No More QC By AD?

Cessna has overhauled its inspection methods. Field experience will tell if the trickle of new-airplane ADs will end.

Buried inside the paperwork of a new Cessna 172 is the date 1956-the year the type certificate was issued for the most popular GA airplane ever produced. The single-engine, four-seater produced today in Cessnas Independence, Kansas factory has evolved into, well, in many ways the same thing it was nearly half a century ago.

Todays Cessna 172 is heavier, fancier, and has a more than respectable panel, but at its heart its an old airplane design that did what it was created to do-fly not-so-fast, not so-far, and not cost as much as some others to own.

Thats the good news. The bad news is when you read the Airworthiness Directive (AD) list-particularly for the 172R-you might be shocked. (The 172R is the 160 horsepower model and the 172S is 180 horsepower.)

Collectively, the new Cessna singles have a long rap sheet of ADs, coupled with service bulletins causing more than a few customers wonder if there’s any end in sight. We wondered, too, as were sure many buyers have. As a result of ramping up production in 1996 from a state of deep hibernation, the first five years since the Cessna single reemergence has brought nine ADs for the 172, five for the 182, and two for the 206. Disturbing numbers when viewed by a perspective buyer who can just as easily order a Piper product or get on the seemingly endless waiting list for a Cirrus.

So the burning question is this: Can these guys build a decent airplane, one that rolls out the door without quality-control-by AD? We posed this question to Cessnas management on a recent factory tour.

Old News
To Cessna, the AD wars seem like old news and, frankly, we got the impression the company would just as soon we not ask. But judging by queries to us, potential buyers have concerns if not worries about Cessnas quality. In our last look at this issue three years ago, owners carped widely about quality issues ranging from fit and finish shortfalls to ADs, some of which kept airplanes grounded for a week or more.

Cessna assured us then that things had improved but, alas, more ADs have spewed forth since. We thought it fair game to visit Cessna and ask about what the company is doing about quality control.

But first, a summary of ADs issued against new production aircraft from Cessna: The 172R (160 HP) has a disheartening nine ADs. Of those, five were issued in 1998, after our last owner survey. Some were result of sloppy workmanship such as 98-01-01, where it was discovered that an alternate static port was inadvertently covered. Easy fix: The affected aircraft were grounded for IFR operations until the static source was inspected and resolved.

AD 97-12-06 required the owner to check for clearance between the cowl and the gascolator bowl. Where chaffing was found, a fix was easily made. Several ADs applied to all three single-engine models because whenever a problem surfaces on a 172, an immediate inspection is ordered for the 182 and 206. AD 00-04-01 is an example and applies to the engine oil pressure switch diaphragm. A bad batch of diaphragms had undergone a subtle redesign by Cessnas supplier, and once in the field, they leaked oil. All were recalled through the AD process. None should be in service now.

A similar AD against mufflers resulted when a limited batch was recalled from service after it was discovered they couldnt pass a pressure test-a healthy backfire would blow the ends off resulting in carbon monoxide entering the cabin. In the dead of winter, owners were told to not use the cabin heat until the muffs were replaced.

Manufacturing defects in a small batch of 172Rs were discovered in lower forward door posts. The issue has since been resolved. AD 99-18-14 applies to a limited batch of control yoke pivot bolts shipped in a seven-month period in late 1998 and early 1999. All of the bum bolts should be purged from the system. One group of ADs raises a red flag and it applies to control cables in the 172R and the 206. Individually these ADs are: 98-13-41 and 98-25-03 for the 172 and 99-13-04 for the 206.

The 172s had incorrect routing of cables, which could lead to fraying. Additionally, there was a potentially loose or incorrect clamp in an aileron cable drum and loose or missing actuator mount screw. In a word, cable installation on a limited batch of airplanes was sloppy.

Maximum Caution
Ostensibly, Cessna was driven out of the single-engine business in 1986 at least partially by product liability. Understandably, it aims not to let that happen again so we give the company credit for addressing the quality issues head on. Whether theyve solved them or not remains to be seen, in our estimation. Cessna would like to say that its AD trouble are gone and there will never be another on your airplane. But they know better. To its credit, Cessna has been all over the process with a constant review of how the airplanes are made and where problems can be cured or avoided. From a strictly cynical view-you don’t make money if customers complain about quality, so youd better improve or die.

