If there was ever an aircraft company that really symbolized the spirit and contribution of American aviation, Cessna would perhaps be the best candidate for the job. 13th August 1927 was a day as normal as any in Wichita, Kansas. The birds were singing songs of hope while the sunlight was shining upon those who were lucky enough to bathe in it. This wonderful silence was broken by the mighty sound of the CESSNA All Purpose aircraft taking off into the air like a bird trying to fly away from its nest for the first time. On that quiet day in Wichita, Kansas, the world of aviation would completely change. The man behind the company name and the inventor behind the Aircraft, Clyde Cessna was a man of extreme talent. His cantilever design was an innovation in the world of aviation that still stands tall today. It became the gold standard and it still is.
Today, there are too many Cessna aircraft to keep count of. The Cessna 172, Cessna 182, Cessna C501, Cessna 310, Cessna 340 are all part of this one large family. In this piece, we will be performing a deep dive into the roots of Cessna and give you a comprehensive account of their history.
In 1911, the world was much different than today. There were no nuclear-armed powers ready to bomb each other to oblivion. The world hadn’t even gone through the collective traumas of the first and second world wars. Many might say that it was a much quieter place than it is today. However, the spirit of invention that always seems to accompany man was still on Clyde Cessna’s side when he attended a flying exhibition in Oklahoma City. The prophet of flying would soon be able to convert Cessna into his religion as well. Seeing that aviators were in short supply and were being paid as much as $1000 per show, he saw an opportunity. He would immediately end up leaving Oklahoma for New York where he would find a job in the Queen Aeroplane Company. He had made it into the very base of the operation and seen how an aircraft was supposed to be constructed. The knowledge he would gain would prove instrumental later on when he would venture out on his own.
In many ways, Cessna’s own love for the aircraft was the greatest driving force behind the company’s success. If your barber has a bad haircut, you wouldn’t want to trust him with your hair, would you? Cessna himself had an uncontrolled desire for being able to fly. So much so that when the first Cessna was completed, he took the aircraft for himself rather than selling it. His love for aviation was so much that he would end up turning down offers for the aircraft just to experience the pure joy of being in the air himself.
By 1927, Cessna and Victor Roos would end up entering a partnership agreement which would end up forming the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company. Interestingly enough, after only two months, Roos resigned, and the company was renamed only Cessna Aircraft Company. As a company well in its infancy, Cessna needed a long time of economic stability in order to really create a foundation that was going to last a long time. However, that wasn’t going to happen as the period known as the Great Depression would start in a couple of years. Cessna realized that it was going to get much worse before it was going to get better. However, Cessna had one trick up its sleeve that would help. The CR-series was the sole beacon of light for a company like Cessna which was desperately trying to hold on through the turbulent times of the depression.
Interestingly enough, Cessna, the company was able to survive but it seemed like Cessna the man would have a much harder time. Several years after the depression had passed, Cessna was forced out of business due to poor profits, but his nephews would always come and save the day with their sheer hard work. This is why it is quite satisfying to see that Cessna’s nephews would end up taking hold of the company after Clyde himself decided that a return to farming life was good for him. He had lost much of his will to fly after the death of his friend Roy Liggett in Cessna’s very own CR-2 racer plane. He would end up selling the entire company to his nephews in 1934. He would remain a figurehead in the operations of the company until the very end of his days in the 1950s.
War and Profit
Dwight and Dwane Wallace, the two brothers that would power Cessna, saw the potential of Cessna when everyone else had given up on it. C-34 Airmaster was the first airplane that was to come out of the gates of Cessna under the leadership of the Wallace brothers. Dwane Wallace was credited with the design. It had a four-seat cabin, a 145 hp engine, and cantilever wings. The news of the genius design of this new aircraft spread like wildfire throughout the United States. It would always be a favorite at air exhibitions as well. Cessna was well and truly back.
