The Skyhawk Turns 50
The first Cessna 172 meets the latest from Independence
BY PETER A. BEDELL
Cessna's Model 172 has taught and shaped the careers of thousands of pilots for 50 years. The list of superlatives affixed to the 172 refers to manufacturing numbers and hours amassed rather than sexier terms like "fastest" or "prettiest." It is truly an unsung hero of general aviation airplanes. It's hard to believe that the design is 50 years old and, following the darkest days of the industry, has evolved into what is now among the more advanced single-engine airplanes in the sky.
For many of us, the first exposure we had to Cessna's 172 was the first step-up in size and performance from a two-seat trainer, most likely the Cessna 150/152 series. Back then the Skyhawk seemed huge and powerful compared to the 150/152. Many of us spent hours in 172s giving first rides to friends and family, collecting certificates and ratings, and eventually moving on to bigger and higher-performance rides. Some, on the other hand, continued flying 172s, passing on their knowledge as CFIs or landing jobs as traffic or fish spotters. Over time, people started calling them colorful names like "Chicken Hawk," or "Fryhawk" for those in warmer climates.
Despite the name-calling and sometimes love-hate relationship with the 172, pilots and owners always regale the 172 for its remarkably unremarkable traits. It's not fast, but at least it's simple and doesn't burn a lot of fuel. It's not sexy, but it's utilitarian, it's easy to fly, and it makes a great airplane for getting into and out of short, rough fields. It's very inexpensive to operate and that, combined with its legendary dispatch reliability, makes it the trainer of choice at many flight schools. Any mechanic in the world can work on one in a farmer's field or at the jet FBO at the international airport. The list of pros far outweighs the cons and is the main reason why it remains the world's most produced airplane.
Among the editors and writers here at AOPA Pilot, the 172 has been at the epicenter of many of our operations. Many of us have owned or still own a Skyhawk. Many of us have logged hundreds of hours in them, camped under their wings, raced them, used them in countless photo shoots, and ferried them across oceans to salivating new owners. In all of those hours flown and articles written, we can't think of many negative things to be said about the 172 — it simply got the job done in some of the most difficult situations. It's an airplane that rarely achieves superlative status in any particular category. But over the years the 172 has matured gracefully, maintaining its legendary forgiving flying characteristics, and today, combining them with modern displays and avionics.
To best illustrate how far the design has come in 50 years, we flew the first production 172 (serial number 28000) to Independence, Kansas, to meet the latest 172 emerging from Cessna's single-engine-aircraft facility. Anyone who says the new 172s are the "same old airplane" needs to take a closer look at these pages. The airplanes bear few similarities. Notice the original airplane's upright stance, straight tail, and "fastback" rear fuselage. Best we could tell, the only commonality between the first airplane and the new one is the outer wing panel, and that doesn't include the leading edge. (Since 1973, all 172s employ a cuffed leading edge for improved low-speed handling.) Beneath the skin, the spar carry-through structures are largely the same from 1956. Otherwise, that's about it.
On the inside, the difference is jaw dropping. The recent integration of the Garmin G1000 system into the new Skyhawks has greatly quieted the same-old-airplane crowd. Likewise, people's tastes in interiors over the past few decades have demanded a more inviting living space. Cessna has done that concurrently with several safety enhancements — among them are beefy seat rails, a reinforced floor, crashworthy seats sporting three-point harnesses in all four seats, and air bags embedded in the front seat belts. After some head scratching with Cessna's general manager of the Independence factory, Terry Clark, we concluded that the rudder pedal tubes in the floor of the airplane were the same as those used in the first airplane. Otherwise, there's no apparent commonality between the two interiors, except for having four seats.
N5000A is the first true 172, built in 1955 as a 1956 model. It was a "proof of production" airplane that was preceded only by a prototype — a tailwheel Cessna 170 converted to tricycle gear. N5000A first flew on October 6, 1955, and amassed 642 hours by the end of 1956. According to Cessna, since N5000A emerged from Cessna's Pawnee plant in Wichita, there have been nearly 40,000 172s built, which is more than any other airplane.
