By Jeffrey Decker at Oshkosh

Manufacturer unveils proof-of-concept light sport aircraft and surprises with fly-past of next-generation piston

Cessna unveiled not one, but two new aircraft on the first day of AirVenture 2006, with a surprise fly-past by the company's new piston replacement adding to the excitement of the unveiling of its entry into the fledgling light sport aircraft (LSA) category.

While Cessna was using the Oshkosh, Wisconsin show to test the market for its first LSA, displaying a proof-of-concept aircraft that has yet to fly, the company also used the occasion to announce its commitment to producing a new family of single-engine aircraft under the Next Generation Piston (NGP) programme.

Despite the triple fly-past, Cessna has not released details of the NGP and the prototype did not land at the show. "We're looking at a family of aircraft, so I'm not going to get into specific design requirements," says chairman and chief executive Jack Pelton. The aircraft, with a high-mounted, forward-swept, strutless wing has completed 20h of flight testing. "Before making any commitments, we want to have a high level of confidence that we can meet or exceed those commitments," he says.

There is no timeframe to introduce the new aircraft, but Pelton says it would be in the "not too distant future". The NGP prototype has been flying since 23 June, he reveals, adding: "It is fulfilling all of our expectations, and then some." Cessna's dominance in the single piston market has been challenged by Cirrus Design, and the NGP earned the nickname "Cirrus Killer" when its development was still a rumour.

"We've been looking at a range of possibilities, features, materials, technologies and processes that will result in an aircraft family that is responsive to the market needs and preferences of our customers and will be a strong competitor with the latest single-engine piston aircraft on the market now and in the future," Pelton says.

The company also kept the design of its first LSA under wraps until AirVenture, assembling the aircraft in an Oshkosh hangar just before the show.

The proof-of-concept LSA has no interior, says Neil Wilford, lead engineer on the project, and the 100hp (75kW) Rotax 912 may be swapped for another engine. The high-wing, two-seat, tricycle-gear aircraft is designed to reach the maximum LSA speed of 120kt (220km/h) It has dual control sticks, upward-opening doors and toe brakes, a wingspan of 9m (30ft) and a maximum cabin width of 122cm (48in). The construction is aluminium, save for composites in the cowl, wing and dorsal fin.

The first flight of the proof-of-concept LSA is scheduled for later this year. Cessna was surveying the crowd at Oshkosh before deciding in the first quarter of next year whether to sell a light sport aircraft.

"We're going to make some market forecasts," says Pelton. "We're going to be pretty conservative as to what we think the number of units potentially are out there, and build our business case around that. I believe that if we really address the cost issue appropriately and we have an appropriate market price then there should be margins at reasonable production rates."

An LSA "appears to be the logical extension to our product line," Pelton adds, "but most importantly, we believe that the light sport aircraft may be the key to stimulating new pilots, restarts, re-energising the industry and improving the pipeline of human talent that is so important to this industry."

Source: Flight International