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10 Top Trainers

Significant training aircraft through GA history: Is your ride here?

Pilots of a certain vintage look back at their training through rosy spectacles. Oh, the salad days: Call in late for your near-minimum-wage job, roust your crusty (but kind-hearted) instructor with a fresh cup of coffee from the machine, hop aboard your training aircraft of choice, and practice your craft while mere mortals contemplate the workday ahead. Invariably, the sensations of learning to fly come coursing back. The smell of Royalite in the morning. A whiff of avgas. Maybe the odor of engine oil on your fingers after you've checked the dipstick. The aroma of a newly minted sectional.

Through history, there have been training aircraft, dating right to the beginning. (Of course, the Wright brother's ship was a trainer; what else could it be?) But it wouldn't be until after the Great Depression that aircraft manufacturers took solid aim at the trainer market, producing models built specifically for the task. Prior to that, flying was largely a gentleman's sport, and if the airplane you flew for fun also happened to be the airplane you learned to fly in, nobody said much. Step-up marketing had yet to be invented.

All of which helps to explain why most of the significant trainers on this list are of comparatively recent vintage. We're also aware - in case any of you were inclined to point this out later - that creating a list like this is a dangerous endeavor. It's a bit like choosing your favorite Hepburn - Audrey or Katharine?

1915: Curtiss JN-4 Jenny

Renowned as a military trainer in World War I, the JN-4, launched in 1915, was available in great numbers at low, low prices after the war. As a result, the Jenny was used for everything from basic training to aerial stuntery. Powered by a variety of engines'a 150-horsepower Hispano-Suiza or a Curtiss-built OX-5 of 90 hp - the Jenny proved amazingly versatile. With a sizzling top speed on the sane side of 70 knots with the OX-5, it seems terribly antiquated today but was really hauling the mail in its day. In fact, that's literally true; the Jenny inaugurated U.S. airmail service in 1918. It says something about the Jenny's historical significance that if asked to summon images of two aircraft from the first two decades of aviation, most pilots would name the Wright Flyer just before uttering "Jenny."

1938: Piper Cub

It would have been impossible to imagine general-aviation training immediately before and after World War II without the Piper J-3 Cub. The Cub actually owes its ancestry to the Taylor brothers, and C. Gilbert in particular, as it was their relationship with William T. Piper that put the Cub saga into motion. After a lukewarm start as the Taylor J-2, the Cub would benefit from a new, lightweight engine - Continental's A-40 - and elemental simplicity. If you see a part on a Cub that's not doing two things, it wasn't put there by Piper. From the start of J-3 production in 1938 to its conclusion in 1947, Piper produced more than 14,000 J-3s. What makes it a good trainer, even today? It is honest, simple, and direct, with just enough performance. Creaky old flight instructors are liable to say the Cub "flies like an airplane should," and by that they mean you can feel the aerodynamic forces at work, sense a stall coming a mile away, and know the instant the ball isn't dead-center between the lines.

1945: Aeronca Champ

Postwar demand for light aircraft, particularly trainers, was tremendous, and the Aeronca 7AC Champion was destined to cash in on the craze. Slightly larger and designed to carry a single pilot up front, unlike the rear-seat-solo Cub, the Champ nonetheless bowed to conventional wisdom of the time. It was built with a steel-tube frame covered in fabric. Up front was the Continental A-65 spinning a wood prop. Although looking a bit pot-bellied - nothing like the uncomfortably styled C-3 that preceded it - the 7AC flew well and performed on par with the Cub. In the heyday, Aeronca produced nearly 50 airplanes a day, for a total run of 7ACs on the order of 10,000 units. And if it's true that a large family a good trainer does make, the Champ earns maximum points: It sired the Citabria and Decathlon aerobatic airplanes and is the direct predecessor of the current American Champion line.

1946: Cessna 120/140

Hard to imagine today, with Cessna carrying the moniker of "conservative old-money aircraft manufacturer," but at one time the firm was considered flat-out daring. That describes the Cessna 120, shown, and 140, which debuted concurrently in 1946. The Cessnas had familiar fabric-covered wings, but the fuselages and tails were all aluminum. (In 1949, Cessna introduced the 140A, which had aluminum wings and a single strut as well, laying down the glue that would eventually harden into an entire lineup of similar-appearing aircraft.) And if all that tinfoil wasn't enough, Cessna had the audacity to place the pilot and passenger side by side! (Yes, we know Aeronca did this in the Chief and Piper in the J-5, but the Wichita wonders outsold them all and helped to turn the trend away from tandem seating.) And where were the sticks? Cessna saw (or forced upon us) the future, employing control wheels instead. The 120 ostensibly was the more austere of the otherwise identical duo, with the electrical system as an option - and no flaps or side windows - but both had the Continental C-85 four-cylinder engine and flew about the same, which is to say sweetly.