In 1956, nosewheels were a new item to general aviation. Piper's Tri-Pacer and Beech's Bonanza both employed the new technology with success. Cessna's sales brochure for the then-new 172 touted, "The patented Land-O-Matic gear takes the skill out of landing and taking off." Many pilots out there are probably offended by that statement, but compared to the taildraggers of the time, the 172 was — and still is — a real pussycat on the runway. The 172 "Businessliner" was intended to be an easier airplane to fly than the taildraggers, since busy execs didn't always fly enough to maintain sharp tailwheel skills.
Like many general aviation airplanes with 50 years behind them, N5000A has had a checkered past. It's been on its back twice during its days as a trainer, leading to replacement of the landing gear, firewall, and empennage. Later in life, it sat in an open T-hangar for 10 years (see " Queen of the Fleet," page 73).
Today, N5000A is owned by Joe Nelsen, of Gunter, Texas. Nelsen is an 850-hour private pilot who flies the airplane about 50 to 100 hours a year. When he acquired the airplane in 1988 after the above-mentioned idle years, he spent about eight months getting it up to speed, including top overhauling the engine with all-new cylinders. Interestingly enough, the bottom end of the engine is the same one the airplane was born with, albeit overhauled a few times. Nelsen has strived to keep the airplane as original as possible, but some safety-of-flight items were added, such as the much-improved Cleveland wheels and brakes, a set of strobe lights, and a 35-amp generator.
On the inside there are areas that still have the original upholstery. The instrument panel is typical of 1950s-era airplanes, with seemingly random instrument placement and little room for avionics. It is a VFR-only airplane. On the outside, the paint nods slightly toward the original scheme, but back in 1956, the airplane was mostly polished aluminum with maroon and cream stripes. It was featured in some of the advertising literature for Cessna. In quiet honor of its trailblazing past, N5000A bears a subtle "1st 172" on its vertical fin.
Starting the six-cylinder Continental O-300 employs a pull starter that mechanically engages the starter gear before spinning the starter motor. Taxiing and ground handling are a little stiffer because of the narrow-track spring-steel gear that was used in all 172s until 1971. In flight, however, N5000A handles just like all other 172s, not giving a hint to its status as a classic. The 145-horsepower engine runs smoothly and pulls the 1,328-pound airframe with gusto when lightly loaded.
One thing that struck me while flying in N5000A is the excellent view over the nose. Instrument panels in the 1950s didn't need to hold as much gear, and the result is a low panel with excellent visibility, allowing the pilot to soak up the view out the windshield. And that suits Nelsen perfectly. He is a VFR pilot who prefers to navigate using pilotage and dead reckoning, and the extra visibility over the nose is much appreciated.
In contrast, the packed panel of the new Skyhawk houses the Garmin G1000, which is the main ingredient of Cessna's current Nav III option package. Today's 172s are a great example of how far a design can go without a clean-sheet makeover. Many were critical of Cessna's decision to resurrect the 172 after a decade-long production hiatus from 1986 to 1996. But reintroducing the 1997 Skyhawk allowed Cessna to get a big head start on new four-seaters from other manufacturers that were just being designed. In the late 1990s, several flight schools were itching to replace their fleets of Cessnas that were getting long in the tooth. Backing the decision to go Cessna were decades of familiarity, all the way from the logistics of mechanical support to the familiarity of training materials. As a result, Cessna sold a few thousand Skyhawks before other competitors got ramped up for production. By the end of 2005, Cessna had delivered 3,400 Skyhawks since the restart of production.
Cessna also has kept up with the technology and embraced the capabilities of the G1000 system as well as a capable Honeywell Bendix/King autopilot complete with altitude preselect and roll steering. Terrain alerting, traffic information, engine monitoring, and XM WX satellite weather round out an impressive package that makes the once-diminutive 172 a real IFR power player. The G1000 system also is employed in the larger Cessna singles as well as Cessna's new Citation Mustang personal jet, making advancement easier for pilots who want to step up the product line.
The new Skyhawk that we tested was an SP model equipped with the 180-horsepower Lycoming IO-360. With the extra horses, and some aerodynamic enhancements over the decades, the new airplane has a solid 15-knot advantage over the original airplane and its 145-horsepower motor. These days the 172S outsells the 160-horsepower R model five to one despite the higher cost and higher fuel burn of the 180-horsepower variant. In addition, 80 to 90 percent of buyers are anteing up for the G1000 package. Classic gauges and avionics still can be had and fleet buyers often purchase both types of airplanes to provide training in both the round-dial and glass airplanes.
