Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Skyhawk For Everyone

Cessna’s hit airplane keeps getting better with age

Coming from a taildragger, I was almost embarrassed by the lack of rudder needed to fly the 172. The airplane is inherently stable in all axes, and its controls feel solid and sure. It's not nimble like, say, a Pitts, but it obeys control inputs like a well-trained labrador on a Sunday walk—with no surprises.

One strength of Cessna's high-wing design is visibility. Looking down over Los Angeles International Airport's big, beautiful runways while transitioning through its Class Bravo airspace was a treat, as was gawking at the zillion-dollar celebrity homes in the hills above Hollywood. The Skyhawk can accommodate pilots that are larger in size so, if anything, we shorter folk have a tough time seeing over the tall panel that all 172s share. But the front seats—adjustable vertically as well as horizontally—allow smaller pilots to feel at home. The tear-drop fuselage shape means the rear-seat area is narrower, but it doesn't feel claustrophobic.

Though the morning was forecast to be calm, as we started into the hills above Camarillo, it was like somebody suddenly pushed the "tumble dry" button. We were letting the GFC 700 fly the airplane while Manor took me through various aspects of the G1000. With the airplane now pointed one way but flying another, the MFD went from displaying zero wind to a crosswind of 48 knots.

Since we were over mountains, the churning air immediately began to pummel us, ironically just after Manor exclaimed, "That's strange, we should be getting beat up right now but it's calm." With lots of higher mountains ahead, we agreed we had to climb fast or turn around, while approach control announced, "Moderate to severe turbulence, all sectors and all altitudes." We instead turned toward the ocean seeking calmer air.

We were treated to something neither of us had seen in years of flying over Southern California: The offshore wind was so intense that it was blowing against the incoming waves that were rising in size. In doing so, it blew the water into a thick mist resembling smoke that stretched for miles. The ocean looked full of ice blocks as the hard wind created whitecaps as big as yachts.

In an instant, we got hit hard by a wave of turbulence that sent Manor's coffee cup flying, cracking the lid, and slamming us hard into our belts. The wind was doing a number on the Skyhawk's propeller as we struggled to maintain a constant rpm while the autopilot kept changing the nose attitude to try to maintain speed. Through it all, the Skyhawk soldiered on like a bored housewife.

Conditions like these wreak havoc with airflow and angle of attack. The design of the wing makes the Skyhawk incredibly stable longitudinally. Reduce the airspeed and keep pulling back on the yoke, and you get a slight buffet followed by a soft, mushy break. There's no tendency to roll off to either side even without much rudder. With the power on, the angle gets steeper, but torque and P-factor don't conspire as much to pull the wing down at the break. It still requires judicious rudder, but there's less tendency to spin (as long as you use that rudder). The price for all that stability is that the Skyhawk's roll rate is anemic. But we don't buy 172s for rolls.

Labels: Piston Engines


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