Cessna 172 - Skyhawk :
The World's Most Popular Airplane

FTLComm - Tisdale - Wednesday, June 20, 2001
It was later afternoon Tuesday and a man and his wife were clamouring aboard this rented 1965 Cessna 172F. He had recently sold his mid seventies 172 and was making do with this one owned by Lockhard Aviation Serices Inc. of Saskatoon. With an uncertain sky and the desire to get back into Saskatoon they said farewell as this photographer captured some pictures of the most common aircraft of all time.

Cessna had begun building general aviation aircraft at Witchita in the thirties, concentrating on high wing singles, the company produces some outstanding machines powered by radial engines, but this design began to emerge as the war ended. An all metal strut braced high wing with a Continental engine. The plane that caught everyone's eye was the mid sized four place version, the 170, a conventional tail dragger, but equipped with Cessna's compound wing. The bigger 180 was a favourite of the bush pilots and the two seat 140 was the ideal cheap trainer.

In 1963 it was time to get the world flying, the economy of the sixties was almost unstoppable and people were eager to learn to fly and Cessna brought them this machine, the 172. Now the 172 was already being produced with tricycle gear and a sleak fuslage, but in 63 came this version with its back windows, slopped tail and it was a winner. Since the beginning of production of the 172, more copies have been made than any other aircraft in history.

There are a lot of reason why it was so popular, but mainly it was the guy in his wife hopping off to Saskatoon in the challenging sky filled with some rain clouds and wind. The wings of a 172 are twisted so that the angle of attack varies from the tip to the root. When the wing stalls (ceases to fly) it does so in stages, first inboard and the sleak tips are still flying and giving the machine control right to the lowest speed it will encounter.

With the fuel and occupants situated right at the centre of gravity the aircraft can be loaded simply and will handle nicely within its weight capabilities. If you get a little ice, snow or rain on the wings the forgiving nature of the wing allows you just to bump up the speed a bit and anticipate the stall speed having risen slightly.

In general, for weight, handling and comfort, the Cessna 172 simply overwhelmed all competition then and even now. Cessna is once again churning out brand new versions and another company is producing a plastic, all composite aircraft based on the 172 design.

You will notice this one has a wheel pant on the nose wheel but not on the mains. Since this is a rental aircraft the owner has decided to reduce maintenance and keep the torpedo-like main wheel pants in the hangar. These pants, though improving performance marginally, make the aircraft slicker and I noticed it flew much better at low speed with the pants installed. Only once in over five hundred hours 172 flying did I have a problem with my pants. When dropping a person off on a frozen lake I went through the top surface (overflow) and filled the pants with slush. When I got back to the airport I did an emergency procedure landing on a snow covered run way because the mains had turned to skids.

The 172 is the best balance between wing size and weight of the series of singles. The 152 leaps all over the sky with its light wing loading, so even a modest cloud seen in any direction is going to guaranteed bounce. The no nonsense 182 with its hefty engine and larger fuel capacity drills through weather, but the 172 lets you know about the movement of air and in an alpine situation you can throttle back to idle and ride mountain crests up the windward side to your hearts content soaring with the eagles and not having to eat dead fish.

There is a down side the inside of a 172, is forty-two narrow inches wide, the same width as the commercial float plane of the North, the 185. Both the 177 and 182 are two inches wider and it seems like a foot.

You will note that this aircraft has been customised, the exhaust stacks have been lengthed well below the aircraft nose, this is to reduce the sound level. The six cylinder 145hp Continental in this older aircraft makes quite a racket and there were two versions of this aircraft made in the sixties. The 172 and the Skyhawk, the Skyhawk was fitted with more insulation and was considerably quieter.

The 150hp and 160hp Lycombing equipped machines that came in the seventies and are produced now are heavier, seem more solid and are quieter to fly. Most 172 pilots, even with their heads sets in place, like to land every two hours even though the aircraft can handle sustained flight for nearly five hours. Noise and vibration seem to wear you down, wereas 182 pilots will get in and fly five hours straight in relaxed comfort travelling thirty miles per hour faster.

Though owners and fliers of aircraft on the prairies seem bent on low flight, the 172 really seems to be at home at 10,000. It flies better, gets better fuel mileage and its safety factor quadruples with lots of space below you. Should engine or fuel problems evolve at 10,000 the pilot has choices and controls fate more than at a 1000 feet where you do what you have to do.