June 1, 2006
BY THOMAS B. HAINES
AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines flew his first Skyhawk in 1979.
For the special report on the golden anniversary of the Cessna 172 in this issue, we asked staff members to share remembrances of flying the venerable Skyhawk (see " 50th Anniversary of the Skyhawk," which begins on page 70). Not surprisingly, no one had trouble coming up with a few. Likewise, lots of AOPA members also responded to our call for Skyhawk experiences — as you can read on AOPA Online. It seems the ubiquitous little airplane has a place in the heart of almost every pilot.
As I noted in the short article I wrote about flying the Better Than New 172 across the country back in 1994 (page 75), I could literally write a book about what the airplane means to me. Over the years, I have shared many memories of trips — short and long — in the 'Hawk.
In the February 1997 edition of " Waypoints," I described my new phase of life as an aircraft owner. A two-toned blue and white 1977 Skyhawk had found its way into the Haines household and quickly became a member of the family. My wife was learning to fly in an Aerospatiale Tampico, but transitioned to our 172 and soloed it later that summer. I used it for the occasional business trip, and we often flew it for weekend and day trips with our kids.
The girls were ages 4 and 2 when the Skyhawk came to roost with us. We bought car seats for the airplane and left them in the backseats to ease the hassle of loading and unloading. Soon the girls would climb into the backseats and buckle up as matter-of-factly as they would when crawling into the minivan. More often than not, they would be asleep before we leveled off at our cruise altitude; something about a purring Lycoming knocked them right out. With the kids asleep, the trips provided my wife and me a few minutes of solitude to talk and simply enjoy the view without a thousand questions from inquisitive little girls. Of course, at any moment the dynamic might change and somebody back there might invade someone else's space and then the solitude would be over.
In " Waypoints: Can't We All Get Along?" in the May 2004 issue, I relayed the story about how the poor Skyhawk was attacked by a bird that thought the airplane's tail was a fine place to raise a family. The A&P mechanic and I disagreed with the bird. The humans ultimately won, but not before this human had spent the better part of a thousand dollars. In the end, the Skyhawk had the cleanest empennage on the ramp. The humorous account won me an award in column writing from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.
It's often been said that the happiest days in an aircraft owner's life are the day he buys his airplane and the day he sells it.
Not true for me. As I detailed in " Waypoints: Goodbye, Old Friend," in the October 1999 issue, I was sad the day the Skyhawk flew out of my life. My new-to-me Bonanza was parked across the ramp. Over the years, I've come to love that old Beechcraft and it's a much more practical airplane for my typical missions, but it will never fill that special place in my heart for the Skyhawk — my first airplane.
Like many, many pilots, I learned to fly in Cessna 150s and 152s. My first step-up airplane was the 172, which, at the time, seemed like a very big step up. Within days of earning my private pilot certificate, I began the checkout procedure in the Skyhawk so that I could take more than one family member and friend up for a flight.
When the only airplane you've ever flown is a 150/152, the Skyhawk seems downright mighty. A baggage compartment with a door! Two nav/coms! A DME! Geez, it's like an airliner. Never mind that the DME was one of those old-timers where the numbers on a drum spin past like they did on the old gas pumps. Just as Cessna envisioned, the move up to the 172 was an easy one.
My sign-off to fly complex airplanes came in a 172RG Cutlass, sometimes called "Gutless." To me, though, it was just downright cool to be able to fold those feet into the fuselage.
Years later when AOPA began its annual sweepstakes to fix up and then give away an airplane, yours truly got tapped to manage the first project — and then the second, third, and fourth ones too. The first project airplane was the Good as New 172 in 1993. Our candidate airplane was a 1974 M-model Skyhawk. I flew to Massachusetts to pick it up from the seller. He and his wife looked on forlornly as I taxied away — a look I would understand more fully years later when I waved goodbye to my own Skyhawk.
The project turned into a great adventure as I flew the airplane to the Lycoming factory in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for its engine overhaul. There were multiple trips to Summit Aviation, the avionics shop in Delaware. And ultimately to Oxford Aviation, the paint and interior shop in Maine. I was stunned when I picked it up with its shiny new paint job, which transitioned the airplane from 1970s gold and white to a businesslike 1990s gray, red, and white.
That first sweepstakes closed on December 31, 1993. The drawing occurred a few weeks later, pointing to a winner in Fort Pierce, Florida. I was to fly the airplane to Vero Beach, Florida, just up the beach from Fort Pierce. AOPA President Phil Boyer would pick it up in Vero Beach and fly it to the presentation. I would be on the ground team at Fort Pierce.
With temperatures in Maryland forecast to be among the coldest on record, I rolled the pretty airplane into a heated hangar the night before departure. The mercury dipped to nearly 20 degrees below zero — simply unheard of here in the "South." Dressed like the Michelin Man, I waddled out to the hangar, preflighted, and stuffed myself into the pilot's seat. The ground crew pushed the airplane outside and I quickly fired up the Lycoming. I headed south through the crisp, clear air, the airplane offering up tremendous performance under such conditions. I zigged my way through the long-since-closed VFR corridor through the Washington Class B airspace and dialed Florence, South Carolina, into the Magellan GPS — the latest and greatest panel-mount unit in those days. A few hours later I was shedding layers of clothing as I began the descent. By the time I got to Vero Beach, I was down to jeans and a T-shirt.
The winner was thrilled and kept the airplane for a number of years. The airplane still lives in Florida, flying now for a flight school.
When Cessna wasn't building new piston airplanes from 1986 to 1996, it was easy to refurbish one to "better than new" quality. We did just that with the 1994 Better Than New 172 project, which upped the ante over the 1993 airplane.
About then, though, Cessna got back into the business and our 1995 sweepstakes was the First New 172, which was delivered in early 1997. In October 1996, I flew a new 172 from AOPA Expo in San Jose, California, to Phoenix. It was a beautiful day when I climbed into the airplane at Reid-Hillview Airport. With a Cessna rep in the right seat, we transited the complex San Francisco airspace and stopped in Santa Barbara for fuel. The next leg took us across the Los Angeles Basin, past Palm Springs, and over the hill to Borrego Springs, where we met up with another team from Cessna for giant hamburgers at the airport restaurant.
Later in the day, we headed east toward Phoenix, touching down on Sky Harbor's long runway right at dusk. It was a delightful reintroduction to the Skyhawk and an opportunity for me to discover how truly new the new 172 was. With its fuel-injected engine, spiffy new Honeywell Bendix/King panel, capable autopilot, and three-point harnesses strapped to 26-G seats, this was unlike anything we had refurbished.
The plucky Skyhawk has taught me lots over the years — about airmanship, navigation, and ownership. It can reward you with a chirp-chirp landing on a dead-calm evening, but just as likely, it can remind you that no matter how simple the airplane, flying carries with it a responsibility to be safe and to remember that the flying doesn't stop until the engine is shut down. It is those lessons, probably more than the individual flights, that I will remember most about the Skyhawk as it moves into its second half-century of flight.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links to additional information about the author's flights may be found on AOPA Online.
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