita-based Jones Motor Car plant. This location also served as one of the first flight schools in the Midwest. Bad luck would strike the following year, however, when the United States entered World War I. Fuel rationing measures and a draft put a halt to any exhibition flying as the country achieved a full wartime footing.
With waning support from his investors and no assistance from the government, Clyde shuttered the business and returned to the family farm in Rago, Kansas in 1918. Still, the Cessna brothers managed to manufacture two semi-successful planes: an exhibition-friendly single-seater and a long-distance two-seater, known as “Comet”, capable of flying from Oklahoma to New York. Even though he had returned to his farm, Cessna patiently waited for the war to end so he could once again delve back into the aviation world. That time came in 1925 when he was approached by partners Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman to found the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. With Cessna as president, the company quickly became one of the world’s most popular aircraft brands, setting numerous distance and speed records in their series of biplanes. Unfortunately, Cessna’s stubborn commitment to the monoplane design would be the death blow to the company. Only two years after its founding, Cessna left Travel Air Manufacturing Company to start his own business.
In mid 1927, he formed Cessna-Roos Aircraft with aviation entrepreneur Victor Roos, although that would last just a few weeks. When Roos resigned, Cessna Aircraft Corporation was officially registered in December that year. Even though he had successfully built the A Series (also known as AWs), four-seater high-wing monoplanes, Cessna struggled to bring an efficient product to market throughout the late 1920s. Shortly thereafter, he built a more powerful BW series, followed by the six-seat racer CW-6 and the DC-6 the following year. Finally, by 1930, in collaboration with his son Eldon, the pair developed the CR-series of racing airplanes. Although popular, achieving top placements in several competitive air races, Cessna would face even more turmoil over the next several years thanks to the Great Depression. The market crash dramatically affected aircraft sales across the industry which led to Cessna declaring bankruptcy and closing the company in 1931.
Another tragic moment in Clyde Cessna’s life struck when good friend and fellow pilot, Roy Liggett died when his CR-2 racer airplane crashed. After this event, the founder of one of the most influential aviation companies in the world lost much of his will to continue on with his life’s work. Even though he re-opened his factory near the start of World War II, he immediately sold the entire company to his nephews, Dwane and Dwight Wallace in 1934. Cessna ceremonially participated in the company but avoided day-to-day work until his death in the 1950s. However, his pioneering spirit that was in place since the beginning would stick with the company into the future.
WWII: Cessna’s New Beginnings
In 1933, Dwane Wallace, Clyde Cessna’s younger nephew, graduated from Wichita University with a degree in aeronautical engineering and went to work at Beech Aircraft Company. Since it occupied a section of the closed Cessna factory, an opportunity arose when Beech decided to move his factory elsewhere. With his brother Dwight, the pair successfully convinced their uncle to reopen his once-promising airplane manufacturing plant. As company officers, the brothers oversaw the design and development of a new model of aircraft, the C-34 Airmaster. The design, credited to Dwane Wallace, featured cantilever wings, four-seat cabin and 145-hp piston engine. With the plane’s popularity at air exhibitions around the U.S., this new model got Cessna back on its feet.
In the lead up to World War II, with the Wallace brothers now at the helm, Cessna built its first official twin-engine aircraft, the T-50 Bobcat. In just nine months, the plane was designed and manufactured in order to fulfill military orders. Both the U.S. and Canada used the T-50 as essential trainer crafts for new pilots. In just two years, Cessna’s workforce grew from a few hundred to over 1,500 employees thanks to the war effort. And by 1941, the company had expanded its product line, manufacturing cargo aircraft and troop gliders in addition to trainer planes. WWII supplied Cessna with plenty of work, growing their factory size by a factor of 10 and their workforce to over 6,000 employees. But by the 1950s, with the war at an end, military contracts shored up, and it was time for the Wallaces to pivot the business.
Introduction of Cessna 172 & Business Jets
During the business boom of the post-WWII era, there was a growing need for corporate aircraft. With supply low, Cessna decided to enter the market, producing the 310 model in 1954, a plane specially designed for executives. At the same time, the company introduced the T-37, a small jet trainer for the Air Force. Another significant milestone came with the Model 150 in 1959. This was Cessna’s first all-metal, 100-horsepower plane, which was also highly popular with flight schools. But, in terms of successful aircraft, the introduction of the Cessna 172 in 1956 would catapult the company into the “Big Three”, along with Beechcraft and Piper. This single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft quickly became popular and today is the most successful aircraft in history, measured by longevity and units built.
The company reached an output of more than 3,000 aircraft per year by the late 1960s while also acquiring several companies like Aircraft Radio Corporation and Reims Aviation. They also reached milestones like the launch of their first agriculture-class aircraft and a cabin-class airplane, the 411. With this, they officially upgraded their position in the business aviation market. Following a growing number of brands entering the corporate jet market, like Lear, Beech and Mooney, Cessna responded with its first corporate jets, the Citation and Conquest. From a profit standpoint, it was a home run. By the time Dwane Wallace stepped down as chairman and was replaced by Russell Meyer in 1975, these two planes had become one of the company’s best-performing designs. This led to sales topping a billion dollars, and record-high market share of 54 percent by 1980.
Acquisitions and Positioning for the Future
The cost of running an aircraft manufacturing company isn’t cheap, and Cessna found that out the hard way. By 1985, reserves had dried up, costs skyrocketed and the company was officially acquired by defence contractor, General Dynamics. Both companies benefited from the partnership, with Cessna supplying engineering for missile systems and General Dynamics supplying financial protection and business experience. However, it wasn’t long until the two parted ways and by 1992, General Dynamics sold Cessna to Textron, parent company of Bell Helicopter and Beechcraft. Under Textron, the company succeeded on the path toward more success with its line of business jets, including the Citation X, the world’s fastest corporate plane at the time. Single-engine piston aircraft resumed after President Bill Clinton signed the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994. CEO Russ Meyer was present for the signing, and quickly resumed plans on a piston aircraft line, including the 172 and 182. As the turn of the century approached, Cessna maintained its position as the largest private aircraft manufacturer in the country thanks to its broad range of products. Their new partnership with Textron continues to play an important role in the company to this day, and together, they lead the pack as America’s best small aircraft company.
Is Cessna Still in Business? Where They Stand Today
After successfully navigating the early 2000s, Cessna was hurt particularly bad by the Great Recession of 2008. Although they made massive layoffs and cuts to their budget, they couldn’t recover from the ill effects of the largest market crash since the 1930s. And, although they came out of the Great Depression just fine, they weren’t so lucky this time around. As such, Textron Aviation absorbed the company and Cessna ceased operations in 2014. Even though the company is officially shuttered, the spirit and popularity of Cessna lives on. In fact, there’s not many pilots flying in today’s age who haven’t logged some hours in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, which is still in production by Textron Aviation.
Are you interested in renting a Cessna?
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