World War II was inching closer. The T-50 Bobcat was the first twin-engine aircraft that Cessna ever built. The entire process of planning, design, and manufacturing was completed in 9 months in order to satisfy the orders of the military. It would end up becoming an integral part of US and Canada fleets where they would be used as trainer aircraft. In just the space of 24 months, the number of people that were working at Cessna ended up increasing from a few hundred to more than 1500 people. The war was bringing death and destruction to the world, but it was bringing a lot of profit to Cessna as well. By the end of the war, Cessna had grown to nearly 6000 employees.
The war was over by 1945. It had the effect of a catalyst on Cessna, being able to take Cessna from a small company that employed a couple of hundred people to a super-massive machine that took 6000 employees to produce a large range of aircraft. However, the real challenge was yet to come. How would the Wallace brothers manage to feed this large beast that they had built when there wasn’t any war money left anymore? The company needed a complete change in direction, and it needed it fast.
There had been so many other companies that had mutated to massive sizes due to the war. The people at the helm of these companies were now controlling operations that were spread all across the world. They needed to ability to travel across great distances in complete comfort and privacy. They also had the money to fulfill this demand as well. The market was ripe for the invention of the private jet aircraft. Cessna was one of the earliest adopters of this model and would end up introducing the 310 model by 1954. It was the first plane that Cessna had ever built that was built purely for executives. It was a moderate success and told the Wallace brothers that there was still more demand yet to come. However, the model that would catapult Cessna into becoming one of the biggest aircraft manufacturers in the entire country was the 172. Released in 1956, it was a single-engine aircraft that went on to a production run so successful that it is widely thought to be the best-selling private aircraft of all time. The total number built stands at over 44,000. Let this number sink in for a second.
By the 1960s, the company was producing about 3,000 aircraft per year. They were also undergoing a process of aggressive expansion. They acquired companies like Aircraft Radio Corp and Reims Aviation. The whole scope of Cessna was also broadened during this period. They ventured into the agricultural-class aircraft field as well. By that time, there was a lot of competition in the private jet market. Learjet and Beechcraft were the biggest entrants into the market.
However, Cessna replied by creating two corporate jets called the Citation and Conquest. Both of the aircraft would end up reaching success that was beyond the imaginations of people even at Cessna itself. By 1975, when Dwane Wallace would pass the crown of Chairman to Russel Meyer, these two models were Cessna’s biggest cash cows. By 1980, Cessna was truly at its peak. It held a staggering 54% market share and sales stood at over a billion dollars.
The aircraft business is one that does not often forgive. The high costs of the inputs that are required in order to construct an aircraft combined with the fact that this market is the first to decline when a downward market trend comes means that you could be entirely wiped out in the span of a few months. By 1985, a company that was leading the private jet industry had completely run out of its cash reserves. General Dynamics would end up acquiring the company. Cessna was able to use its expertise in aviation to create missiles and General Dynamics was able to give them the cash that they truly needed. By 1992, the whole partnership had fallen apart, and Cessna was sold to Textron.
Since Textron was already in the business of aviation due to its ownership of Beechcraft, Cessna was given the blessing of being owned by a like-minded entity. Cessna would end up placing a focus on its business jets such as the Citation X, which was the fastest business jet in the entire world when it was released. By the turn of the century, Cessna was able to still call itself the biggest manufacturer of airplanes in America.
The end of this story is a sad one. Cessna was relatively successful during the early 2000s. However, the recession of 2008 was a hit that not many companies could take. Layoffs and budget cuts followed but that was not enough to keep the company on its own two feet. Textron Aviation ended up completely absorbing Cessna. Today, the company does not exist as an entity anymore. However, the cultural effect that Cessna had will always be remembered. The Cessna 172 is still in production and is often used by pilots who want to learn the ropes of being able to fly.
Starting out as the brainchild of a man who was crazy about aircraft, Cessna went from a small and local operation to the biggest manufacturer of aircraft in the entire world. Even in the used market, Cessna aircraft sell for a good price due to reliability and value-for-money. All of this makes Cessna the quintessential American aircraft manufacturing company.