1954: Piper Apache

Piper beat Cessna to the postwar light-twin punch by a year with the Apache, but given that the Cessna 310 was a larger, faster, thirstier airplane, the race for the dominant multiengine trainer of the period was over before it began. The homely PA23 combined mechanical honesty with rugged, 150-hp Lycoming engines - and, later 160- and then 235-hp engines - that proved extremely economical. (So the FBO manager smiled.) It had truly marginal performance on a single engine. (So the flight instructor smiled.) Yet it was quick and capable enough that stepping-up multi-endorsed pilots wouldn't mind actually renting one for fun. (So the significant other could smile, finally.) You could argue that Piper did it better with the Twin Comanche, and again with the docile Seminole, but the Apache set the tone and provided a much-needed plank in the previously too-steep staircase to commercial flying.

1956: Cessna 172

The Skyhawk a trainer? You bet. With the airplane's debut as a 1956 model - chronologically following the trend-setting tricycle-gear Piper Tri-Pacer but summarily stealing its thunder - Cessna's lock on the low-end four-seat market became absolute. As a trainer, the 172 was (and is) no less impressive. How many pilots have made the Skyhawk their first step up? How many pilots have used the 172 to (attempt to) master instrument flying? Countless, we say. What's more, the 172's reach extended into military training as well; a version of the 1964 Skyhawk joined the U.S. Air Force as a pilot-candidate indoctrinator. No list of significant trainers would be complete without Cessna's everyperson machine.

1959: Cessna 150/152

It would be possible to underestimate the lowly Cessna 150's importance to civilian flying, but you'd have to work at it. Since the "one-filthy's" introduction in 1959 as a tri-gear version of the beloved Cessna 140, the Continental-powered two-seater arguably has trained more pilots than any other airplane. The 150 (shown) was the dominant machine during the great GA buildup in the 1970s, but also served the masses in the decade before and in every one since. Yes, it's slow; yes, it�s cramped; yes, there are better basic trainers around. But none combined the Cessna's bulldog-like durability, proper manners - that is, just sharp enough to teach important lessons, but docile enough to protect new students - and utter simplicity. Cessna will likely never build another 150/152, and that's a pity.

1960: Piper Cherokee

Fred Weick's seminal design in one step wrested Piper from the tyranny of tube and fabric. (Traditionalists, put down your pens; you get to enjoy your classics, not build them. For profit.) The ultra-simple, slightly homely Cherokee gave Piper much-needed ammunition against the invaders from Wichita. The first Cherokee, the 140, was a true four-seater, with a trusty Lycoming O-320 up front. Some schools thought the larger, thirstier Cherokee was economically disadvantaged, but the bean counters reached that conclusion without ever having talked to the 200-pound student riding with a 200-pound instructor. That the Cherokee was the rib that created a whole civilization of Pipers - from the incredibly successful Cherokee 180/Challenger/Archer to the Seneca twin - only solidifies its place on this list.

1979: Robinson R22

Live in a reasonably large city? Hear a helicopter and look up. What are you likely to see? Answer: A Robinson R22, teaching rotary flight in unparalleled numbers. From first flight in 1975 to rollout four years later to amazing production numbers today, the Robinson is the success story in training rotorcraft. And it has succeeded for the same reasons that the Cessna 150 or the Piper Cherokee have: It's a straightforward design that's easy to maintain, relatively inexpensive (at least by helicopter standards), and durable. It has amassed an excellent safety record to boot.

1995: Diamond Katana

With the purpose-built trainer market what you might call moribund for more than a decade, the Katana's arrival seemed pure folly. Just who were these plucky Canadians intent on certifying and selling a modified Austrian motorglider as a primary trainer? Turns out it wasn't such a crazy idea after all. The Katana opened a new chapter in basic training, with a sleek, efficient, new trainer that packed some new technology in with good, old-fashioned fine flying qualities. It's true there are oddities: There's no mixture control for the twin Bing carburetors on the Rotax four-cylinder engine, but there is a prop-pitch lever. The Katana is not, even in the Continental-powered C1 guise, approved for actual IFR. But it has been successful, if not quite in the 10,000-unit runs seen after World War II, and it has enabled Diamond to pursue other markets - including a fixed-gear four-place, a twin, and even a jet. After all, couldn't it be said that the Citation jet flying overhead was built on the sturdy little back of the Cessna 120?

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