The Cessna 180 is the perfect bush-flying utility airplane that balances agility and power. This guide walks you through its features and characteristics.
6,193 Cessna 180s were built across eleven variations between 1953 and 1981. A C180 costs between $90,000 and $200,000 depending on condition and upgrades. With a useful load of over 1,500 lbs, an endurance of five hours, and a top speed of 120 knots, it burns 14 gph.
As a CFII and an aircraft enthusiast, I have frequently flown and taught numerous students in the 180. I am a huge fan of its simplicity, utility, and record of safety.
The Cessna 180 was built in the wake of the success the Cessna 170 enjoyed. Cessna realized that with the popularity of the C170, a wider market could be carved out by offering a faster aircraft with an increased payload.
In keeping with their proven formula, the Cessna 180 continued as a high-wing taildragger like the 170. With an all-metal alloy semi-monocoque structure, 40.25 inches wide at the widest point, the aircraft provided greater room and comfort with added strength and better handling.
The cross-section of the C180 has a rectangular shape with rounded edges, typical of most high-wing Cessnas. It also continued with the box construction for the wing with a three-spar wing and ribs with riveted 2024-T3 Alcad aluminum alloy sheets.
Built between 1953 and 1981 Cessna produced a total of eleven variants. Beginning with the original C180, then on to the C180A, and so on. The C180A came in 1956, the B came in 1958, the C came in 1959, the D in 1960, E in 1961, F in 1962, G in 1963, and H in 1964. Cessna skipped the I variants and introduced the J in 72 and finally the K in 1976.
All variants were designed to be retrofitted for skis and floats should the operator wish to do so.
While all models are taildraggers, it is fairly easy to tell some of them apart. The original C180 and all the variants way up to F were four-seaters. From G onwards, all Cessna 180 variants were six-seaters.
The variants with the additional seating had increased MTOWs, allowing an additional 150 pounds. The engines that came with these variants were not upgraded, essentially slowing the aircraft by a few knots.
The C180 eventually came to be known as the Skywagon in 1969 following the theme of the Sky nomenclature that Cessna had adopted and the tricycle offshoot that was introduced in 1956 which was known as the 182 Skylane.
The decision to keep the C180 as a taildragger and maintain its high-wing format, aside from structural reasons, was primarily to give it the versatility to land in unpaved fields. Paved airports were not as prevalent as they are today.
Engineers at Cessna wanted to build a product that didn’t just cater to those who lived by an airfield or major airport.
Tailwheel designs were necessitated by the reality of the times. By resting the plane on its tailwheel, it gave a greater clearance for the prop and kept it away from picking up pebbles and sand and whatever else might be found in unpaved fields.
The Cessna 180 has a center of gravity that is slightly aft of the aircraft’s main gear. This is done to keep the plane from lunging forward and having the prop strike the ground. But the penalty for that on the C180 is, like all taildraggers, that the plane is not easy to steer straight.
As a taildragger, you also have to remember that you will have to constantly dance on the pedals whether you’re taxiing, on the take-off roll, or even on the climb out, you will have to actively engage with your rudder pedal.
Power-off stalls are gentle, breaking left easily unless sufficient rudder pressure is applied. Power on stalls, however, can be jarring for the beginner. They enter into a spin easily, but can also be broken out of one without too much negotiation.
The wings are semi-tapered with zero sweep. The leading edge of the C180 is straight while the inboard section of the trailing edge remains straight until approximately halfway before tapering toward the tips. The wings were also designed to have slotted Fowler flaps that altered the camber of the wing considerably.
At partial flaps, the increase in lift outweighs the increase in drag giving the aircraft significant climb performance. When fully extended, however, the altered camber and increased area develop more lift but significantly more drag, giving the aircraft high sink rates.
The flap setting combination of high-lift lower settings and high-drag higher settings gives the C180 the ability to climb out of and descend into airfields surrounded by high obstacles.
The C180 performs well on unpaved grass fields and can even be retrofitted with skis or floats. For aggressive bush terrain, the aircraft can be fitted with large low-pressure tundra tires.
The original Continental O-470 engine generates 225 horsepower and is powerful enough for the increased gross weight the Cessna 180 could carry over its predecessor, the 170. Later models upgraded to 230-horsepower O-470 and some variants even had a 240-hp engine, but those were short-lived.
