Cessna 172: Still Relevant | Flying Magazine

Cessna 172: Still Relevant

Is there a place in GA’s future for the most popular airplane of all time? We fly it and tell all.

Cessna 172

Cessna 172

Cessna 172

In a move that should help allay fears that the new leadership at Cessna isn’t behind the piston lineup, the company has unveiled the 2012 edition of its seminal four-seat single, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

The newest model adds some nice standard and optional touches, including available enhanced vision and ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast) upgradable traffic, along with new styling and lighting options. Cessna is holding the line on pricing, but the new models still aren’t cheap. The 180 hp 172S, referred to by Cessna as the 172-SP, goes for $307,500; the 160 hp 172R sells for $274,900. Then again, these airplanes, despite their rivets shining in the sun, are thoroughly modern, highly evolved examples of the four-seat, entry-level general aviation airplane.

Thirty-five years ago the running joke about the Cessna 172 was that pilot reports on the latest model could be cribbed from the previous year’s article with updated references to the new paint scheme and fabric options. For many years, it wasn’t far from the truth. It wasn’t that Cessna was resting on its laurels, though it could be excused if it were — even back in the 1960s, the 172 was the undisputed king of light aircraft. It achieved its popularity through an unbeatable formula. It was an affordable, economical, utilitarian, safe and easy-flying airplane that could fill a variety of roles.

The Cessna 172 was arguably the most elegant compromise in the history of aviation. It might not have been the best airplane at doing any one thing, but it was clearly the best at giving its owners a satisfying taste of everything they wanted in a personal airplane. For many of those owners, the 172 was the airplane of a lifetime.

Why not? It was and is a great, fun flyer; a good-short-haul, modest-payload cross-country machine; a wonderful trainer and a solid IFR platform.

For other owners, the 172 served as a steppingstone. After getting their feet wet with what was often the first airplane of their own, buyers would often move up to something bigger, faster and more capable. For decades that natural step-up airplane was another Cessna product, the 182 Skylane. Others moved beyond that to higher-performance models; there was even a retractable version of the 172, which was a popular choice with flight schools to serve as a complex trainer.

Today, the Cessna 172 stands as the most popular airplane ever, with around 43,000 produced, according to Cessna's numbers, including variants. And 55 years down the line it’s still adding to that total.

While the price tag of a new 172 puts it in a different league than its early predecessors’, the things that made the 172 an attractive model to begin with are all still there, and then some.

Modest Beginnings
When one thinks of an archetypal product, one that captures the essence of its market and demonstrates that with unprecedented sales success, it’s natural to assume that the product was the result of a flash of inspiration.

The opposite is true for the Skyhawk.

The airplane is the very essence of derivation. It sprang from the taildragger four-seat 170, which was developed from the two-seat 140, which, as far as I know, was a new design — a new design that came about in 1946, that is.

The introduction of the Cessna 172 was controversial in a way that might be hard to understand today. The 170 was a much-loved airplane, and the switch to tricycle gear was seen by some as a betrayal of a tradition — around the same time, Cessna also discontinued the taildragger 140 in favor of the all-metal tricycle gear 150.

It was a gamble for Cessna, ending production of popular, proven designs, but it was a gamble that paid off. The company’s new consumer airplanes, the 172 and 182, were tricycle gear designs that had long lives and prodigious production numbers while boasting two of the best safety records in light GA. Their production numbers speak for how well that equation worked for the flying public.

Metal and Change
It’s interesting that Cessna’s choice of using sheet-metal construction on its airplanes was controversial from the company’s first use of the material in the late 1930s, as it is today around 75 years later.

At the time that the 172 was launched, traditionalists were critical of Cessna’s move away from fabric-covered welded steel construction, the classic “tube-and-rag” design, and some of their concerns, including metal’s susceptibility to corrosion and its more difficult reparability, has some basis in fact. Still, if ever there has been a case of a design choice being validated by the marketplace, such is the case with Cessna’s decisions to go with sheet metal and tricycle gear.

Today, of course, Cessna still faces criticism of its choice to continue with all-metal construction on its piston singles in lieu of switching to a carbon fiber design.

There are good arguments to be made for both sides of the materials coin, so good that Cessna, you might remember, was developing its own composite design, code-named the NGP for Next Generation Piston, which was to be a family of composite airplanes that included a 172 replacement. The work progressed to the point that the company actually flew a prototype into Oshkosh in 2006. Shortly after the introduction of the concept airplane, Cessna went quiet on the subject. In 2007 it purchased the assets of Columbia Aircraft and started producing the Columbia 350 and 400, later renamed the Corvalis and Corvalis TT. Cessna never made a formal announcement that it was discontinuing its NGP development, but it did in fact abandon the project at some point.

Cessna also briefly explored whether its light-sport aircraft entrant would be a composite design. It settled on an all-metal model, which became the Skycatcher. To date, the Corvalis TTX is the only composite aircraft from Cessna. Jodi Noah, who is vice president in charge of propeller airplanes at Cessna, did suggest at a press conference at Cessna’s headquarters in September that the company was leaving no design options for its single-engine airplanes off the table. Noah gave no indication, however, that this statement was anything more than the company’s philosophical position on materials. I’d be surprised to see the Skyhawk go away any time soon.

