- The Cessna 172 is the world’s most successful airplane, bar none.
- That accolade arises from her reliability, simplicity, stability, adaptability, and the memorable moments that have occurred during her career.
- Her high wing, tricycle gear configuration, coming at just the right time at a key moment in aircraft development in the 1950s, was the key breakthrough that led to her longevity and the spectacular success it has seen since then
Whether you’re a veteran pilot, a novice student or an earthbound flight simmer, you are surely well acquainted with the iconic Cessna 172.
No other airplane can match her popularity and longevity. I think there are five elements that make the Skyhawk what she is: reliability, simplicity, aerodynamic stability, adaptability to the high-tech world of the twenty-first century, and the memorable moments she has enjoyed in her long career.
As an avgeek and pilot who first learned to fly on the Cessna 172, I can say it is honestly one of my favorite aircraft to fly, and completely understand why flight schools the world over use the C172. Not to mention the fact that it’s the world’s most popular civilian aircraft manufactured to date! Here are my five reasons why the C172 is so popular.
Reason 1: Reliability
Undated by the passing of the years, the Skyhawk’s timeless lines look especially alluring in white, the uncomplicated paintwork emphasizing her minimalistic beauty. Her tail fin and landing gear struts have evolved a little since the original drawing board, the former now swept back, in contrast with the original squared form factor.
Her variable-speed, fixed-pitch, two-blade McCauley propeller is just one of the features that keep her purchase price and maintenance costs down, widening her appeal to a broad range of pilots. The 172 is a common element in flight training schools the world over, thanks to her budget-friendly design.
The 172 got off to a flying start in the 1950s thanks to her tricycle configuration, which puts the center of gravity forward of the main landing gear. Thus, the aircraft tends to pull itself straight on rollout if a trainee pilot makes a crooked landing. Previous tail-dragger training aircraft were much more challenging to land on the runway.
Many student pilots gave up learning to fly in the tail-dragger era, out of frustration. Suddenly, here was a tool that got them over that seemingly insurmountable hurdle, and the foundation of the new airplane’s stellar career was laid. Small wonder, then, that over 44,000 examples of the 172 had been manufactured by 2015.
The Skyhawk’s four-cylinder engine is well known to be reliable and straightforward to maintain. When parts are required, they can readily be found. The engine is pretty lean on fuel and can be adapted to run on car gasoline if necessary.
The overall simplicity of the 172’s design, along with her ubiquity, make components available when you need them, without too much searching. The amazing thing is, she is still in production after all these years. Despite that, looked-after 172s hold their value remarkably well. All told, there is no danger of the spare parts supply drying up any time soon.
Reason 2: Simplicity
After a walk-around check and a fuel sample inspection, it is easy to get into your aircraft, thanks to the wide, rearward-opening doors, made possible by the high wing. There is plenty of room in there for four adults including the pilot.
During taxi, you will be thankful for the all-round visibility afforded by the rear ‘Omni-vision’ window, which makes it easy to keep track of other ground traffic and to check the approach path is clear before you line up on the runway and start your takeoff roll.
With the tanks brimmed before departure, you can stay in the air for around six hours if necessary, cruising at around 110 knots. Another legacy of the high wing design is the breathtaking view from on board, as there is no wing below to obscure the panorama. The 172 might not be the fastest bird in the sky but she is sure to get you where you want to go.
Reason 3: Aerodynamic Stability
Once off the ground, twirl the trim wheel to wind the pressure off the yoke and your friendly 172 will hang in the air on invisible strings, holding the airspeed you trimmed her to maintain. Throttle back to reduce climb rate or to start descent, and she will stick to that airspeed with a dogged brand of loyalty.
Stable is her middle name, thanks to that high wing design. Start a gentle bank with a minimal roll input - rarely is there any need to apply rudder - then release the controls and she will surely and steadily roll herself back out until her wings are level.
Flying over the coast, you might feel a blip through the seat of your pants as the air eddies over the dunes, then your trusty steed will regain her poise, flying at exactly the airspeed you set.
If the Skyhawk’s middle name is Stable, her last name is Forgiving. Students learn at different rates: the ever-motherly 172 has her apron strings ready for them all. She is so aerodynamically stable that there is no need for a pilot to panic, should they find themselves in an out-of-control situation.
Bang on full left rudder and whirl her into a spin, and she practically recovers herself. Just throttle back, center the controls, count to three, let her find her equilibrium, then trim her to where you want her to be. The airplane has a miracle combination of stability and speed, the dream of every aircraft designer.
As we know, every departure is optional. Every landing is compulsory. The 172 can make the greenest rookie pilot look like Tex Johnston on final. It’s so very hard to get it wrong. Trim for approach speed, adjust descent rate with the throttle, lower your flaps when ready, throttle to idle and kiss the pavement as you perform your perfect touchdown.
Crosswind? No bother. Dip your upwind wing and compensate with a touch of opposite rudder. Now you’re crabbing along the extended runway centerline, flying partly sideways through the moving air mass. Those elegant, shapely gear struts will thank you for keeping your airframe’s Newtonian momentum aligned straight down the runway.
Once down, the single-disc, hydraulic brakes - another facet of the aircraft’s simple, dependable construction - will quickly and safely get you down to taxi speed if the landing strip is short.
Parked and shut down, you’ll be grateful again for the high wing when you exit your aircraft, as it shelters you from whatever the weather is doing that day.
Reason 4: Adaptability
‘Keep developing and adapting, or perish’ has to be the mantra for any piece of technology that seeks to pass the test of time. Avionics have come a long way since the Skyhawk’s first flight in the 1950s.
Back then, the instrument panel boasted all the essentials - the six basics of airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, turn coordinator, card compass, altimeter and vertical speed indicator, and not too much else apart from gauges for engine RPM, oil temperature and pressure, and fuel remaining.
The compact instrument panel and low glareshield gave the pilot of the fifties a super panoramic view of the world outside without the need to sit up and beg. The march of time brought more gadgetry and a deeper, higher panel with gauges in neat rows and columns.
As the number of gauges grew in later variants, the serried ranks of instruments drove the glareshield skyward, restricting the windshield’s aperture. The gridiron array of steam gauges, as guardsmen on parade, lent a reassuring air of regimented security that echoed the airframe’s secure sturdiness.
Then came the glass cockpit. Today, a pilot can hop out of a B787 or A350 and feel right at home in a Cessna 172 with Garmin G1000 avionics. Choose which side you want your PFD; put the GPS on the other. The pilot flying has the benefit of attitude indicator, speed tape, flight director, altimeter, nav display and moving airport diagram.
Reason 5: Memorable Moments
If the Skyhawk were a dinner guest sharing anecdotes over coffee and mints, she would surely tell of her 64-day non-stop flight endurance flight record, set in 1958 with the help of pilots Robert Timm and John Wayne Cook. The logistics of that mind-boggling feat make fascinating reading.
None of it would have been possible but for the world-beating features of the 172. Flying slowly enough to match the pace of a pickup truck, the airplane’s add-on belly tank was refueled through a hosepipe. Her engine had been modified, so the oil and filter could be changed without shutting down.
Sanitary and sleeping arrangements for the two pilots were basic but effective. Food was hauled up twice daily by bucket, during the refueling operation. Eventually, the pilots decided to land after carbon build-up within the engine impacted performance to the extent that it was not really safe to continue the flight.
The raconteur would no doubt go on to ask what the minimum requirement might be, for a flight to evade all the air defenses of a superpower state, and land without let or hindrance, right in the heart of that state’s capital.
Surely you would need something pretty hi-tech for that. A stealth fighter, perhaps, with no radar-reflective surfaces, and a supercomputer at the controls, to combat the Tarantella dance of the airframe’s inherent instability? No, just a simple Cessna 172 is all you need.
Flying low and slow towards the intended destination, the superpower’s hi-tech fighters unable to get near his airplane because they were too high and too fast, German teenager Mathias Rust landed his Skyhawk on a bridge next to Red Square in Moscow, after a long, unauthorized flight from Helsinki into Soviet territory, in 1987.
So, those are my five reasons why the Cessna 172 is so popular today, having graced the skies for the better part of seventy years. But is her popularity set to continue? I believe it is, and here’s why.
The Cessna 172 would not be where she is today were she not mindful of the path ahead. She is certainly the most successful aircraft ever made. However, she cannot sit back upon her laurels and say, “I have succeeded.” To do so would signal the end of her reign.
To stay at the top, she must work to maintain her success, pushing on through the present, as the present rolls on into the future. There was a project to develop a fully electric C172, around twelve years ago, which hit technical problems and had to be put on hold.
I really hope a way can be found - perhaps with range-increasing solar panels embedded into the top of that wonderful high wing, which confers so many other advantages - to develop a Skyhawk you can plug in overnight and wake up to find fully charged in the morning.
There are obstacles to be overcome, such as the weight and reliability of the batteries, and there are clear potential advantages, like the fact that electric motors do not lose power in thinner air at altitude, as all kinds of internal combustion engines do, if they rely on atmospheric oxygen.
In case you’re wondering how the 172 came to be known as the Skyhawk, the term used to apply to just one variant - the deluxe model. However, some time in the 1960s, the word became synonymous with the Cessna 172, and the two name tags have been interchangeable ever since.
Ordering a new 172, you can choose from a range of engines: the 180 horsepower Lycoming IO-360 engine has no problem with a full passenger load, and the Skyhawk takes bumpy fields and short runways in her stride, with her ground clearance and safety-minded top wing construction.
I can say with certitude that the Cessna 172 is a solid, safe investment for anyone looking to buy a private aircraft. Her purchase and maintenance costs are the lowest to be found, and there is no doubt she is going to be around for a long time to come.
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