Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 1, 2005

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." />

The tricycle gear was billed as “Land-O-Matic,” and the large flaps, holdovers from the C-170, were called “Para-Lift,” both features intended to endear the type to low-time pilots by making it easier to fly and land. Indeed, the C-172’s NACA 2412 airfoil and Continental O-300A engine made it perhaps the most docile airplanes in the sky until the advent of the Piper Cherokee. The C-172 was an instant success from the very beginning, selling some 1,100 units in the first year.

It also was among the simplest. The gear and prop were fixed, the engine was carbureted, and there was no fuel pump required, as avgas gravity-fed down from the high wing. In the 1950s, high-wing airplanes were the rule, and low-wing upstarts—such as the Bonanza, Navion, Mooneys and Comanches—were regarded more as high-priced aberrations that couldn’t readily be adapted to the entry-level market. Both Piper and Beech were later to embrace low-wing designs as trainers and personal transports, direct competition to the 172, but the Cessna Skyhawk would continue to lead the sales race well into the next century.

Tim Popp is probably typical of many pilots who regard the C-172 Skyhawk as one of the easiest flying airplanes in the sky. In the workaday world, Tim is an environmental manager for Pfizer Pharmaceutical, but his passion outside the office is aviation. Descend to the Popps’ basement and you’ll find an RV7 that has been under construction for two years, in addition to the family C-172 parked at the local airport. “I guess you’d say I’m an aviation nut,” says Tim. “Although I don’t make a living in the industry, I seem to spend much of my spare time involved in flying of one kind or another.”

The Popps and their golden retriever, Bailey, spend at least one day each weekend traveling the local Midwest. “We don’t do many long-distance flights,” says Tim, “but the airplane allows us to expand our horizons far beyond any convenient trip in a car. We have relatives in Traverse City, Mich., about four hours of travel by car, but only one-plus-40 in the airplane. Better still, the time in the airplane is pretty much the same all the time. Traveling by car, we can run into rush-hour traffic, extending the time by an hour or more. Our longest flight to date was to Gettysburg, Pa., six hours away. That’s a long cross-country for us.”

Flying with Tim in his classic Skyhawk was like turning back several pages, or chapters, in aviation history to a simpler time. (Okay, technically, the airplane isn’t the Skyhawk model with factory wheel fairings, full paint and gyros, but for the sake of simplicity, we regard all C-172s as Skyhawks.) In keeping with his penchant for the original configuration, Tim has left the instruments in their original positions, which means they’re scattered around pretty much at random rather than arranged in a basic T. Tim plans to earn his instrument rating in the C-172, so there may be some changes to instruments and radios in the near future.

Full fuel is 42 gallons usable, an easy four hours plus reserve at the max cruise burn rate of 8 gph. The Popps’ airplane is probably typical of many older C-172s in empty weight, and Tim reports the number is 1,362 pounds, so payload works out to 586 pounds. That’s three folks plus baggage, easily the equal of most other light singles. Coincidentally, that was exactly our load on our check flight.

The old-fashioned, spring-loaded, pull-type starter is mounted at the lower left, and the little Continental fires up happily. At only 2,200 pounds of maximum gross, early Skyhawks are lightweight machines, and even the hint of power will bring them off the chocks and start them rolling down the taxiway. This is a “light” airplane in every sense of the term, both on the ground and in the air, and you’ll definitely feel any irregularities in the taxiway. In a similar sense, significant winds can demand a brush-up in windy taxi technique.

The impression of “light weight” is only reinforced when it’s time to fly. Nothing happens too fast during the power-up, but with 174 square feet of wing to lift only 2,200 pounds and a clean stall down around 50 knots, it doesn’t have to. The airplane lofts skyward with ease, if not enthusiasm. Climb at gross isn’t worth bragging about, 550 to 600 fpm on a typical day, but you may see 700 fpm or more when flying light.

Labels: Piston Singles


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