The 2012 Skyhawk features three new exterior paint schemes and a Garmin GTS 800 traffic system that integrates with the G1000 and is ADS-B compatible.
All really great flying adventures begin at dawn," wrote Stephen Coonts in his cross-country odyssey Cannibal Queen, and those words were all I was thinking about as I drove to the airport with the sun still hiding and the new day before me. I was excited because I'd be flying Cessna's new Skyhawk, and the prospect was enticing.
To some, the idea of flying Cessna's venerable 172 may not conjure up adventure, but to me, the airplane is something of an aerial version of Chevrolet's classic 1956 Bel Air—a vehicle whose pedestrian character belies the fact that it's simply a cool ride. They were both born in the same year, and who doesn't like an airplane they call The Pilot Maker?
So much has been said and written about Cessna's Skyhawk that any conversation should begin with what the airplane isn't, because that's where its strength lies. The 172 isn't very fast, and it's not an exemplary hauler. It's not miserly on fuel nor is it a fast climber. The Skyhawk doesn't land especially short, nor is it highly maneuverable. The Skyhawk is none of these, yet is enough of each, and that's why it's the biggest-selling aircraft in general aviation history.
That morning, I would be flying with Rich Manor, President of Pacific Air Center, one of Cessna's most successful dealers. Our plan was to depart Long Beach and head over the rolling hills of California's Central Coast and stop at Santa Maria for breakfast. That's a typical mission for a Skyhawk, so I wanted to experience it in its natural habitat. The forecast was for clear weather with winds picking up in the late afternoon.
There's no need for a detailed history lesson on the Skyhawk, but pilots may like to know today's 172 was borne from the idea of putting tricycle gear (then called Land-O-Matic) and a new empennage on the Cessna 170 airframe. Otherwise, the original 172 was identical to the 170: manual flaps, a 145 hp Continental O-300 engine and a gross weight of 2,200 pounds. There was no rear window on the first 172, and most of us have seen the straight tail it sported those first years.
There were 1,174 of these babies that rolled off the production line the first year—8,999 in the first five years! The airplane was a runaway success. Pilots loved its gentle handling, benign flight characteristics, the simplicity of its tricycle gear and those big flaps that made landings easier for beginners. In 1960, the bird got its now-recognizable swept tail; in 1961, the name "Skyhawk" was first used. The rest really is history.
One strength of Cessna's high-wing design is visibility. Marc Lee and Rich Manor, President of Pacific Air Center, fly over Los Angeles International Airport while transitioning through its Class Bravo airspace.
Holding his hot coffee to ease the bite of an unusually cold Southern California morning, Manor threw me the keys to the dew-covered Skyhawk waiting on the ramp. The design of the airplane hasn't changed in 56 years, and I realize the paint schemes are what give these birds their date stamp. I'm relieved we're out of that horrible period in the mid-'70s when Skyhawks came off the line in that hideous bile-brown. The year 2012 brings three fresh exterior paint schemes to the handsome Cessna.
A quick preflight reveals more of the thoughtful details that make the Skyhawk so successful. For example, the Skyhawk has well-situated handholds and steps that make checking fuel in the wing tanks a snap. Everything on the airplane is easily accessible—from oil dipstick to fuel drains. We disconnected the hinge on the pilot's side window for photos, reminding me that the Skyhawk also has a reputation as a good photo ship. Like WD-40 and Windex, the Skyhawk has a thousand uses.
As in all the newer Skyhawks, Manor shows me that you have to attach your seat belt before closing the door. The Amsafe restraints are thicker-than-normal belts, and the receiver latch is low and against the door. Manor also familiarizes me with the real star of the new Skyhawk—the Garmin G1000. The glass panel system has given the Skyhawk a new heart and melds with the airplane beautifully.
New for the Skyhawk this year is the Garmin GTS 800 traffic system, which integrates with the G1000. The big thing about the GTS 800 is that it's ADS-B/NextGen compatible, so it will have the ability to display flight identification, position, altitude, velocity and heading information broadcast from other NextGen-enabled transponders.
The unit integrates with the G1000's Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT) using standard TCAS symbology, and uses more precise voice alerts such as, "Traffic, 11 o'clock, high." According to Cessna, the GTS 800 will be available during the spring of 2012.
Another option for the Skyhawk is the EVS (Enhanced Vision System) for seeing in low-light or obscured-visibility conditions. The camera, which mounts on the right wing just outboard of the strut, displays hazards not visible to the naked eye such as wildlife on a runway. It really enhances situational awareness in mountainous areas.
On this cold morning, we used the Synthetic Vision feature to find the taxiway while the front windshield was still obscured by dew. The huge Garmin display is beautiful to look at, and we also had the GFC 700 autopilot on our Skyhawk, which I would appreciate later.
