• The Beechcraft King Air 360 and the Cessna C408 SkyCourier are just two of 19 new model Textron Aviation has introduced in the past 10 years. (composite image Textron Aviation/Steve Hitchen)
    The Beechcraft King Air 360 and the Cessna C408 SkyCourier are just two of 19 new model Textron Aviation has introduced in the past 10 years. (composite image Textron Aviation/Steve Hitchen)

Textron Aviation began its life as a rumour in late 2013; today it is general aviation's equivalent of a super power.

In December that year, a tremor ran through the aviation industry when Textron–already the owner of Cessna, Bell Helicopter and Lycoming–announced that the company had bought iconic GA giant Beechcraft. The deal went through three months later, and a new Textron subsidiary, Textron Aviation, was born.

It bought to an end the saga of Hawker Beechcraft, which had voluntarily plunged into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early 2012 as part of a deal with creditors. It was not long after that a Chinese suitor moved on the company.

Chinese concerns were at the time seeking to buy going GA companies, with CAIGA acquiring Cirrus Aircraft, Sino-backed Soaring America sinking ill-fated funding into Mooney, and Cessna seeking assembly agreements in China.

Another Chinese company, Superior Aviation Beijing, struck a deal to become the exclusive potential new owner of Hawker Beechcraft whilst due diligence was done. Importantly, the deal came with a $US50 million, non-refundable deposit. All other suitors were to be shunned.

The deal unraveled in October 2012, with Superior backing away from their commitment, gifting Hawker Beechcraft the $US50 million that enabled them to bid farewell to Chapter 11 and begin thinking about a future as a stand-alone company once again. 

Such was the confidence that, whilst still technically in Chapter 11, Beechcraft announced a new model: a single-engined turbo-prop (SETP) based on the Hawker Premier jet airframe. It was an ambitious move into a market saturated by the Cessna Caravan, Pilatus PC-12 and Daher-Socata TBM 850.

"We are focused on product development of the Beechcraft brand," Hawker Beechcraft Executive VP Shawn Vick said. "We have announced that we have intentions to go from the present six airplanes to as many as ten.

"We have done a lot of engineering work and advanced design work on this airplane. It would be based on the Premier fuselage, so you can have eight passengers in a double club [layout] or high density, which is as many as 11."

In March 2013, the yoke of Chapter 11 was officially lifted, with the emerging company to be known as Beechcraft Corporation. It was business as usual with Beechcraft turning out 35 Barons and Bonanzas every year, and with the King Air series in a market niche all of its own, things were back on track.

But Textron was watching. Cessna themselves had plans for a low-wing SETP to battle for market share with the Pilatus PC-12. In early December, the wheels on the GA rumour mill reached max RPM as people began to talk about Cessna and Beechcraft in the one sentence.

For once, the rumours were true. At the end of December 2013, Textron announced they had agreed to buy Beechcraft Corporation, creating a GA manufacturing colossus to be named Textron Aviation. The deal became official in March 2014, 10 years ago this month.

Since then, the story of Textron Aviation has been one of new airframe designs, development of the jet range and a rocky road for the traditional prop-driven ranges.

New jets in the Cessna Citation range have included the CJ2+, CJ3+, X+, Latitude and Longitude, and the King Air series gained the King Air 360 and 260.

Cessna's high-wing single product list was bolstered with the offering of a diesel-powered C172 announced at Oshkosh in 2014, but a development project for the JT-A diesel Skylane was dumped in favour of resurrecting the classic C182S avgas Skylane.

The diesel Skyhawk, although certified, failed to make a mark on the delivery figures over the years, and is now not featured on the Textron Aviation website. In the meantime, the C172SP marched on, but the Skylane has well and truly lagged a long way behind the all-conquering Cirrus SR22 series.

An attempt to lure Cirrus customers back to Cessna played out in the form of the Cessna Corvalis TTx. A development of the acquired Columbia series of composite aircraft, the TTx became a flash-in-the-pan model, entering the market in 2013 and selling for four years, disappearing off the shipment sheets in 2018. Cirrus was proving a tough act to match.

Seemingly surrendering the high-speed single market to Cirrus, Textron instead concentrated on turbines. In July 2015, a low-wing SETP project was made public. Rather than the Beechcraft idea of developing a jet airframe, this was a clean-sheet design.

"Textron Aviation has been listening to the market and sees an opportunity to fulfill a gap in our broad product line, so we are moving forward with plans to enter the single engine turbo-prop segment," a Textron spokesperson said at the time.

"We intend to outperform the competition with the introduction of this product – from cabin size and acquisition cost, to performance capability."

Them's huge fighting words obviously spat in the direction of Swiss manufacturer Pilatus and their market-dominating PC-12. The new aircraft would first be called the Cessna Denali, then it became the Beechcraft Denali and the powerplant announced as a new, untried General Electric turbine that became the Catalyst engine.

In November 2021, the prototype first flew, six years after the announcement. To date, it has not yet been certified.

By contrast, Textron proudly announced in 2017 that it was developing a high-wing twin turbine utility to be called the C408 SkyCourier, with freight company FedEx as the launch customer. Three year later, the first prototype was airborne, and production roll-out and certification occurred in rapid succession in the northern Spring of 2022. The type is now in service.

The major difference between the two projects is the engine. Textron gambled on a new powerplant as a point of difference between the Denali and the PC-12, whereas they stuck with the tried-and-much-trusted Pratt and Whitney PT6A for the SkyCourier.

Most recently, in March 2022, Textron surprised the aviation world when they bought Slovenian LSA builder Pipistrel. Cessna's last foray into the market, the Chinese-built C162 SkyCatcher, deteriorated into the deletion of the model in 2013 and destruction of unsold airframes.

But Textron bought Pipistrel not for its LSA business, but for the technology in sustainable aviation that the company had become known for.

"Pipistrel puts Textron in a uniquely strong position to develop technologies for the sustainable aviation market and develop a variety of new aircraft to meet a wide range of customer missions,” said Textron Chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly at the time.

“Today’s announcement supports Textron’s long-term strategy to offer a family of sustainable aircraft for urban air mobility, general aviation, cargo and special mission roles.

“Pipistrel has been celebrated as one of the world’s most important and successful manufacturers of electric aircraft. Textron is committed to maintaining Pipistrel’s brand, headquarters, research and development, and manufacturing in Slovenia and Italy, while making additional investments in Pipistrel for the development and production of future products.”

And it is the future that Textron remains focused on. They already have the No.1 four-seat trainer in the C172SP and the clear twin turbo-prop leader with the King Air range (admittedly competition in this category isn't strong), and now are looking to establish themselves in the SETP low-wing market to complement the category pioneer: the C208B Grand Caravan.

"Bringing the best in the industry together helped make us even stronger," a company statement reads. "Throughout the past 10 years, Textron Aviation has announced 19 new products, expanded its advanced manufacturing capabilities, grown its global support network and continued its emphasis on providing the best customer experience in the industry.  

"While there has been much to celebrate, our focus remains on what’s next."

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