When buying a C180, take note that they don’t all fly with the same tactile feel. While it's true that every aircraft is unique, even those that have sequential serial numbers, the C180s have eleven variations that result in different horsepower, different configurations, and even different fuel tanks.
The Cessna 180K variant is the least agile of all the C180 models. While they have almost the same wing area, what they also have more of is mass in the wings owing to the larger tanks in the C180K than in the C180.
All C180 variants are normally aspirated. While Continental does have 470 engines that are fuel injected, the IO-470, the ones that come from Cessna’s factory are standard O-470 engines.
The price of the Cessna 180 varies greatly. I would be remiss to state a range and leave it at that without explaining. Aside from the premium attached to an out-of-production classic, the C180 is a favorite among Cessna enthusiasts and taildragger pilots who love the bush.
But if put in a corner, I’d list a mid-time C180 with no modifications except for whatever is required by ADs, to hover between the $60,000 to $170,000 range. Considering the aircraft was manufactured in the 50s, mid-time would be anything that has about 6,000 hours on the airframe.
A rule of thumb you can use when pricing a fair-condition C180 is to add a thousand dollars for every model year, beginning with a base price of $60,000 for a 1960 model.
Another dimension of the price for the Cessna 180 is the level of modifications that have been done. There are 94 STCs for owners to choose from, and most C180 pilots tend to upgrade their aircraft. So aside from the total time on the aircraft and the remaining time since the last overhaul, you would have to consider how much the modifications are worth.
Stock Cessna 180s are the cheapest, obviously, and if you find yourself in a neighborhood where the cost of a good mechanic is relatively inexpensive, then having a slightly less-than-pristine C180 might be worth considering.
When Cessna first introduced the C180, it sold for $15,995. But it is very unlikely that you will find one that is at that price now, even considering inflation.
The average total time on the airframe, across all variants, is 6,000 hours. But this number should be taken with a grain of salt, as most seasoned IAs will tell you that a lot of the log books for these classic aircraft are not accurate. Poorly kept at best, fudged at worst.
The important element of choosing a Cessna 180 is to determine if the aircraft flies straight and true, if the aircraft is properly rigged, and if it is wiring and cables have been replaced. Regardless of what the total time is, your best bet would be to have an IA inspect the aircraft thoroughly before you make the purchase.
All the variants of the C180 cost approximately the same to maintain. The only thing you have to remember is that your insurance would be slightly higher for your given level of experience simply because it is a taildragger.
Statistically, taildraggers are more prone to incidents and accidents and this gets reflected in the premiums. While a more powerful, newer C182 will have premiums under $1000, a Cessna 180 that is older will run about $1900. Almost double.
A major concern you should have before making the decision to go ahead with the purchase is financial.
Costs to operate general aviation aircraft that are this old should be treated a little differently when it comes to calculating the related costs. Unlike aircraft that are used for commercial operations like Part 135 charters, or 141 flight schools, private aircraft are subject to simple math.
Some aircraft owners include loan payments as part of the hourly costs. They may even include depreciation. But there is a simpler way to keep track of your Cessna 180 if it’s for private use.
Ultimately, determine your C180’s operating cost based on your individual circumstance and in consultation with your accountant, lawyer or other tax advisor. In fact, you should talk to an accountant even before you make the purchase as where you take delivery of an aircraft can impact the different state and federal taxes you could become liable for.
Whichever way you decide to total up the numbers you should keep direct operating costs separate in your own mind and on paper from fixed costs.
Direct Operating Cost
DOC, or Direct Operating Costs, is anything that you spend on that is directly attributable to the use of the aircraft. A good example is the fuel you use. The C180 burns fuel at different rates during different phases of flight.
At full throttle at sea level on take-off, it burns the most. At altitude, leaned out for the best economy, and at 55% power, it burns 10 gallons per hour. At $7.60 per gallon of Avgas, the fuel for an hour of flight in cruise is $76 per hour. However, this is not entirely accurate.
The best way to gauge how much you use, take the average of ten flights that you regularly conduct. That way, you will be able to get an average of your taxi, run up, take off and climb - all of which happens in the first hour and burn the most fuel. But if you regularly fly for two hours then just average the fuel you use in those two hours to determine your average burn.
Another cost that you must consider is the cost of engine oil. The O-450, according to pilots who fly their Cessna 180s regularly, averages about 2 quarts for every four hours of flight time in non-flight-instructing environments.
If you consider $10 at your airport to be the cost of a quart, then four hours of flight will add up to $20 in engine oil use. That’s ($20/4 hours) $5 per hour.
Since you are not renting this out, your mandatory maintenance and inspections schedule changes. You are required to do an annual that typically costs about $600 per year while an overhaul costs $35,000. If you recall listed above, you will see that the Continental O-470 engine needs to be overhauled every 1,700 hours or 12 years.
Putting aside a small amount of money for overhauls is a wise step in owning an aircraft. $35,000/1700 hours works out to be $20.5 per hour.
The total DOC - Direct Operating Costs for a Cessna 180 is $101.5 including $76 for fuel, $5 for oil, and $20.5 for the overhaul fund. That’s $103.8 per hour, excluding any element of fixed cost.
To get a good idea of the fixed cost breakdown, start with an allocation of hours you intend to fly every year. If you use it for work then it might be as high as 600 hours a year. But for this example let's assume you fly 400 hours.
In the last section, we assumed $600 for annual maintenance. Add another $1,000 for unexpected workshop visits and another $400 for upgrades. $2,000 in total is a good maintenance buffer to set aside for a year. That’s $50 an hour if you fly 400 hours.
Aside from maintenance, the main thing you have to consider under fixed costs is insurance. At almost $2,000 per year, it is more than what you will pay for in tie-downs or hangaring, maintenance, or landing fees. There are a few things you can do to lower the premiums but being a taildragger, insurance is going to cost you more.
Assuming 400 hours per year, that’s $50 per hour. That’s one of the cheapest aircraft to operate out there!
Most websites suggest adding depreciation to your costing calculations. Unless your tax accountant advises you to do that, I don’t think it's necessary as the costs here are included in actual out-of-pocket expenses that are incurred or will be incurred.
Once again, assuming you flew 400 hours a year, you would incur an hourly cost of $100 per hour. In total, your DOC and FC in this simple example are $203.80 per hour.
Being a taildragger, speeds are a lot more important than in tricycle gears. That may sound unrelated. but practicing to fly your plane by the numbers is a good habit to cultivate when you’re primarily flying a taildragger.
Taildraggers like touching down at the point of stalling. Anything higher and you will float down the runway. Also, being a taildragger, the propensity to flip or cartwheel is ever-present.
In a clean slow flight, the C180 begins to buffet at just under 55 knots. But, rest assured, the buffet is mild. Arrest it with a little throttle and you can keep chugging along. But, any more pull-back on the yoke and the stall breaks at 50 knots or lower with a heavy need for right rudder.
Configured with full flaps, you would have to get behind the power curve to hold altitude and then pull the power to simulate a power-off stall. The C180 stalls at 45 knots. At this point, the rudder is effective and required if you do not wish to enter into a spin. Spins are easy to break before the first full rotation but take a little longer after more rotations.
The Cessna 180 is not a fast aircraft at all. With a typical cruise of 148 knots at 75% power the aircraft will fly for 4 hours leaving about half an hour worth of fuel left in the tanks. The cost to fly for 4 hours is $815. With 490 pounds of cargo, excluding 180 lbs for the pilot, the cost to fly 490 pounds across 600 nautical miles is $1.66 per pound.
The C180 is typically flown in the 3000 to 6,000 feet zone. It's typically class E airspace out in the bush and there are no busy terminal areas to contend with. Fuel flow in this altitude zone is higher but not by much, especially if you consider short flights in the bush do not need much altitude to be attained before it's time to make it back to earth.
Lean out the fuel flow according to the EGT, just two notches cool of peak EGT should give you enough cooling in the summer, while one notch cool of peak should be enough for winter. Check with the A&P who installs your EGT. Otherwise, two twists of the mixture knob toward rich after the engine gets rough will give you the right mixture.
With this setting at 75% power which is 2600 RPM, you should be burning 13.5 gallons per hour, giving you 4 hours with reserves on the C180 and 6 hours with reserves on the C180K. The C180K has larger tanks than the original Cessna 180.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood