Their payload capability is decent too. You can fly with two big guys with full fuel or three big guys with some fuel left off. Try that in a Skycatcher. Skyhawks climb pretty well too, about 700 fpm at sea level at max weight. These two things, payload and climbing ability, are a huge differentiator between the 172 and most two-seat trainers. They are, indeed, the two biggest reasons named by flight schools that choose to pay a premium to operate 172s instead of smaller airplanes.
I’ve flown dozens of 172s of various vintages over the years, but the one I remember best was an old, beat-up article that I could rent for cheap from the local flight school in the desert. It was in sad shape, with faded, chipping brown-and-orange paint, cracked plastic interior pieces, gaping holes in the panel and threadbare seats. My lasting memory of it, however, is just how great it flew. It was the fastest 150 hp 172 I’ve ever flown. When I shared that impression with the flight school’s proprietor, she simply agreed and then shared a secret with me. The airplane, which she’d taken in trade the year before, was creeping up on 12,000 hours. It looked it but didn’t fly like it.
The new model is different in a hundred ways from that early 1970s-era airplane, except that it too flies like a Skyhawk.
Skyhawks aren’t fast. The SP in the model designation probably doesn’t stand for “speedy.” It’s a 125-knot airplane. And its range, at around 600 nm with reserves, is nothing to write home about either. Then again, for a lot of popular trips, say Wichita, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri, which at around 200 statute miles is a 3½-hour drive, is little more than 1½ hours in a Skyhawk. In general, a 172 cuts the drive time in half, and in some places where traffic is a big factor, like Atlanta or Los Angeles, for instance, the airplane makes even more sense. It’s not that the typical Skyhawk customer buys it for cross-country travel, but it is a surprisingly workable machine for shorter trips.
In a number of Flying feature articles over the past decades, Richard Collins analyzed the safety record of the Skyhawk and found it to be the safest single, with a fatal accident rate nearly three times better than the GA average. The things that make a Skyhawk safe — its slow landing speed thanks to its generous and well-designed flaps, its predictable and stable flying manners, and its solid construction — all factor in. The addition of far better restraint systems; better, more reliable avionics with new safety utilities, like traffic and TAWS; improved seats and seat tracks; and better training standards than ever have all contributed to making the Cessna 172 a safer airplane than ever.
So, is the Skyhawk still a relevant design? In almost every way, it’s clear that the answer is yes. The two most persuasive arguments that it isn’t are that it is made from old materials and that it costs too much. I dismiss the materials argument out of hand. For an airplane like the Skyhawk, all-metal construction is not only still justifiable but arguably the better option.
The cost of the airplane is harder to dismiss, though it’s surely not Cessna’s fault that it costs what it does. A couple of folks in high places at Cessna have told me that the company is committed to the single-engine lineup, but the airplanes need to pull their own weight. I’m not sure how anyone could argue either that Cessna is secretly getting rich off its piston singles — it’s not — or that the company should subsidize their production. They cost what they cost. The bottom line is that today’s Skyhawk is the best Skyhawk the company has ever made and by a good margin. Is it still a relevant design starting at $275,000 for a 160 hp model? I’ll let the market continue to speak on that subject. Once the economy recovers, I think we all know what the answer will be.
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