The publicly known facts are scarce at this stage, but the in-flight structural failure of a Cessna Corvalis composite high-performance piston single in the Kansas sky last December has disturbing ramifications for the whole general aviation industry.
On September 22 the FAA announced it is proposing a $2.4 million civil penalty against Cessna after carbon composite elements of a Corvalis’s wing separated in flight while an FAA test pilot was performing a production audit test flight on Dec. 6, 2010. Nothing departed the aircraft, and the pilot made an emergency landing at Independence Airport, Kan. Four days later the FAA issued an emergency AD grounding the 13 Corvalises that used wings and parts built in the same Cessna facility since Dec. 17, 2009.
The agency deserves kudos for holding a manufacturer’s feet to the fire for this troubling failure. It’s a failure that should serve as a wakeup call to every other OEM moving home-base manufacturing work to lower-wage areas. Would the feds have pursued Cessna so doggedly had one of their own not been at the helm that day? Who knows, but this close-to-home failure of composite bonding in a certified airplane has rightly riveted the attention of the aviation police.
The wing that failed had been built at Cessna’s company-owned plant in Chihuahua, Mexico, and FAA investigators determined that seven feet of wing skin separated from the wing spar because excessive humidity in the factory had prevented the bonded material from curing properly. This is the sort of failure one might expect of a homebuilt put together in the garage of someone who has never built an airplane before, and it is conduct unbecoming of one of the most well known and respected names in the airplane business.
Cessna is gambling with its most precious asset–its heritage and the trust customers place in its reputation for building sound airplanes. With this failure, and enduring controversy about its made-in-China Skycatcher, it’s on a losing streak and needs to go to emergency stations to fix a flawed strategy and convince airplane buyers they can still trust Brand C. Cessna is not alone in moving work to save on wages: fellow Wichitans Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet have also set up company-owned factories in Mexico.
A year ago AIN posted the following multiple-choice question on AINonline.com: "OEMs manufacturing aircraft in the U.S. are increasingly shifting work to Mexico to lower their labor costs. As an end user of these aircraft, do you believe that this compromises the quality/integrity of these aircraft?"
Of the 51 responses received, some 56 percent selected either "Yes, you get what you pay for–lower labor costs buy lower quality, and workers in Mexico aren’t as skilled as long-time, experienced aerospace workers are in the U.S." or "Yes, and I would advise my boss not to buy an aircraft with significant Mexican labor content." About 31 percent selected, "No, the components/subassemblies made in Mexico are subject to the same strict quality controls as the ones made in the U.S." or "No, properly trained workers in Mexico are every bit as skilled as workers are in the U.S." And the rest chose "Maybe. It depends on the quality control processes and worker training."
Viewed in the context of the ailing U.S. economy, the political objections to moving skilled airplane manufacturing jobs to Mexico and China gain a louder voice; now there is evidence to support the concerns that quality suffers when the hard-earned skills of the home workforce are tossed aside for cheaper, remote labor. These are airplanes, not drywall or pet food or chew toys.
The FAA has given Cessna 30 days to respond to the proposed civil penalty, and a wider audience is all ears.