Power in Numbers
When the prototype Cessna C172 flew for the first time in 1955, its designers likely did not suspect that their creation would go on to become a watershed event in aviation history. More than six decades on, The Cessna C172 is indisputably the most produced aircraft in history and has likely been used to train more pilots than any other type.
Over 45,000 examples of the Cessna C172 have been built in over 30 variations and the type is still very much in production as of 2021. In fact, with the exception of a ten year period between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s, Cessna C172 production has gone on largely uninterrupted.
The C172 has done for post Second World War general aviation what the DeHavilland DH.60 Moth series of aircraft did for general aviation in the interwar period; brought aviation to the general public to such a degree that it ingrained itself in popular culture. The C172 is the definitive light aircraft for most casual observers; many people will look to a light, single engine aircraft passing overhead and simply call it a “Cessna” even if it’s not a Cessna aircraft at all.
In spite of many attempts to replace it with more modern aircraft, some of those attempts by Cessna themselves, the C172 has held its place as the definitive general aviation aircraft through the latter half of the 20th century and well into the 21st.
The C172 is not only the definitive symbol of general aviation for a majority of people worldwide, it’s also the definitive symbol of Cessna for just as many people.
It takes a special kind of aircraft to have the staying power that the C172 possesses. Let’s spend some time with this legend:
Born of a Boom
Following both world wars, the world saw booms in public interest in aviation.
Clyde Cessna (1879-1954) , together with with Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman founded the Travel Air company in 1925 in Wichita, Kansas, USA.
The three men eventually went on to create their own aircraft companies, Cessna doing so in 1927, and became legendary names in the early years of general aviation. All three stayed in Wichita and the city became hallowed ground in aviation circles over the years that followed.
The original Cessna aircraft company did not survive the Great Depression; Clyde Cessna closed the doors of the company in 1932 and sold it to his nephews in 1934. Under the ownership of his nephews, the company supplied many aircraft to U.S. and Allied forces during the Second World War and was set to flourish after the conflict ended.
When the post Second World War general aviation boom came, Cessna hit the ground running with the models 120 and 140 which debuted in 1946. The types were revolutionary in that their fuselages were fully metal construction rather than fabric over steel tube frame structures.
In 1948, Cessna followed up the success of the 120 and 140 with the model 170. The model 170 was essentially an enlargement of the 140 that had seats for four people. The model 170 was a very popular aircraft and more than 5,000 were built between 1948 and 1956.
The C172 was born from experiments to improve the model 170. The primary improvements were redesigned and refined flight surfaces along with a tricycle landing gear arrangement that saw the model 170’s tailwheel replaced with a nose wheel.
The C172 took to the air for the first time in 1955. With a strong pedigree behind it, the aircraft was a success from the start.
Well before the C172 was a thought in a designer’s mind, Cessna was already established as one of the “Big Three” American general aviation manufacturers, along with Beechcraft and Piper Aircraft. The C172 would cement Cessna’s position as a top producer of light aircraft worldwide.
Though the post World War Two general aviation boom ended and general aviation has seen its share of ups and downs in the decades between then and now, models of the C172 have remained the backbone of flying clubs and flight schools worldwide since the type was introduced in the 1950s.
The C172, for all its staying power and ubiquity, is a rather unremarkable machine at heart. The design is not adventurous, exciting or pioneering in any way.
The C172 does not generate excitement among aircraft spotters, nor does it possess any idiosyncracies or other quirks of character that make seasoned pilots regale you with stories about flying it.
So, what does this unassuming legend have going in its favour that has kept it in demand as a flying machine for so long?
If an aircraft can be personified, the C172 is an honest machine that knows what it was built for and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It doesn’t brag or show off, it just gets into the air over and over again and does its job without fanfare and does it well.
What the C172 lacks in flash or style, it more than makes up for in reliability, predictability and pilot friendliness. Perhaps in those qualities, we find the secret to its success.
Cessna got the C172 design formula right before it flew for the first time. The Cessna 170 that went before it was a reliable and well liked flying machine and the C172 was the logical follow on. The 170 was a formula that worked and the C172 was that formula taken to its apex.
One aspect of the C172 design that sets it apart from its most direct competing designs over the years, like the Beechcraft Musketeer and Piper Cherokee aircraft families of similar vintage to the C172 and more recent designs like the Diamond DA40 and Cirrus SR20, is the high set wing of the Cessna design.
While all of the most directly competing designs have had low set wings, the high set wing of the C172 has worked to its advantage as both a training aircraft and a flying machine in general by offering a nearly unrestricted view downwards around the aircraft.
