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Over the Rainbow

Bailey S. Barnard

If not good times, these are at least better times in Wichita, Kan., home of Bombardier Learjet, Cessna Aircraft, and other business-jet and personal-aircraft makers. Here in America’s heartland, two leading private-jet manufacturers are developing and delivering a range of new aircraft that, in most cases, offer superior performance, safety, reliability, efficiency, comfort, and value.

"Nothing in our industry is more exciting than new products," says Brad Thress, senior vice president of business jets for Cessna, which has introduced four new jet models in the last two years: The $4.2 million Citation M2 and $21.5 million Citation Ten are expected to enter service next year, and the $14.9 million Citation Latitude and $26 million Citation Longitude are still a few years away. Cessna’s Wichita neighbor, Learjet, which Canadian transportation conglomerate Bombardier acquired in 1990, has three new models in the pipeline: the $11 million Learjet 70 and $13.5 million Learjet 75, which will replace the 10-year-old Learjet 40 and 45, respectively, and the $20 million Learjet 85, which will be the manufacturer’s longest-range model and its first to feature a composite fuselage. Learjet expects all three models to enter service next year. (For details on all forthcoming models, see "Arrivals and Standbys")

In the years leading up to the recent recession, business was booming even more in Wichita, where the established manufacturers and numerous startup aircraft makers had several years’ worth of orders on the books and were giving their R-and-D teams virtually limitless budgets to develop new models. Then the momentum halted, resulting in the failure of startups and the losses of thousands of jobs at Cessna, Learjet, and Hawker Beechcraft.

This is not the first time the industry has experienced such a dramatic swing. In the decade prior to the Great Depression, Cessna, Beech, Mooney, and dozens of other aircraft companies were founded in Wichita, leading to its nickname: the Air Capital of the World. The industry stalled during the Great Depression, but World War II fueled its recovery, when the U.S. government ordered an unprecedented number of aircraft. A slump and layoffs followed the war, but then in 1962 Bill Lear arrived in Wichita and began building the Learjet 23, the aircraft that launched the business-jet industry.

The recovery in Wichita is hardly complete. Across town from Cessna and Learjet, Hawker Beechcraft—which has remained in Wichita in some form or another since Walter Beech and his wife, Olive Ann, founded the Beech Aircraft Corporation in 1932—has delayed production of its next composite jet, the light Hawker 200; that aircraft may never reach customers.

After a short boom following its re-formation in 2007, Hawker Beechcraft has struggled in the past few years. Equity firms Goldman Sachs and Onex Partners pieced together the company from Raytheon Aircraft through a $3 billion-plus deal in which the new brand issued a large amount of debt. The weight of that debt burdened the company during and following the recession. In the last four years, Hawker Beechcraft laid off nearly half of its roughly 10,000 employees. In May, to reduce some of its debt, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In July, Hawker Beechcraft announced it was undergoing funding negotiations with China’s Superior Aviation Beijing Co. At press time, the details of those negotiations were unclear. In June, however, Hawker Beechcraft executive vice president Shawn Vick noted the success of Hawker Beechcraft’s XPR Performance Upgrades program (xpr.hawkerbeechcraft.com), which gives owners of the Hawker 400XP, Beechjet 400A, and Hawker 800 jets the opportunity to improve the range and reduce the operating cost of those planes. Hawker Beechcraft announced the factory-completed XPR program in May 2010, and Vick said the company currently has a backlog of orders for the upgrades.

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