Cessna Aircraft Company Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wichita, Kansas-based company specializing in the manufacturing of small planes.

The Early Years

Cessna Aircraft Company had its inception in 1911 when founder Clyde Cessna attended an air show in Oklahoma City. Aviation so enthused Cessna that he moved to New York and spent three weeks working on an aircraft assembly line to learn all he could about flight. After returning to Oklahoma, Cessna purchased a monoplane and began making demonstration flights. Cessna also hoped to use his new monoplane as a blueprint for his own planes. Despite having no formal engineering training, Cessna produced several airplanes over the next seven years, first on his farm west of Wichita and after 1916 in Wichita itself. The United States’ entrance into World War I in 1917 stifled Cessna’s hopes to build a successful flight training school, and he was unable to secure any government manufacturing contracts. Cessna left the aircraft business in 1918 and did not return for seven years. Cessna focused on farming until 1925, when two Wichita aircraft builders, Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, asked Cessna to join them in establishing a new company, TravelAir. Cessna and Stearman designed the TravelAir 5000, which won the 1927 Dole Race to Hawaii. Other TravelAir designs also became very popular. However, Cessna was not content at TravelAir, and he sold his stock in 1927 to start Cessna Aircraft Company.

The Depression

Cessna enjoyed success during the late 1920’s. The United States was in love with aviation, particularly after Charles A. Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927. Cessna did well with two production models, the AW and BW, as well as specialized racing planes, but the good times did not last long. The Great Depression crippled the American economy, and aircraft manufacturers went bankrupt as their market disappeared. Cessna closed its doors in 1931, and Clyde Cessna never returned to the company he founded, though he did produce several highly successful racing aircraft during the 1930’s. Cessna’s nephews Dwane and Dwight Wallace resurrected the company in 1934. The Wallace brothers immediately set to work on a new aircraft, the C-34. The C-34 was designed for efficiency and long-term service, hoping to attract businessmen looking for reliable and cost-effective air transportation. The new plane boasted a cruising speed of 143 miles per hour and a range of 550 miles, while consuming only five gallons of fuel per hour. The single-engine C-34 and its descendants became known popularly as Cessna’s Airmaster line. The company also produced a twin-engine plane, the T-50, nicknamed the Bobcat. The first T-50 flew in 1939 and boasted such features as retractable landing gear, hydraulic brakes, and a 1,000-mile cruising range. Though not as luxurious as some of its competitors, the T-50 cost considerably less. During World War II, the T-50 saw extensive service as a trainer aircraft, redesignated as the AT-17.

Wartime Production

As World War II loomed, Cessna’s established reputation made the company an important part of the nation’s preparedness efforts. The firm received its first order from Canada, which ordered five hundred modified T-50’s and two hundred extra engines. The U.S. government soon followed with its own orders. As a result of this new demand, Cessna’s employment increased from 200 in 1940 to 1,500 by the spring of 1941. After the United States entered the war, Cessna diversified its production to meet wartime demands. The company built subassemblies for the massive Boeing B-29 bomber. Cessna also designed a cargo plane, the C-106, but the craft never went into production. Cessna built 6,111 planes for the U.S. war effort, including 750 CG-4A-CE gliders. Production lines ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, beginning early in 1942. Employees could make use of their own club, with a gym and a lounge. The company was among only 3 percent of U.S. manufacturers to earn the prestigious Army-Navy “E” rating, awarded to manufacturers that met production goals, five times during the war.

Postwar Hopes

Aviation enthusiasts envisioned a postwar United States that would take to the air in great numbers. The idea of providing families with safe, affordable airplanes as an alternative to automobile or rail travel attracted many within the aircraft industry. Cessna’s production capabilities and experience positioned the company to take advantage of this new opportunity in the general aviation sector. Cessna produced the Model 120 in 1946, at a price of $2,695. This would be as close as any U.S. aviation manufacturer would come to producing an aircraft suitable for the needs and budgets of American families. The 120 could cruise at 100 miles per hour and promised durability with less maintenance. The company also produced a more expensive, upgraded version known as the Cessna 140. Cessna promoted its new product line by establishing distributorships around the world. In December, 1946, Cessna produced almost as many small planes as all of its competitors combined. The company built on the success of the 120 and 140 by introducing three new models, the 190 and 195 in 1947, and the 170 in 1948. The 190 and 195 were designed for greater luxury, and the 170 could carry four people, as opposed to only two in the 120 and 140. Despite these new designs, Cessna struggled through the end of the 1940’s. The United States’ economy sagged as it readjusted to peacetime production, and aircraft companies had to find other ways to make profits. Cessna’s Wichita competitor Beech investigated automobiles and prefabricated housing. Cessna looked to somewhat more mundane products including furniture, hydraulics, and aluminum lockers. The furniture-making enterprise proved the most profitable, particularly after the company won a contract from the Army Quartermaster Corps. After the Army contract expired, Cessna tried to market its furniture line through Chicago-based department store Marshall Field’s. Finally, the demand for aircraft increased to the point that Cessna could eliminate its furniture operation in 1951. In the 1950’s, Cessna continued expanding its offerings. In 1953, Cessna debuted the Model 180 and the 182 Skyline which promised greater performance, though at a greatly increased price of $13,000. The company also introduced the 172 Skyhawk in 1956 as an improved version of the 170. Cessna diversified its product line even further in 1954 by entering the luxury twin-engine market with the Model 310, which would be immortalized in the television program Sky King (1951-1952, 1956-1962). Cessna’s 2,489 planes sold in 1958 made the company the world’s largest private-plane manufacturer.