For the novice pilot, that downward view gives a reassuring look at the ground when coming in for a landing where a low set wing creates blind spots.
From a standpoint of simply flying, the C172 gives the pilot and passengers vistas to take in comforatbly that a low set wing is an obstacle to. This makes the C172 a pleasant touring aircraft as well as an ideal aircraft to give groups of two or three people sightseeing flights in.
The high wing also makes the C172 useful for aerial observation and police work. It has been used by a number of air arms and police forces around the world for observation duties.
Another quality that keeps the C172 going is that it is a very adaptable aircraft. Over the years, the aircraft has been fitted with a range of engine types and been adapted to run on a variety of fuels. It has been adapted to both float and ski landing gear as well as a short take off and landing (STOL) kit.
A Flock of Skyhawks
Over the years, the C172 has been built in no fewer than 30 versions. For the most part, the differences between the versions have been quite small and primarily internal.
Aside of the main American made versions, the C172 was built by Reims Aviation in France to satisfy European demand for the aircraft. Reims produced the C172 from 1963 to the 1990s.
As it does take an expert eye and getting up close to tell many members of the C172 family apart, I present this list of family variants around versions of the aircraft that represented significant change and development in the aircraft family.
This was the basic model which debuted in 1955. It was powered by a 145 horsepower engine made by Continental. It’s easily distinguished by other members of the family by its unswept vertical tail fin.
C172A and B
Introduced in 1960, the C172A brought the swept vertical tail fin into the aircraft family.
The C172B, also introduced in 1960, was the first version of the family the bear the name “Skyhawk”. The name was used to set a deluxe variant apart from the basic C172B for marketing purposes.
C172D and Reims F172D
Debuting in 1963, the C172D featured a redesigned rear fusealge in order to fit rear windows and give a better all around view outward from the aircraft cabin. The C172D also featured a one piece windshield to give the pilot a better view forward.
The Reims F172D was the first C172 model built by Reims Aviation. Production of the F172D began in 1963.
C172F, Reims F172F and T-41A Mescalero
Entering production in both America and France in 1965, the C172F was significant in that the wing flaps were electrically driven rather than manually operated. This feature enabled pilots with less upper body strength to operate the flaps of this version of the aircraft more comfortably than in previous ones.
In the mid 1960s, the U.S. Air Force chose the C172F as their new basic training aircraft. In USAF service, it was known as the T-41A Mescalero.
Reims FR172 Rocket, Cessna R172 and T-41B/C/D Mescalero
Debuting at the Paris Air Show of 1967, the Reims FR172 was a variant of the aircraft fitted with a 210 horsepower Rolls-Royce built Continental engine. The Reims Rocket was attractive as it brought higher performance without significantly higher fuel consumption. Reims had intended it primarily for the European civil market, but it caught the eyes of a number of military air arms and found itself in uniform before long.
Cessna themselves produced a version known as the R172. It was from the R172 that upgraded versions of the militarized T-41 were derived. The T-41B was built for the U.S. Army while the T-41C was taken by the U.S. Air Force as a replacement for the T-41A fleet. The T-41D was a downgraded version intended for export.
First appearing in 1967, the C172H was the last version of the family to be powered by a Continental engine. The H version brought design changes to the nose landing gear to reduce drag. The were aslo changes made to the engine cowling design and associated structures to reduce engine noise in the cabin and reduce stress fractures of cowling components.
Significant in being the first member of the family to be driven by a Lycoming engine, the I model debuted in 1968. The new engine generated 150 horsepower and brought modest improvements to performance. The I model also brought with it signifiant changes to the layout of flight instruments.
Introduced in 1971, the L model had completely new main landing gear leg design to replace the flat, spring steel type seen in earlier versions. The new landing gear was made of tube steel and covered in aerodynamic fairings; it was lighter than the old landing gear and wider.
The M version was introduced in 1973 and was known as the “Skyhawk II” in its deluxe option form. Most of the changes that created the M version were internal and associated with avionics upgrades. Structurally, the M featured a redesigned wing leading edge to give it better handling at lower speeds. It also featured an enlarged baggage compartment
The N model first appeared in 1977 and featured improvements to the wing flaps and electrical system.
The N model did not stay in production for very long due to the 160 horsepower engine it was fitted with being temperamental.
Entering production in 1980, the RG model is the member of the family with retractable landing gear.
The RG did not experience the popularity of some other models in the family due to the fact that the retractable landing gear brought increased technical complexity and higher operating costs, but not a big enough improvement in speed to offset them.
