The plane so good it’s still in production after 60 years
In 1956, Cessna started building the 172 training plane – and more than 60 years on, it’s still in production. Why has it been so popular?
By Stephen Dowling
Mar 3 2017
It can seat four people, in a squeeze, and weighs a little under 800kg without fuel or its passengers. It has a maximum speed of 140mph (226km/h), though you could push this up to 185mph at a pinch – but the manufacturer would rather you didn’t. And on a tank full of fuel, you could travel 800 miles (1,290km) – the equivalent of going from Berlin to Belfast, or New York to Madison, Wisconsin.
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.