In 2021 we heard more about the “supply chain” than any of us would have liked. Images, some even snapped from Twin Cessna’s, show cargo ships off the coast filled with goods waiting to be unloaded and distributed. In those first few weeks of the COVID 19 pandemic, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that the incredible shortage of toilet paper would be an omen of what was to come. This shortage of basic supplies, eventually trickled down to our Twin Cessna community, and now it’s difficult to even purchase a tire for your airplane. Overwhelmingly, we all continue to ask the question…why is this happening now? Running a maintenance facility has a laundry list of challenges and procuring and obtaining parts is always very high on that list, but with the supply chain problem we have been experiencing, it has become even more difficult. Interacting with this problem every day, drove me to investigate the issue further.
What I found on the topic was something very interesting, that started even before COVID began. In February 2020, NASA presented an online workshop about Aerospace Supply Chain and Manufacturing. This workshop looked at all aspects of the Aerospace industry from conventional aircraft to commercial drones, and even futuristic technologies. It identified some very interesting weaknesses in the supply chain that the industry should began to look at. The study identified many risks in the supply chain, most of which have seemingly come true according to my investigation. Here is what they listed as major risks:
- Limited/Single Source Suppliers
- Fragile Suppliers and a fragile market
- Capacity constrained supply markets
- Dependency on foreign suppliers
- Diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages
- Gap in U.S. human capital
- Product Security
Many of these issues may seem a little bit familiar to you, even outside of Aviation. Things such as the worker shortage mentioned have only been exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic. It also goes to show that while COVID 19 has blown the doors wide open on this issue, the building blocks of this supply chain problem were building even before that.
As I continued to dig further, in search of more specific information regarding The Twin Cessna fleet, and how it’s been impacted, I found a report from the California Manufacturing Network from back in 2018. Of the four known aero supply chain related issues as they report them, General Aviation, and the Twin Cessna community specifically, are certainly struggling with all four. Those were found to be:
- Sourcing of raw material – Aluminum, cooper and steel
- Mitigating the supply disruption risk (geopolitical consideration)
- Coping with modern and emerging technologies (or the lack thereof)
- Shortage of skilled workers (this seems to be a theme)
As we all know, General Aviation has never been a place where parts have been easy and obtaining the necessary parts for these legacy aircraft is difficult. But now, some parts have become downright impossible to get, and the layers of FAA certification that surround aviation parts and parts production only add difficulty to this matter. Most of the parts needed for replacement in a Twin Cessna, are only available from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), or from someone who holds a PMA (parts manufacturing authorization). In all cases, single source suppliers or a limited number of suppliers, are the only resource to get what we need. Armed with this information and research, I decided to talk with some friends and suppliers we specifically rely on with our Twin Cessna aircraft.
My first stop was Textron Aviation and Joe Hepburn who is the Director of Aftermarket Products at Textron. I asked Joe if supply chain issues were affecting them and he laughed and gave a resounding, YES! He specifically noted that those maintenance facilities and customers that were creative and sought out temporary solutions were the folks that would win in this issue. But those that were staying the course, using the old technique of only working through the OEM were struggling to stay in the air. This is an interesting take from Joe, given he is a part of an OEM himself and they only sell factory new replacement parts or factory overhauled components, which doesn’t give a whole lot of room for creativity. It reinforces what I’ve always believed when it comes to properly and affordably maintaining these aircraft, which is that the willingness to be creative in solving problems will go a long way. With that said, Joe did have a bit of encouraging news for us all to consider. He feels that the supply chain problems, from Textron’s perspective, is easing and trending in the right direction. But the thing that will continue to plague us, is that we still have a gap in qualified, skilled labor, and its only getting worse. Just as Joe said about supply chain, I believe that those willing to be creative will overcome this problem. For example, Textron is working on employee incentives to attract the best employees they can, such as offering free pilot ratings to employees, and reduced cost for aircraft rentals.
