[ed. My first plane was a Cessna 140 (taildragger precursor to the 150). The next, a straight-tailed 1956 Cessna 172. I loved that plane. 206 nose gear, oversized tires, manual flaps. Just a joy.]
You might think this was a high-performance car with a little more-than-average leg room – but it’s a plane. The Cessna 172, which first rolled off the production line in 1956, is still in production today. And if any design could claim to be the world’s favourite aircraft, it’s the 172.
More than 43,000 Cessna 172s have been made so far. And while the 172 (also known as the Skyhawk) has undergone a myriad of tweaks and improvements over the past 60-odd years, the aircraft essentially looks much the same as it did when it was first built in the 1950s.
In the past 60 years, Cessna 172s have become a staple of flight training schools across the world. Generations of pilots have taken their first, faltering flights in a Cessna 172, and for good reason – it’s a plane deliberately designed to be easy to fly, and to survive less-than-accomplished landings.
“More pilots over the years have earned their wings in a 172 than any other aircraft in the world,” says Doug May, the vice-president of piston aircraft at Cessna’s parent company, Textron Aviation.
“The forgiving nature of the aircraft really does suit it to the training environment,” he says.
Light aircraft might not be updated as often as cars, but 60 years is still a very long time to produce a vehicle that has essentially been unchanged. The only time its production ceased for an extended time was in the late 1980s, when stricter US laws restricted the manufacture of all light aircraft. What is it about the 172 that has made it such a favourite for so long?
One answer comes from the fact that the Cessna 172 is a high-wing monoplane – meaning the wings sit high above the cockpit. This is very useful for student pilots because it gives them a better view of the ground and makes the aircraft much easier to land.
The 172 was based on an earlier Cessna design called the 150. This looked very similar apart from the fact it was a “taildragger” – instead of a wheel at the front, the 150 had a smaller wheel at the back, underneath the tailfin (like most aircraft before the arrival of jets). The 150 enjoyed the benefits of a light aircraft boom in the years following World War Two, as many of the companies that had produced tens of thousands of military aircraft now turned their attention to civilian aircraft.
The Cessna 150 was a very successful design – nearly 24,000 were made in a 19-year production run – but it only had enough room for two; the pilot and one passenger. Cessna saw the gap for a bigger model that could take twice as many people. So the basic design of the 150 was modified, and made more robust – where the 150 was made of a fabric skin stretched around a frame, the 172 was made of aluminium.
The design was so clean and aerodynamic that Cessna’s marketing department dubbed the 172 the “land-o-matic” because it was so easy to fly and land.
“I think it’s really the robustness that’s been behind the aircraft’s success,” says May. “It’s able to take six to eight to 10 landings an hour, hour after hour.” May says the 172 is often the plane a student will take their first flight in – and it will often take them through their hours until they qualify for a pilot’s licence.
“The Cessna 172 was not built to minimum requirements,” says May. “I think they did an exceptional job of looking at the intended role, and actually providing a plane that would surpass those requirements.”
And during its history, that ease of use and reliability has led to some quite remarkable flights.
On 4 December 1958 two pilots called Robert Timm and John Cook climbed into a Cessna 172 at McCarran Airfield in Las Vegas. Their mission? To break the world record for the longest flight without landing.
This would be no easy feat. The previous record, which was set in 1949, was a colossal achievement – the two pilots had flown an aircraft very like Timm and Cook’s Cessna for a total of 46 days – all to raise money for a cancer fund.
The two pilots would need to keep their aircraft in the air for nearly seven weeks, without landing once. According to Jalopnik, the necessary modifications took more than a year to make – and included a small sink so the two pilots could brush their teeth and even bathe. In order to do this, the two pilots had to strip out the back seats so they had room for a mattress. While one pilot flew the plane, the other would sleep. And should they feel the need to shower? A small platform could be extended between the open cabin and the wing strut – allowing the relief pilot to shower out in the open air.
by Stephen Dowling, BBC | Read more: