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OSHKOSH 2009: Cessna to begin SkyCatcher deliveries in 4Q

Cessna is ready to begin deliveries in the fourth quarter of its 162 SkyCatcher light sport aircraft (LSA), having just completed flight testing to American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards.

The manufacturer announced at AirVenture 2009 in Oshkosh that the SkyCatcher is now in compliance with ATSM standards, which takes the place of formal US FAA certification for LSA aircraft. Cessna was originally scheduled to complete ATSM flight testing at the end of last year but the programme was set back by two crashes.

Cessna has secured over 1,000 orders for the SkyCatcher and says the first aircraft is now scheduled to be delivered in the fourth quarter of this year. SkyCatcher project engineer Neal Willford says Cessna is not yet ready to say how many aircraft will be delivered this year, explaining that a new delivery schedule is still being worked on. He says Cessna's Chinese partner, Shenyang Aircraft, will eventually produce 600 SkyCatchers per year but it has not yet decided how long it will take before full rate production is reached.

Willford says Shenyang Aircraft is now doing first article inspection on the fuselage of the first production aircraft. Shenyang will be responsible for producing and assembling all the production aircraft and flight testing each aircraft to Cessna standards. Each aircraft will then be disassembled and shipped to Wichita, where four to six weeks later the aircraft will be reassembled and flight tested again prior to delivery.

While ATSM testing was scheduled to be completed by the end of 2008 Cessna wasn't originally scheduled to begin SkyCatcher deliveries until the second half of 2009 due to the time it takes for Shenyang to prepare the tooling required to manufacture production aircraft. Willford says Cessna has been able to speed up this process and offset delivery delays caused by delays in the flight test programme by producing in Kansas the vertical tails and rudders for the first batch of production aircraft. These parts along with part of the aluminium seat have already been shipped to China.

While Cessna waits for the first production aircraft to finish in China, Cessna after AirVenture will be using the only prototype to flight test optional equipment. This prototype crashed in March during a spin but was rebuilt after the crash using a new wing and tail that was produced in China. The first prototype crashed and was destroyed last September during a spin. Several changes were made after each crash to improve the aircraft's design and handling.

Willford says in September the prototype will be sent to King Schools to complete videos which will be used as part of a new Web-based flight training system that Cessna will offer in partnership with King.

Cessna vice president of propeller aircraft sales John Doman expects flight schools to account for 60% of SkyCatcher deliveries. Cessna Pilot Centres account for about one third of total orders and are expected to begin training on SkyCatchers early next year.

"Flight schools are the primary market," Doman says. "The idea is to expand the base and bring more people into aviation. This is an efficient, safe and fun aircraft to fly."

Doman says while one sale has already been sealed at AirVenture, where the SkyCatcher is now on display, sales activity currently is slow. He claims this is not because of the economy but because most potential customers do not want to wait four years for an aircraft.

"Not too many people are keen to sign up right now because of the long lead time," Doman says, adding for the next delivery slot "you are probably looking at 2012".

While the economy has prompted customers for other aircraft types to defer and cancel orders, Doman says that "as far as the SkyCatcher is concerned, the order book is solid".

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