A version of this article appears in the August 11/18 double issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Always a solid second banana to airplane makers, Continental Motors is changing its status on the global aviation stage at breakneck speed.

Heretofore, the Mobile, Alabama, engine company was comfortable providing “oomph” to the starbirds built by lightplane manufacturers. The Cirrus speedsters get their “go” from Continental, as do Mooney’s Acclaim and Ovation and Cessna’s TTx. Much credit for the Bonanza’s longevity belongs to the Continental up front. Burt Rutan’s storied Voyager had Continentals buried in its nose and tail. Curtis Pitts chose a Continental for his first Special S-1C aerobatic aircraft. 

A generation of pilots earned their wings in Continental-powered Cessna 150s. And an intrepid few with modest funds—yours truly, among them—went on to get their multiengine tickets strapped beneath twin O-200 Continentals driving the perfectly awful Champion Lancer. All Formula One racers use that same 100-hp engine, and one, Nemesis, set a world speed record of 283.75 mph over a 3-km (2-mi.) course.

Continental came to aviation’s fore with the A40, its first horizontally opposed engine, and the power behind the Ercoupe and Taylor J2 Cub. While the company has ventured into other markets and technologies—it built the J69 turbojet for the Cessna T-37 “Tweet”—its principal focus has always been powering light aircraft, and it has delivered more than 100,000 new and factory-rebuilt engines (see photo) for the segment.

However, that market tanked (yet again) about 10 years ago and has not recovered. Accordingly, Continental cut back on production, research, footprint and staffing. But Teledyne, which acquired the engine maker in 1969, decided that enough was enough and in 2011 accepted a $186 million cash offer from China’s Avic International for the entire operation. The purchase included Mattituck Services, a repair and overhaul facility on Long Island, New York, which was subsequently folded into Continental’s growing service center located just across Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Alabama. 

Meanwhile, some new hires complained that their experience in pilot training was technologically archaic and wasted an exorbitant amount of time. That spurred Continental, with Avic’s blessing, to offer a training service comprising hands-on sessions in Redbird simulators at a storefront in Spanish Fort, Alabama, and flight training at its Fairhope airport operation. The service, Zulu Flight Training, boasts a student retention and completion rate “in the low 90s,” and recently opened its first international base in Geneva.

Initially, Avic announced it would invest in restarting Continental’s stalled development of diesel engines with the first to enter production in 2013. In addition, Avic became the exclusive distributor of Redbird Flight Simulation products in China.

However, Continental’s diesel development program expanded considerably when Germany’s Thielert Aircraft Engines, manufacturer of the Centurion line of diesel/kerosene piston engines for light aircraft, went bankrupt. Avic sprang at the opportunity and in July 2013 acquired Thielert’s assets, renaming the operation Technify Motors GmbH and bringing it under Continental’s expanding umbrella. At the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture 2014, just ended, Cessna announced it would fit a 172 with a Continental/Centurion diesel. 

This past spring, Continental partnered with ASI Innovation in France to acquire all rights to the out-of-production Reims Aviation F406 Caravan II, a 14-passenger, unpressurized twin well suited for a variety of roles. Continental says the aircraft can be fitted with gasoline, diesel or PT6 turbine engines.

A month later, the Continental Motors Group Ltd. was formed, incorporating various units in China, Hong Kong, Germany and the U.S. 

The motivation behind this activity is both opportunistic and strategic. China has cash, and there are aviation bargains aplenty out there. Overarching that, however, is the long-promised opening of China’s domestic airspace to general aviation operations, now set to begin in earnest next year. Avic intends to make the most of it, powered by Continental.

With its vast distances, teeming population and thin infrastructure, China presents an “historic opportunity” for general aviation, according to Tian Shan, president of Continental Motors Beijing. Rhett Ross, head of Continental’s U.S. operation, agrees, and says the company is “moving forward aggressively.” Indeed.

For example, he says Continental’s Fairhope base will soon acquire Southern Avionics and another unidentified outfit, and become a full-service maintenance, interiors and avionics center for piston and turbine aircraft. Plans are “to take that model on the road” with additional sites in North America, Europe and China.

So now the once-quiet avgas engine maker down by Mobile Bay is also manufacturing diesel aero engines in Germany; operating a soup-to-nuts maintenance, repair and overhaul facility with ambitious expansion plans; franchising a simulator-based pilot training division; and putting a utility twin back into production, thereby joining the airframer club. A second banana no longer, Continental’s star is on the rise.