Origin Of The Skyhawk
The straight-tailed C-172 marks the birth of the world’s most popular general-aviation airplane
Can it really be almost 50 years since Cessna introduced the first C-172? In a word, yes. Next year, the Wichita, Kan., company will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the C-172’s introduction, and the rest, as no one should ever say again, is history.
Well, not quite. The Skyhawk is hardly history. It remains in production in 2005 as one of the best-selling airplanes in the world, a talented jack-of-many-trades. At least two generations of pilots have logged their share of hours in the type, and it continues to engender respect and even grudging admiration from family fliers, instructors and students, and even an occasional business operator.
Regardless of the airplane’s me-too qualities, the Skyhawk story is fairly amazing, an unbridled success by any measure, although not everyone agreed that tricycle gear was the wave of the future back in the early 1950s when it was initially proposed. The story goes that a group of Cessna engineers pitched the nosewheel idea to the company’s marketing department, and the engineers were told in no uncertain terms to forget it. Marketing apparently felt Cessna’s future lay in tailwheel airplanes.
As a result, the tenacious group of nosegear advocates established their own informal skunk works 50 miles west of Wichita in Cessna’s small hangar at Kingman, Kan., more than coincidentally, Clyde Cessna’s hometown. Working primarily on evenings and weekends, they conceived the first tricycle-geared Cessna.
They couldn’t possibly have imagined how successful their new airplane would be. At the peak of production in the late 1970s, Cessna was pushing a new Skyhawk off the end of the line at its Strother facility once every working hour. That’s 40 airplanes a week, 2,000 a year. In total, Cessna has built well over 35,000 model 172 Skyhawks and another 7,000 powered-up or retractable variants so far, despite the shutdown of all piston production from 1986 to 1997.
For some pilots, however, older will always be better. Tim and Liz Popp of Lawton, Mich., are Cessna owners who regard the originals as among the best of the type, at least for their purposes. The Popps have owned their first airplane, a 1958 Cessna 172, for nearly a decade, and they currently have no plans to replace it. They’ve completely restored the classic design to its original configuration, right down to paint, interior, decals and instruments. (Tim Popp has upgraded the radio package.)
The 1958 model was technically the third year for the type, but there were very few changes to the airplane in those three years. The first significant “improvement,” more aesthetic than functional, came in 1960 when Cessna adopted swept tails on all of its singles except the C-150 and C-180. The next came in 1962 when the company abandoned the fastback fuselage and mounted a relatively useless rear window on most models. As everyone must know by now, the first Cessna 172s were little more than C-170s with a nosewheel mounted under the cowl, repositioned main gear and modified rudder following behind, the latter loosely borrowed from the Cessna 180.