The 172 is still an airplane, and all the avionics in the world won't make up for a lousy-flying aircraft. Even though I hadn't touched a Skyhawk in over five years, the airplane felt immediately familiar, and I managed taxi, takeoff and cruise without a problem. The Skyhawk's "secret" became obvious: It's unequivocally an easy airplane to fly.
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.
The first Cessna 172 ever manufactured, N5000A, at the Cessna 172 Club 2011 Annual Fly-In at Strother Field in Kansas.
New For 2012
Cessna offers two variations of the 172: the Skyhawk and the Skyhawk SP ("Special Performance"). The SP adds 20 hp to the standard Skyhawk's 160 hp. Max cruise speed on the SP is 126 knots, so it gets you where you need to go at a fair clip. Depending on power setting, you can count on somewhere between eight and 10 gallons-per-hour fuel burn at cruise, so with the full 56-gallon fuel load, you can expect a range of just over 600 nm.
Options for 2012 include air-conditioning (a $30,860 STC add-on), pedal extensions, stabilizer boots, a single "observer's" seat to replace the rear seats (genius for flight schools), and AmSafe restraints for the rear seats. The avionics goodies to choose from are Garmin TAWS-B, ADF/DME on the PFD, Garmin Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT), Enhanced Vision System (EVS) and ChartView by Jeppesen. Considering the first 172s sold for around $8,750 in 1956, the SP's current price tag of $307,500 shows the difference five decades makes.
Roiling around in the turbulence, I was reassured by the Air Safety Foundation's study on the 172 that found the Skyhawk has a great safety record. The Cessna has fewer serious accidents than a comparison group of similar aircraft. Happily, when Skyhawks are involved in accidents, their occupants most often survive or suffer minor injuries. With nearly 60,000 172s built since they were first introduced, the world's most popular airplane is also one of its safest.
Back in the cockpit, the wind vanished suddenly. Just south of Santa Monica, we hit air so calm it was still foggy on the ground. Winging our way back home, I could feel the 55 years of history coursing through the yoke and into my hands. This is, after all, an everyman's airplane. Put it in any role, and the Skyhawk can hack it with the best of them. Never sexy or flashy, the Skyhawk isn't a niche airplane—it does everything well. And it has taught more people to fly than anything else with wings.
Slipping in and dropping full flaps for a landing after my too-high approach, I was reminded what a forgiving aircraft the Skyhawk really is. Disappointed we couldn't make our destination, but grateful for the Skyhawk's plumb-line stability in turbulence, we touched down not too badly; our dawn adventure was over. And it was a blast.
Check out the newest Skyhawk and other fantastic single-engine airplanes in our latest Piston Singles Buyer's Guide.
|Skyhawks Make the News|
If you had to describe the Cessna Skyhawk and its 55 years of history in one word, it would be "versatile." The airplane has been used as everything from a military trainer to a bush plane, with many roles in between. The airplane has even set world records.
Two pilots, Robert Timm and John Cook, took off from Las Vegas' McCarran Field on December 4, 1958, and landed 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes later, setting the world record for the longest flight without landing, which has stood since 1959. You read that right: over two months in the air without landing.
Timm, a former bomber pilot in World War II, and Cook, an aircraft mechanic and pilot, hatched the idea to raise money for cancer research. The Hacienda Hotel and Casino—where Timm worked as a slot machine mechanic—decided to get involved and provide some funding if the two painted the Hacienda's logo on the side of the Skyhawk. They did, and installed a 95-gallon fuel tank in the belly of the Cessna 172, along with removing the seats and installing special hoses and an oil filter in the cabin to allow them to change their oil during flight!
Once a day, the two pilots—flying in four-hour shifts—would descend along the runway at McCarran, lower a winch cable with a hook on the end and pull up a rubber hose from a truck carrying the fuel and driving beneath the Skyhawk at 75 mph. After filling the belly tank, they'd send the hook back down to pull up food and offload all the detritus of the previous hours.
The two flew a total of 150,000 miles in their otherwise stock 172, doing nothing more than
Meanwhile, Dennis Ozment of Quincy, Ill., owns the very first production 172 that rolled off the line back in '56: N5000A (s/n 28000). Ozment recently bought the vintage Cessna from Joe Nelson, who owned it for some 23 years, and is busy restoring both the interior and exterior to their period-correct, original condition. Ozment's plan is to have the full restoration done by this summer, just in time for Oshkosh. "I want it to be as original as possible," says Ozment. He adds that the veteran Cessna is still a regular flier with some 5,000 hours on the airframe. "I just flew it yesterday."
On the other side of the spectrum, "Beyond Aviation" (formerly BYE Energy) is using the