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September 4, 1999 - Market Leader Almost Ruined by U.S. Lawsuits

September 4, 1999 - Market Leader Almost Ruined by U.S. Lawsuits

A FEW years ago, while litigious claimants in the United States were trying to squeeze the odd million dollars out of Cessna - and anyone else who made aircraft - I and other members of the Flight International Paris Show team were perfectly happy to hire a Cessna twin to take us to the French capital from Stapleford in Essex. The same goes for countless other customers.

In general aviation, private and business flying, Cessna Aircraft, of Wichita, Kansas, is number one in the world. The company has delivered thousands more aircraft than any other manufacturer, mostly light private and club aircraft, with up to four seats. The 404 Titan is one of the company's larger twin-engined models. The first was the Cessna 310 of 1953 and since then many thousands of twin-engined Cessnas have been delivered. At first, these aircraft had two piston-driven engines of 240hp each, but over the years customers have wanted more. The 404 has 375hp engines. Some models have a pressurised cabin for efficient cruising at a height of about 25,000ft and the cruising speed is typically 230mph. These are smooth and reliable aircraft with anything up to 12 seats arranged in side-by-side pairs. Dual controls can be provided for two pilots at the front. In 1974, Cessna decided that, with the fast, pressurised Golden Eagle already in production, it would begin production of a new line of aircraft using the more powerful turboprop engines, where a jet engine drives a propeller. The resulting aircraft, the Conquest I, with the Canadian 450hp PT6A engines, and the Conquest II with 636hp TEP331 engines, were made by AlliedSignal in the US.

In the early 1980s, Cessna was churning out such aircraft for the world market. Then it was knocked for six by litigants in the US who found they could sue at the drop of a hat, even for a supposed fault in an aircraft bought second -hand. Cessna simply shut down its piston-engined production lines (while continuing to make expensive business jets).

Something had to be done and on 17 August, 1994, President Clinton signed the General Aviation Revitalization Act which enabled limited production of the propeller aircraft to begin again. It should be emphasised that none of this litigation in any way reflected on the aircraft or the good name of Cessna. Throughout, Cessna's French licensee, Reims Aviation, never ceased production. Today, the threat of capricious litigation in the US has been eased, but Cessna has still not resumed production of aircraft with twin piston engines. Probably hit harder than any other company by US litigants, Cessna is clawing its way back into this market and it will be intensely interested to discover the cause of a serious accident involving what was no doubt a properly maintained aircraft occupied by experienced flight crews.

It was inconceivable that this could happen, despite early reports of propeller trouble. It was a fine day in Glasgow. What could happen? A collision with a power cable? With a giant bird? Maybe a foreign body got stuck in the flight controls? We will eventually know. lBill Gunston OBE, a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, was a pilot and instructor with the RAF from 1945 to 1948 and has written for the aviation journal Flight International for more than two decades.

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