My next stop was with one PMA suppliers I work with quite frequently. They didn’t echo the same sentiment that Joe mentioned about supply chain easing. They seemed to feel that they were still having significant issues in their business. Particularly, they were seeing very long lead times on the raw materials that they needed to make their products. Luckily, they had worked ahead of time to have large amounts of inventory, but restocking has been a challenge. If you remember to the beginning of this story, NASA’s report mentioned shortage in raw materials and dependance on foreign sources, specifically. The materials that are needed for production of this supplier’s parts, must be manufactured by certified suppliers in the United States, due to the strict importation regulations on raw materials that can only be achieved by the big companies such as Boeing and others. So, this creates a domino effect, where those large companies are dipping back into the pool of domestic suppliers for raw materials because it is harder and harder to get the materials from those foreign suppliers. This squeezes small and medium sized companies, like this supplier, that work with General Aviation aircraft and specifically Twin Cessna’s. They also reminded me that, like Textron, finding and retaining skilled labor has been difficult. The processes and tooling they use is old and understanding how to use it and keeping it in operational shape is an additional challenge, especially as tribal knowledge decreases over the years. Lastly, for their business, there have been changes in their industry, which have made them busier and increased demand that is hard to meet.
My last stop was RAM Aircraft, a company most of us Twin Cessna drivers are very familiar with. RAM may be the most applicable company to where material shortage, worker shortage, and dependance on outside suppliers to manufacture their final product, all come together. I had the opportunity to get input from many different departments including their Director of Logistics Jim Robinson, their Sales Manager Allen Smith, and their Parts Sales Manager Raul Gomez. This group represents decades of experience in their jobs, and they have seen many ups and downs in this industry throughout the years. According to them, all three departments are feeling the supply chain squeeze, and it is not isolated to just one part or area of the company. RAM mentioned that delivery times in some cases have expanded to two or three times longer than normal, and the ability to find complete units and overhaul units are almost impossible. On top of that, maintaining stock is essentially impossible. In all cases, the source of this problem was pointed out to be qualified manpower and lack of raw materials, which you can see, is becoming a theme in this article.
If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there is the issue we mentioned about FAA Certification. Getting FAA parts certification happens in two ways, through either the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or through a Parts Manufacturing Authorization (PMA). RAM has traditionally used a mix of both types to get to their finished product. But, in recent years, they have added many new PMA parts to their list to supplement difficult or inadequate parts from the OEM, but they are still relying on some OEM parts. Thus, all three people I talked too, listed difficulties of getting parts from Continental Aerospace and accessory OEM’s, as a large part of the supply chain problem they have. While this may seem like a serious problem, because of RAM’s importance in our industry, not all is lost. RAM has worked hard to do everything they can to continue to get engines and parts out their door in a reasonable timframe.
I asked everyone if they saw things getting better and if so, when? Joe at Textron seemed to feel that it was getting better for them as creative solutions were being implemented, and Jim at RAM echoed that sentiment. They thought that as alternate solutions were being sought, it is all going to take some time as new vendors certify their products and material shortages seem to be persistent.
As Twin Cessna owners what does this mean for us? A few facts, according to my research there are roughly 211,000 general aviation airplanes, and of those there are between 4000 and 5000 Twin Cessna’s. This makes us a very small piece of the General Aviation pie, meaning that it will take us a little longer than many others for things to get better. But again, those that are creative will survive better than those who are not.
First, as owners you can do a few things to help yourselves and your maintenance facilities. The first thing, and most important thing, is to apply patience. Remember that most maintenance shops are doing their best to handle these delays and setbacks in the best possible manner. Most maintenance shops are taking the creative approach mentioned by Joe Hepburn and utilizing every resource at their disposal.
Second, is planning and preparation. As an owner, understanding upcoming maintenance that would require parts with long lead times and ordering those items with plenty of time for delivery before they are due, will go a long way. Joe from Textron says, that if you look at a part or component and can surmise that it is something that requires raw material from far away or multiple processes in several locations, these are parts that are going to take more time. Something that can be manufactured, tagged, and shipped from one location will take less time. Working with your maintenance facility to determine what those upcoming items you will need are, would help to make your down time much less or at the very least a known commodity. There is a laundry list of parts that are in short or difficult supply. A few examples are:
- exhaust pieces
- spark plugs
Knowing ahead of time that you will be needing a part like this and planning with as much lead time as possible will allow you to keep flying while waiting on the part to be built.
Lastly, rely on the community. The Twin Cessna Flyer and its members provide a wealth of information and outlets for these “supply chain” related problems. Whether it’s through the online forums or the magazine, this group is full of people who are looking to help. General Aviation has lost many “old timers” and a wealth of tribal knowledge, says Jim Robinson of Ram, the new guys have not come up to speed yet and this will take some time. However, we can mitigate this problem together, and continue to utilize these airplane for years to come. As Raul Gomez of Ram says, “We will adapt just as we have before.”