I believe all of us would declare Cessna's new 162 SkyCatcher light sport airplane (LSA) to be a success if it flew about as well as the legendary 150/152 series of two-seat trainers. I'm happy to say the 162 flies as well as, and in some respects better than, the 150/152 and also has a number of advantages that make it a better trainer, not the least of which is that, with its big gull-wing doors, aft strut and extra-wide cabin, I sit in it instead of wear it.
The big challenge for any company making an LSA is to stay under the 1,320 maximum gross weight limit. That weight cap is part of the LSA concept of reducing complexity and risk in exchange for simplifying the certification process. To make an airplane that light that is still sturdy enough to stand up to the rigors of student pilot landings is a tall order. To put the challenge in perspective, consider that the Cessna 150 two-seat trainer has a maximum takeoff weight of 1,600 pounds. The more sophisticated 152 weighs in at 1,675 maximum. Even the 140 taildragger that in late 1945 launched Cessna's dominance of flight training weighs 1,450 pounds.
Another LSA restriction intended to reduce risk in the event of a forced landing is a maximum stall speed, flaps up, of 45 knots. The 150/152 series stops flying at 48 knots with the flaps up, but the SkyCatcher doesn't stall clean until 44 knots. Flaps down, the 162 lets go at 39 knots compared with 42 and 43 knots respectively for the 150/152.
The easiest way to meet the stall restrictions is to use a relatively large wing so that each square foot of wing area is lifting only a few pounds. But lightly loaded wings can be hard to handle in gusty conditions because each puff tosses the airplane back into the air. A successful trainer needs to fly as much as possible, not sit around waiting for calm conditions, so Cessna did not go down the big-wing-area path with the 162.
The SkyCatcher has only 120 square feet of wing area compared with 160 for the 150/152. That means the wing loading — gross weight divided by wing area — puts 11 pounds on each square foot of wing in the 162 while the 150's loading is 10 and the 152's is 10.5. With its higher wing loading, the 162 has a demonstrated crosswind of 12 knots. But higher wing loading, in general, increases stall speed. So Cessna engineers had to make a smaller wing for the SkyCatcher that would stall at a lower airspeed despite a higher loading. It seems like magic was required, but in reality what it took was gobs of experience to solve the problem.
You may recall that the original proof of concept SkyCatcher had an unusual wing that tapered gull fashion at the roots. That design appeared to both reduce stall speed and be easy to build. But testing showed it didn't deliver. So Cessna aeronautical engineers went back to the computer and came up with a totally new and custom airfoil that did the job.
The original SkyCatcher had a Rotax engine, but Cessna flight school operators shot that idea down. The Rotax has been in service for years, but successful flight schools demand the utmost in predictability of cost of maintenance in a trainer. Everybody was comfortable with the four-cylinder Continental engine, which is among the most produced aircraft powerplants in history, so the O-200D replaced the Rotax.
There was never serious consideration of any basic design other than a high strut-braced wing. After all, Cessna has built more than 100,000 high wing piston singles, so the design clearly works. But subtle changes in the layout make the SkyCatcher a superior airplane in many ways.
A key factor is the sweep of the wing struts that places them aft of the cabin doors, instead of ahead of the door frame as in other Cessna singles. The aft strut location frees up the fuselage space to use big top-hinged gull wing doors instead of the standard forward hinged doors. With the gull wing door raised, it's easy to slide into the seat without interference from the strut or the main landing gear leg.
Cessna made the 162 cabin 44.25 inches wide compared with 39.75 for the 150/152. That 4.5 inches of added width might not sound like much, but believe me, it makes all the difference in the world. My first airplane was a Cessna 140 with a cabin width essentially the same as the 150/152. Forty years ago that was tight, but OK. And it may still be OK for 20-year-olds, but I'm not going to get in a cabin of that size with any of my peers and get the doors closed. In the 162 Cessna, test pilot Dale Bleakney and I had plenty of room to move elbows, knees and shoulders without the slightest restriction.
To further improve the ergonomics of the 162 cabin, Cessna has fixed the seats in position and added fore and aft adjustment of the rudder pedals. Adjustable pedals are the norm in larger airplanes but the first I know of in a light two-seater. The fixed seats are lighter, and they are larger than possible if they had to move fore and aft. Shorter pilots might need to sit on a cushion to get the view they want over the panel, but the pedal adjustment range seemed sufficient to suit all heights of pilots. I'm 6 feet 2 inches and was very pleased with the seat position because it is low enough that I can look out the side without ducking my head down. In most other Cessna singles my head is up between the wing roots and I need to lower it to see directly to the side.
The SkyCatcher instrument panel is as modern as any new airplane with flat-glass display standard. There are no conventional gauges or instruments, and all flight and engine information is presented on the Garmin G300 display. A single display is standard with flight, navigation and engine instruments combined. I think most 162 owners will opt for the second display, which places primary flight instruments in front of the pilot and engine, navigation and other system information on an identical display in the center of the cockpit. If either display were to fail, the remaining one combines all essential data much like the single display format.