The P first appreared in 1981. It featured landing lights moved from the nose to the wings and impovements to soundproofing in the cabin.
The P was the last 172 version built before a self-impossed decade long suspension on C172 production was put in place by Cessna in 1986. The suspension was a reaction to product liability laws in the United States at the time which were holding Cessna responsible for some of their long out of production 172 models and driving the prices of their newer C172 models unreasonably high.
First appearing in 1996, the R model marked the return of C172 production after reforms to US liability laws made it possible to manufacture and sell the C172 at reasonable prices again.
The R model was fitted with a 160 horsepower engine and was the first member of the aircraft family to come with fuel injection. This model also featured many refinements to the cabin related to soundproofing, ventilation and ergonomics.
In production since 1998, the S model is driven by a 180 horsepower engine and has a number of internal refinements associated with ergonomics and avionics.
For the Record
Beyond holding the record as the most produced aircraft in history and very likely the aircraft type more pilots have learned to fly in than any other, the C172 can lay claim to a couple of other history making feats:
Between December 4 of 1958 and February 7 of 1959, a specially modified C172 was used to set a flight endurance record for single engine aircraft that still stands today: 64 days, 22 hours and 19 minutes.
Manned by two pilots, the aircraft lifted off from MacCarran Field in Las Vegas, USA and flew repeated circuits over the American southwest.
The aircraft was fitted with an extra fuel tank on its belly and the cabin was specially modified for the record setting flight. The aircraft was refuelled by flying it along a straight stretch of road with a fuel truck keeping pace underneath. A special winch in the aircraft cabin was used to bring the fuel hose up to the aircraft. That same winch was also used to bring other supplies up to the aircraft during the journey.
The flight was primarily a publicity event for the Hacienda casino, but was given more credibility by connecting it to a cancer research organization.
The aircraft used on the flight was restored several years later and is currently on display in the baggage claim hall of the MacCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.
No discussion about the C172 and its place in history could be complete without touching on the May 1987 flight by German pilot, Mathias Rust. Rust, who was only 19 and a very inexperienced pilot at the time, flew a C172P deep into Soviet airspace and landed it near Red Square in Moscow.
The incident is regarded by many Cold War experts as the catalyst which gave Mikhail Gorbachev, then the relatively new leader of the former Soviet Union, the leverage he needed for dismissing many key military leaders who were powerful opponents of his proposed Glasnost and Perestroika reforms.
That a western aircraft could not only be allowed to fly unopposed so deeply into Soviet territory, but also land in the middle of the capital city was a permanent blow to the credibility of the Soviet military in the eyes of the populace. Gorbachev seized the opportunity to remove his opponents from power and the beginning of the end of the Cold War began in earnest.
The aircraft Mathias Rust used, registration D-ECJB, is preserved in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.
Further Reading and Learning More
The Cessna 172 is one of those aircraft that seems almost assured to be still flying in significant numbers and earning its keep in practical ways when its design reaches the century mark.
Still in production and very much the backbone of many flying clubs and flight schools worldwide, your chances of seeing a C172 are very high indeed in most places around the world. Your chances of taking a flight in one for sightseeing or as a student pilot are also quite good for the forseeable future.
Neither a glamorous nor exciting aircraft, the Cessna 172 is still a machine with a place of importance in aviation history that can’t be overstated.
The next time you see a Cessna 172 passing overhead or doing circuits at your local airport and are tempted to not give it a second look, consider that the pilot and copilot of the last airliner you boarded to go on holiday probably got their first taste of flight in a C172. When you talk to a military pilot at an airshow, there’s a good chance that a C172 was an essential stepping stone on their way to that supersonic fighter or monsterous transport they’re at the controls of now.
If you’d like to do more detailed reading about the C172, there’s some good resources both online and in print. As the C172 is still in production, a good start would be the C172 page at Cessna’s official website.
Three quite good articles that cover the C172 in both historical and contemporary contexts can be found at the Plane and Pilot magazine website, the Flying magazine website and the Desciples of Flight website.
Another good website to visit is the Cessna Flyer Association website. Among the good reading there is an article about Cessna aircraft built by Reims Aviation in France as well as an article about the T-41 Mescalero and how it differs from civilian C172 models.
In print, a good general interest book is Cessna 172-A Pocket History which was published in 2010. At 128 pages, it doesn’t go deep. However, it provides a satisfying overview of the aircraft’s history and contains many photographs to illustrate the key differences between the various C172 models.