Today's Skyhawks emerge from the factory with no exposed aluminum — everything is coated in an epoxy primer inside and out. Firewalls are now made of stainless steel as opposed to the galvanized steel used in the older generations. When N5000A was birthed, it emerged with mostly bare aluminum inside and out. Pursuit of corrosion is a constant monkey on the back of owners of old 172s. The only exception to this rule is the airplanes that were equipped with the coveted seaplane package that were coated inside and out in similar fashion to the new Skyhawks.
Maintainability is another advantage of the new generation of Skyhawks. Changing seat rails in an old 172 is quite a job, and it needs to be done about every 500 to 1,000 hours depending on use or abuse. It involves drilling out several rivets to remove the old rails and riveting in new ones. Today's Skyhawk has beefier seat rails borrowed from the Cessna Caravan that will outlast the old design by decades. And, in the event that replacement is necessary, you can leave the rivet gun in the toolbox and simply use a screwdriver.
Likewise, instrument swaps are a piece of cake if you happen to have a 172R or -S built with steam gauges. Instead of removing a seat and spending lots of quality time on your back working blindly behind the panel, you simply sit in a front seat, remove a few screws on the portion of the panel with the faulty instrument, and tilt out the panel segment to swap the instrument. A more recent change to the Skyhawk is the addition of high-intensity discharge landing lights that provide a brighter and much longer-lasting illumination.
Flying the new 172S shown on these pages was this pilot's first opportunity to fly the G1000 system. As a co-owner of a 1975 172M with mostly original gauges and avionics, I found that my experience flying the new airplane was surreal. Here was an airplane that possessed all of the same flying characteristics as mine, yet provided a whole new world of information on the inside, most important, weather and traffic.
Upon seeing trend vectors — the little lines on the tapes that visually depict where your airspeed, altitude, heading, and vertical speed will be in six seconds — I had a hard time believing I was flying a 172 and not a modern jet. An autopilot — and especially one with altitude preselect, roll steering, and the capability to fly a coupled approach right down to 200 feet — is another thing completely new to this 172 pilot. Equally pleasing, however, was the full-screen horizon depiction that seems to provide an unquestionable awareness of attitude.
These features, and the fact that all of the instruments and avionics are integrated into one system, will undoubtedly make learning to fly easier and safer. The next time I flew my airplane it was a little depressing, I have to admit.
Despite all of the gee-whiz in the panel, you could fixate your eyeballs out the windshield and simply fly the new 172 like you would the first one — by the seat of your pants, the feel of the yoke, and the sound of the engine. Some things, thankfully, never change.
Pete Bedell is a first officer for a major airline and is co-owner of a 1975 Cessna 172M and a Beechcraft D55 Baron.
Video, additional stories, and more on the Cessna 172 can be found on AOPA Online.
Queen of the Fleet
History's first production 172 started life in a flight school
BY ALTON K. MARSH
A title search shows that N5000A started life in a role very familiar to 172s, that of a trainer. The aircraft was delivered to Skyways School of Aviation in Troutdale, Oregon, where it was the queen of that fleet that included the Cessna 140s and Aeronca Champs.
It was purchased from the Cessna Aircraft Co. on February 16, 1956, but stayed at the school only until January 20, 1957, when it was sold to a Portland, Oregon, doctor. It may have been in leaseback, but two people who were at the school, including one who learned to fly there at the time, have no recollection of N5000A. It is probable that the aircraft went into private ownership. The doctor kept it almost exactly one year and sold it to a Portland-area car repair shop, Griffith Bearing Service.
The aircraft remained in Oregon until May 1961, when it went to a private owner in Wickenburg, Arizona. It passed through an owner in Greeley, Colorado, the following year before ending up back in service for an aviation company, Exec Air at Grand Island, Nebraska. The airplane continued in service at the same location the following year for Land Air.
After staying briefly with a private owner, in January 1964 it was sold to Joe Tunnicliff, owner of Opitz Motor Co. in Clarinda, Iowa. A year later it went to its present home state, Texas, spending a year or two with private owners in Houston and Midland. It was registered in Friendswood, Texas, 20 years before reaching today's owner, Joe Nelsen, of Gunter, Texas.