Although Cessna-even the single-engine division-is too large to turn on a dime, size can be an advantage, too, since the company can pour massive resources into a problem. When confronted with these problems, Cessna went into overdrive to solve them. If there’s one thing a large organization can do, its throw massive resources at a problem. Identifying the affected aircraft and fixing the problem was the first priority and we give Cessna good grades for its response.

Simultaneously, a sweep of the production line looked for and corrected any additional problems. The assembly process was examined and restructured to prevent the problem from recurring.

According to Steve Copeland, Cessnas Project Engineer Sustaining Single Engine Division, there was an extensive review of every piece and part of the control system, and Cessna implemented a 100 percent inspection of all models.

The Cessna 206 had a similar problem with stop bolts and lock nuts on the aileron bell crank, a system that differs from the 172s and 182s. A redesign and a proper application of Loctite has solved that problem.

Corrections are fine, but why did something as critical as control cable defects sneak by? After all, Cessna has been at this game for 70 years, shouldnt it, of all organizations, know better?

Cessna says training and inspection were the problems-workers didnt understand the process, at least not all of them or to a satisfactory degree-and the inspection process, while FAA legal, wasnt complete, something Cessna says it has corrected. Cessna also had to face the fact that some workers whove never been around airplanes didnt understand the significance of critical primary parts. Re-training took things back to the basics to ensure that assemblers understood the significance of bolts that hold wings and cables that move the controls. Simple stuff, yes. But Cessna admits it had to be relearned.

Nothing happens without FAA oversight. Obviously, they cant watch over every step of production on each aircraft, so-as with any aircraft factory-regular and spot FAA inspections are conducted. Some take a day, some several.

Doug Pierson Cessnas Director of Quality and Reliability, views the relationship with the FAA as not adversarial… and the company claims to be glad the inspectors are there. Not that they have much choice in the matter. Still, Pierson says that the FAA inspections have turned up only insignificant findings. All findings are addressed and thats the double-edged sword of this process.

Since all problems are addressed and through the shear weight of a large organization under the public and government gaze, seemingly insignificant items could turn into full-blown ADs. In our view, what might have been addressed as a service bulletin 20 years ago, is more likely to be a full-blown AD.

Another problem-or advantage, depending on your viewpoint-with ADs is that once theyre issued, they cant be ignored and they linger in the aircrafts history. The perspective buyer needs to decide if the history of complaints means a trouble-filled future and a drawback when selling the airplane later. Thus far, this is probably not the case with Cessnas new-production singles. None of the ADs are the repeating type that drive owners nuts.

As yet, for 2001, there has only been one AD issued-01-06-17, a one-time inspection for proper engine idle speed due to over-richness. Owners can only hope one time inspection will do it. But as we went to press, more bad news:

Lycoming-also owned by Textron, the parent company of Cessna-issued Mandatory Service Bulletin 549 to inspect certain crankshafts for metallurgical defects in the four-cylinder 360-series engines. Regardless of who takes the blame or pays for the fix, swapping a crankshaft is painful, given the downtime.

Further, Cessna got some more unflattering attention in a front-page Wall Street Journal article in late April, in which it was taken to task for poor fuel tank design in the Skyhawk series, including the new models which are, improbably, equipped with 13 sumps.

Why This Happened
To keep things in perspective, are Cessnas QC issues unique or have other manufacturers suffered the same problems? Yes and no; no and yes. Cessna is unique in having retooled a dormant line for high production so, presumably, it had a considerable advantage in existing tooling and enough money to build a new factory. Further, the Skyhawk, although improved, shouldnt have had the unknowns of a clean sheet design such as the Cirrus.

On the other hand, two new companies, Cirrus Design and Diamond Aircraft, have produced clean sheet designs-albeit in much smaller numbers-both in composites and with limited capital. Between the two companies, spanning five models, neither has an airframe AD and Cirrus has one engine AD. Why then, after all that time, couldnt Cessna simply get their tried-and-true designs back into production without ADs? Several reasons but mainly the times have changed and the airplane with it. The Cessna 172R isn’t your grandfathers Skyhawk. Its significantly updated, equipped with an IFR cockpit with autopilot, GPS, a bigger engine and dozens of other upgrades, many of which the owner wont notice. Ditto the 182 and 206.

Frankly, Cessna simply underestimated the task of starting a high-volume assembly line with essentially unskilled labor. Wichita is home to lots of aerospace manufacturing, including Boeing, which pays more. Cessna had to hire and train what it could find. Assembly line workers get four weeks of sheet metal training before hitting the floor. Once there, theyre put on a team, assigned a mentor and on-the-job training takes care of the rest. Its similar to how the FAA trains air traffic controllers and with similar results-the job gets done and mistakes happen.