For many the choice of metal still makes a lot of sense. The costs and processes are well known for Cessna; the tooling is paid for; its workers are trained. The costs of designing and developing composite versions of its singles, even if they could be made to match the well-known and time-tested capabilities of Cessna’s current singles, would be difficult for the company to recoup.

On the consumer side, metal has many advantages. Repairs are easy, inspections are routine, and the material conducts electricity, so it requires no special materials to make components lightning-strike tolerant, as composite airplanes do.

New Skyhawks
It’s well known that Cessna took its piston singles out of production for a decade starting in the mid-1980s at the height of another epic sales downturn. Along with the 172, the company also shelved the 182, 206, 210 and 185 around the same time period. When Cessna resumed production in the mid-1990s, it relaunched production of just three of the previous designs, the Skyhawk, Skylane and Stationair.

You might remember that Cessna took a lot of heat at the time (though not from us) for reintroducing three legacy airframes instead of starting from scratch with all-new models. One of the criticisms was that the new airplanes were no better than the old ones. It wasn’t true.

While the performance and capabilities of the new Skyhawk were substantially similar to those of the airplane that Cessna shelved in 1986, there were improvements everywhere you looked. The airframe was better corrosion-proofed, weak points had been beefed up, the glass was better, the paint was more durable, the lighting — both inside and out — was improved, and the panel was redesigned.

Very significantly, Cessna completely re-engineered the interior. Old Skyhawks were notorious for having shabby interiors, with plastic panels separating, paint fading and fabric wearing out, even after relatively few years in the field. New 172s boasted better-looking interiors, which added to the value of the airplane at both ends of the sales equation, when customers took delivery and when they went to sell the airplane.

The engine of choice early on in the Cessna 172 — “Skyhawk,” by the way, was used early on, though not consistently, to describe a premium model; today, it’s simply a well-known nickname — was a smooth-running Continental opposed six-cylinder O-300 model. By the late 1960s Cessna had swapped out the six-banger for a four-cylinder Lycoming O-320. Remarkably, the standard 172 didn’t get a fuel-injected engine until the company reintroduced the model in 1996. Today’s Skyhawks, both the 160 hp R-model and the 180 hp S-model, feature fuel-injected engines.

Another significant improvement is the quality of the seats, seat tracks and restraints. The seats on older 172s feel minimal, and they are, and not in a good way. The new seats are extremely strong, solid feeling, nicely adjustable and durable. The seat belts attach with a single snap and feature built-in AmSafe Airbags.

Avionics today are a huge improvement over earlier 172s too. Standard today is the Garmin G1000 suite, and the 172S has as standard the GFC 700 dual-digital autopilot. We’ve gotten jaded about flat-panel avionics in light airplanes, but it’s important to get some perspective on the 172, an airplane that started out as a bare-bones VFR flyer. Today, the stripped down model lacks only the three-axis digital autopilot, and standard features include moving map, TIS traffic, electronic engine gauges and much more. Options include synthetic vision, EVS and the Garmin GTS 800 ADS-B upgradable active traffic advisory system.

Flying the Skyhawk
I wonder how many Flying readers have flown a Cessna 172 of some variety. I’m guessing the percentage is very high. Many of our readers doubtless learned to fly in a 172. I had a few hours in one while doing my private pilot training, because the chief instructor, Si Campbell, a former Air Force instructor and L-19 Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, felt it was important for students like me who were training primarily in the Piper Warrior to get a few hours in a high-wing airplane. That way, he explained, when you got your ticket and chanced to fly a high-wing model once you had your certificate, you wouldn’t be surprised by the differences. I’m not sure how much benefit I got from the experience, but it was fun, which might have been Si’s intention all along.

My first impression of the 172 was not far from my current impression. The harmony of the flight controls is just about perfect. How Cessna created such a stable and light platform still astounds me. If you want to teach a student about how trim works, the 172 is a great platform. If you want to teach crosswind landings, the 172 is a great platform. If you want to teach ground reference maneuvers ... you get the idea.

The silky-smooth flying manners of the type help explain why the airplane, despite its rising price, remains such a popular trainer. It was thought that the Skycatcher or one of its LSA rivals might make the Skyhawk obsolete, but it hasn’t happened. Despite the cost, it remains in demand for flight training here and abroad. At a recent Cessna Pilot Center event at which I spoke, another speaker referred to the 172 as the best trainer in the world and got a huge ovation from the roughly 300 Cessna instructors in the crowd. They were almost evangelical about the Skyhawk, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s solid, reliable, durable and predictable. It can handle stiff winds, take a little abuse in the touch-and-go circuit, carry two considerable souls aboard with full fuel under almost any conditions and do it with style. And today’s Skyhawks have flat-panel avionics, luxurious interiors and pretty paint jobs. It’s hard to overestimate the value of that kind of platform to a flight school.

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.

View our Cessna 172 photo gallery.

Send reader mail to: edit@flyingmag.com or P.O. Box 8500, Winter Park, FL 32789.


More Stories