A 172 Reunion
Cessna test pilots reunite for a long-awaited look at the first 172
BY DAVID W. ROBB
If by some chance you've never flown a Cessna 172, then you probably know someone who has. After 50 years and nearly 40,000 built to date, it would be next to impossible to know exactly how many pilots have had some kind of 172 experience, but it's safe to bet that it's a pretty big club. But have you ever wondered about the charter members — the first 172 pilots?
These honors go to Cessna test pilots E.B. "Fritz" Feutz, who made the first flight of the original prototype 172 more than five decades ago, and Morton Brown, who made the first flight of the first production model 172 off the line (see " The Skyhawk Turns 50," page 70) just months later.
The first (and only) 172 prototype was in fact a conventional-gear 170C model secretly modified with a tricycle landing gear. And the very first flight of a 172 was a ferry mission on June 12, 1955, to take this top-secret prototype to a "clandestine" testing base just outside of Wichita and out of sight from the competition, namely Beech Aircraft Corp. and Piper Aircraft Corp.
Does Feutz remember that first flight?
"Yes, vividly," Feutz recalled during a recent interview. "Marketing was paranoid about the public being aware of the [tricycle gear] modification so we had to set up a secret base at Kingman, Kansas, which was a grass strip and a barn for a hangar. The first flight was made at sunup on a Sunday morning."
After working at Beech Aircraft Corp.ï¿½ as an aerodynamics engineer, Feutz jumped at the opportunity to fly for Cessna and in 1953 joined Cessna Aircraft Co. as an experimental test pilot.
Another key figure in the development of the 172, Obed Wells, also remembers that first prototype flight clearly. Wells, now 89, was Cessna's chief project engineer in charge of the 172, as well as other airplane programs, and worked at Cessna for 41 years, ultimately as executive engineer.
"I flew chase plane [in a Cessna 180] on the first flight" of the prototype 172, Wells remembered. "Beech always seemed to know when we were going to fly a new model and had a plane overhead to watch. So we thought we'd fix that and rented a hangar at Kingman field.
"As I recall, we didn't get much above 500 feet on that flight. We took off at first light, flew the plane to Kingman, put it in the hangar, and locked the door — we were back in Wichita before 9 a.m."
The notation in Wells' logbook for that flight on June 12, 1955: "Observed new 172 in flight."
Tricycle gear comes of age
In 1955, Cessna Aircraft Co. was a beehive of activity, as were many general aviation manufacturers. Piper in particular was making headlines with its tricycle-gear Tri-Pacer, and Cessna felt intense pressure to respond with its own nosewheel single. Cessna engineers had been experimenting with a tricycle-gear single-engine mockup on their own.
Cessna had just certified the C model of the 170, with conventional gear, and was planning to roll it out as the 1956 model of what was a popular and successful airplane. Instead, Cessna management privately and abruptly cancelled the 170 altogether and directed its engineering department to proceed posthaste and in all secrecy with a tri-cycle-gear single.
"I got a call at home asking if I would come out to the plant [one Saturday] afternoon," recalled Wells. "When I arrived at the engineering department, Vice President Tom Salter and Chief Engineer Jerry Gerteis announced that we were going to come up with a new airplane that would be tricycle geared, and that it was to be designed and built as a secret project."
Thus, without fanfare, the now-ubiquitous 172 was launched.
Earlier this year, the original production model 172, N5000A (serial number 28000), took part in its own secret mission back to Wichita. Current owner Joe Nelsen agreed to fly the airplane to Kansas from his home base in Texas with friend and copilot John Delashaw. The airplane, with its distinctive square tail, was carefully tucked away in the corner of a large corporate hangar at Colonel James Jabara Airport to await its reunion with some of the men responsible for its development. With help from former Cessna engineer Joe Latas, Feutz, Brown, Wells, and Clements were invited by AOPA Pilot to come see their "first born" and reflect on its remarkable 50-year run.
As the group gathered on the appointed morning at Jabara, there was an air of expectation and celebration. While these pilots and engineers had worked closely together at Cessna on the 172 and other airplane programs, all are retired and many hadn't seen each other for years. Family and friends were on hand for the event as well.
By nature or training, professional test pilots tend to be unemotional and matter-of-fact about all things aviation (at least on the exterior).ï¿½But when this group laid eyes on N5000A after so many years, even these "hardened" professionals couldn't help themselves.
"It's beautiful," exclaimed Wells.
"It's been a long time since I've seen that one," said Brown with a smile. "That's a classy airplane."ï¿½ Brown first flew the airplane on October 6, 1955, as chief of production-flight test. During his 35-year career at Cessna, he was responsible for releasing more than 85,000 airplanes, out of which he personally logged more than 14,000 first flights.
Now 97 years old, the details of that first 172 flight have blended with his other "13,999" first flights. But Brown remembers the essence of his job: to make sure they "fly right, perform right, and look right," he said proudly,ï¿½ looking at the airplane he had flown so many years ago.
So, what is it about the Cessna 172 that has made it the most popular single-engine airplane of all time? After five decades, Brown still has a quick opinion: "It was easy to handle, it had good performance for what a private owner would be looking for, and the tricycle gear made it easy to land and easy to take off. It's a rare airplane, in my opinion. It performs well, and you don't have to be in a hurry with it."
Harry Clements, the Cessna aerodynamicist who optimized the 170's "square tail," which was later adopted for the first 172, summed it up this way: "To me, the big breakthrough was in a business sense," Clements said. "Up to that point, we had been designing airplanes for people who were already pilots." With the 172, "we opened up a whole new category of people who could use an airplane for business and leisure transportation who would not have even thought of that given how much harder it was to fly a tailwheel airplane."
What did this veteran group of engineers and pilots think about the Cessna 172 five decades and 39,400 units later? We'll give the group the last word.
"The airplane to me is just as good after 50 years," Feutz declared. "I hope the 172 makes it to 40,000...I think it will."
"It's good to see airplanes last so long," Brown said, and added, "They should."
"I'm proud of the fact that the 172 is still being built," Wells said. "There's been a lot of changes, but it's still a 172."
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see video of the 172 reunion, visit AOPA Online.