Supervisors and even contract training specialists review workers progress, but, again, the learning curve has labored its way toward the illusive goal of excellence with setbacks along the way.

Today, the average factory employee at the Independence plant has 36 months experience. Obviously, five years earlier-when the assembly line first opened-the senior employee was still trying to find the cafeteria. Customers who made the leap of faith back then and ordered a new Cessna essentially bought a shop project on which someone had learned how to build airplanes.

To its credit, Cessna fixed everything. No Cessna leaving the factory has an unresolved AD-you wont be stuck with one on your first day of ownership. We know that sounds absurd, given quality and reliability in the auto industry.

The Inside View
We surveyed a handful of Cessna dealers and FBOs who have dealt with Cessnas on rentals or leasebacks. Generally, we found a positive impression of the product and confirmation that quality control is improving.

The 160-HP 172R makes a good-some said great- instructional airplane, although for four-passenger use, the 180-HP 172S is considered a must. Overall Cessna Service Stations reported quality of the singles as good to very good, although more than a few owners grumbled about the blizzard of service bulletins Cessna has issued. That river of paper has now abated to a mere trickle, a healthy sign.

All the operators we spoke to recognize that 1996 to 1999 represented a green period for the Cessna factory in Independence, Kansas, although many are puzzled by why Cessna-a vastly experienced airplane company-suffered these QC teething pains while start-ups like Cirrus and Diamond did not.

One Cessna Service Station Service manager reported his relationship with the factory to be excellent, then added a few buts. Cessna parts are considered as good as or better than anything on the market. Parts orders were filled on time an estimated 98 percent of the time. Parts are now ordered through an automated system, which has been described as slow to deal with but is expected to improve.

One dealer said he only handled a few Cessna customers needing assistance from the factory and reported those encounters as not bad. Another facility reported numerous problems with the 1998 models-mostly AD compliance-but little trouble with the newer ones. Another Cessna Pilot Center reported that it was satisfied with its rental 172S, had few maintenance squawks and had ordered another one. Rising fuel and insurance costs were more of a concern than aircraft quality.

Now comes the big but. Cessna, as one maintenance person confided, is corporate America. Its tough, we were told, to get anyone in the organization to make a firm decision when something unusual needs to be attended to. As one maintenance person said, Its easy to get someone to say no, but tough to get someone to say yes. This buttoned-down atmosphere stifles creativity, some said, both in the way the company deals with customers and in innovation of Cessna products.

One CSTAR (Cessna Sales Team Authorized Representative, or airplane dealer) loved the product but was highly annoyed with Cessnas flooring demands. In order to be a dealer, you must buy at least one of each model, meaning financing close to $1 million.

At least one operator was torqued about Cessnas requirement for high product liability insurance that must be carried by the stations and is not provided by Cessna. He saw this as a way of making his service station a potential deep pockets lawsuit target, deflecting the liability from Cessna.

Still, overall, the impression is that Cessna Service Stations like the product and like their relationship with Cessna. Likewise, technical help is solid and a phone call away. Quality control problems were viewed as to be expected in the early days after the factory spooled up, but is generally reported as improving. The biggest drawback, as expressed off-the-record by Cessna Service reps was Cessnas impersonal corporate culture.

Will Cessna and the FAA continue to pepper the aircraft owning world with remedial ADs? Unless some hidden defects lurk in the new models, our guess is the production-related ADs will slowly abate.

Whether Cessna should have done better in the first place is an open question. Were continually told that airplanes arent cars and that we shouldnt expect Lexus quality in something that costs four times more than a Lexus. In that sense, Cessna has done a good job of lowering expectations, a less good job of building airplanes with no faults.

On pure quality alone, we think Cessna still has some things to prove. But we cant fault the company for lack of effort. With a worldwide network of service stations, theyve handled complaints effectively and Pat Boyarski, VP of the single-engine unit, views their service organization as the best in the industry. We don’t dispute that.

If youre a Cessna owner and you cant get satisfaction at the local level, you can call the factory at 316-517-5800 where, according to Steve Charles, Director of Customer Service, a customer rep will identify your squawk and route it to the next level of help.

And if that doesnt work, there’s always Cirrus, Beechcraft or Mooney which, although expensive, are relatively AD free.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Factory Culture Shock.”