The Jet Age

Cessna continued its advancements in design with the 1961 production of the Model 336-337 Skymaster. The Skymaster boasted two engines, but rather than placing one on each wing, Cessna put one on the nose and the other between twin tails. This configuration eliminated the dangerous situation of unequal thrust in case of engine failure. The Skymaster won excellent reviews from aviation experts, but it did not attract buyers due to its unconventional appearance. In fact, the Skymaster failure did not seriously damage the company because Cessna and Dwane Wallace had already turned to the jet market. Originally, company officials hoped to design a high-end turboprop plane that would fit the market niche between small private planes and the expensive business jets then making their first appearance. Wallace soon saw that a turboprop model was not the solution. Responding to the success of Wichita-based Learjet, Cessna produced the Citation in 1972. In designing the new plane, Cessna stuck with its established formula of offering the customer a safe and efficient aircraft at a reasonable price. The Citation offered quiet and reliable performance with less maintenance and better fuel economy. The plane had room for comfortable accommodations for six people at about half the price of its competitors. The new jet did, however, have its drawbacks. Its cruising speed of 400 miles per hour was 150 miles per hour slower than the Learjet models, and the Citation had a somewhat strange appearance, with its straight wings and blunt nose. Critics felt that the Citation stood little chance of success, and early sales favored the competition. The company stood behind its design, and by 1978, the Citation was the world’s fastest-selling corporate jet. The company expanded its offerings by following up the original Citation with the Citation I and II models. Cessna hoped to move into new market territory, however, and began development on a larger, faster, and more luxurious jet, the Citation III. The first prototype of the Citation III flew in 1979 and Cessna delivered the first production models in 1983. The Citation III cruised at 509 miles per hour and could fly 2,500 miles. The cost of the jet in 1984 was $6,120,000, but that did not deter customers who purchased fifty of the planes that year, far above the totals of Cessna’s competition. The company redesigned the Citation III extensively in 1990, giving the plane a new avionics package, an improved interior, and changes in the airframe. Cessna completed the evolution of the original Citation line with the VI and VII models. The Citation VI was a lower-priced version of the Citation III, which Cessna delivered in 1991. The Citation VII was a larger and more powerful model, delivered in 1992.

Corporate Changes

The economic pressure of developing the Citation line stretched Cessna’s resources. Customers complained that their planes did not function reliably and the company’s maintenance and repair services did not always meet expectations. Cessna sent out more than one hundred service bulletins addressing problems, publicly highlighting the shortcomings of the early Citations. The company also faced stiff competition from other firms. These problems made it impossible for Cessna to remain an independent company. In 1985, General Dynamics acquired Cessna and promised to continue and improve the Citation line. In 1992, Textron purchased Cessna from General Dynamics for $600 million in cash. These changes in corporate structure did not change Cessna’s focus, however. The company remained the world’s largest seller of business jets through the end of the century.

  • Philips, Edward H. Cessna: A Master’s Expression. Eagan, Minn.: Flying Books, 1985. A useful starting point for the history of Cessna Aircraft.
  • Porter, Donald. The Cessna Citations. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1993. This book covers the development of Cessna’s highly influential Citation business jets.
  • Rowe, Frank Joseph, and Craig Miner. Borne on the South Wind: A Century of Aviation in Kansas. Wichita: Wichita Eagle and Beacon, 1994. This book covers the development of aviation in the state of Kansas. It does not go into great depth, but it does offer important information about Cessna and its role in aviation, both worldwide and as a key component to the state’s economy. It is also well illustrated.
Categories: History