Cessna C172 Skyhawk – General Aviation Defined

Cessna C172P seen at Brno, Czech Republic in 2021.

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:

Cessna C172P seen at Brno, Czech Republic in 2021.

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, Kanasas, 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.

Cessna C172M seen at Brno, Czech Republic in 2021.

Enigmatic Longevity

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.

The nearly unlimited downward view provided by the C172’s high mounted wing.

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 C172S at Prague, Czech Republic in 2016.

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.

C172

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.

C172H

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.

C172I

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.

C172L

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.

C172M

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

A C172N (foreground) with a C172RG at Prague, Czech Republic in 2014.

C172N

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.

C172RG

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.

C172P

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.

C172R

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.

C172S

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.

A C172RG at Prague, Czech Republic 2014.

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.

A C172N at Brno, Czech Republic in 2012

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.

This article goes into good detail about the 1958 endurance flight while this talks about the 1987 flight of Mathias Rust.

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.

Extra 300 – The Rhine Roller

An Extra 330 LT at Brno, Czech Republic in 2020.

The Push for More 

Aerobatics is a category of flying that has been with us in one form or another almost as long as powered flight. Perhaps this should be no surprize as humanity has always seemed to have a fixation of not only driving the technology we create forward, but also pushing what we create to its very limits. As far as civilian aviation is concerned, specialist aerobatic aircraft may well be the ultimate expression of that drive.

Competition level aerobatics exists at four main levels: Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. Aircraft designed with the Unlimited class in mind are highly specialized machines indeed, with little if any consideration given to any type of flying outside of top tier aerobatic competition when designing them.

An aircraft of the Unlimited class sacrifices nearly everything else in the pursuit of combining high thrust with low weight that will allow the aircraft to perform all the required moves for the class and yet not tear the aircraft apart in the process.

Needless to say, an aircraft of the Unlimited class is not one for the novice pilot. Indeed, any pilot that advances as far as the Unlimited class will have amassed hundreds of hours of flying hours before reaching that level. They will also be a very physically fit individual quite worthy of being seen as a top level athlete.

The Extra 300 first flew in 1988 and became an iconic machine in the Unlimited category through the 1990s. Let’s spend some time with it:

An Extra 330 SC seen at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2019.

An Insider’s Knowledge 

The Extra 300 was created by Walter Extra (1954-), an award winning aerobatics pilot from Germany who created his own aircraft company in 1980. The Extra Aircraft company is located near the Rhine river in the town of Hunxe, in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany.

Beyond being a decorated aerobatics pilot, Walter Extra also is qualified as a mechanical engineer. The impetus to create his own aircraft company was to create a machine fit for the Unlimited class that would be an improvement on the aircraft by other designers that he had been flying up to that point. His experience as a competitive pilot and his professional engineering qualifications ensured that he could achieve that goal.

The first aircraft developed by Extra Aircraft was the Extra 230 which first flew in 1983. While the Extra 230 was the direct ancestor of the Extra 300, one needs to go back rather further to see where the Extra 300 lineage really starts.

The Extra 230 and 300 are extreme developments of the Stephens Akro, an American aerobatics design from the late 1960s. While quite rudimentary compared to the Extra designs, the Stephens Akro was a popular and successful design that could be homebuilt and lent itself well to modification.

What links the Stephens Akro to the Extra designs is the Akro Laser Z-200, a one-off modification of the Akro that won a number of aerobatics championships between 1975 and 1982 in the hands of American pilot, Leo Loudenslager (1944-1997).

The Akro Laser Z-200 served as the basis for the Extra 230 design. The Extra 230 was fairly conventional in design, featuring a tube steel frame fuselage with wooden wings. A refined version of the 230 was created and called the Extra 260, though very few were ever made.

The Extra 230 was a very popular and successful aircraft that was produced from 1983 to 1990 and set the stage for the watershed event that the Extra 300 would be to the aerobatics world.

Extra 300 SR in flight at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2019.

The New Standard 

The usual desires for reduced weight and increased power that drive competitive aerobatics also primarily drove the leap from the Extra 230 to the Extra 300. However, it was rather more than just competition in the air that led Extra to create the machine that would become their flagship product for three decades.

Materials and manufacturing processes figured very prominently in the evolution of the 230 to the 300. While the 230 had some carbon fibre composite structures in it, the 300 would include much more composite materials in its structure. Significant among these was the wing of the 300, which was of fully carbon fibre composite construction as opposed to the plywood wings of the 230.

While the plywood wings gave the 230 light weight, the material itself was maintenance intensive and difficult to control the quality of. Walter Extra was having difficulty finding plywood of a suitable quality to make wings from and so made the decision to make the wings of the 300 from carbon composites. The dividends of this decision were enjoyed from the factory all the way to the end users of the aircraft

The first advantage of switching to composite materials was that quality control was much easier right from the start. Carbon composite was a much more predictable material than plywood and this reduced the amount of testing time required for each individual aircraft leaving the factory. The predictability of the composite material also reduced manufacturing time as factory workers assembling the aircraft didn’t have to worry about the sort of variability plywood could have from one piece to another.

For the end user, that same predictabilty resulted in reduced inspection and maintenance time which resulted in reduced operating costs. The composite wing also gave the desired weight savings as it was lighter than plywood. An additional benefit the composite wing gave to the end user was a substantial increase in structural strength that allowed for higher performance in competition.

Another advantage the Extra 300 came with was that it was designed as a two seat aircraft from the start. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft to have two seats as an option is a very unusual thing and the two seat option made the Extra 300 attractive to flying schools that offered aerobatics courses as well as experience rides.

While nobody could ever accuse the Extra 300 of being an aircraft for the novice, it is known as a pilot friendly aircraft for its class and the two seat option makes it easier and quicker for a pilot to learn and master the 300 than some of its contemporaries.

The qualities of the 300 have given it popularity in team as well as individual aerobatics. There are a number of civilian aerobatics teams around the world that use the 300 to perform while the military air demonstration teams of Chile, Jordan and Malaysia all use the 300 as their mount.

Extra 330 SC and 300 SR seen at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2019.

The Extra 300 Family 

Since its first flight in 1988, the Extra 300 has seen more design evolution than perhaps any other aircraft in its class. For an Unlimited class aerobatics aircraft design to have lifespan of three decades and still be in production and competitive is truly a remarkable thing and testament to the drive of the designers to keep pushing for more from it.

Another unusual aspect of the 300 is that it has demonstrated an adaptability to other flying categories that some of its contemporaries in the Unlimited class have not. While always having aerobatics at the heart of the design, the 300 has also been adapted to air racing and touring.

As of mid 2020, almost 800 examples of the 300 had been built across a dozen variants and sub-variants:

Extra 300/300 S

The Extra 300 was the baseline two seat model of the 300 family. The aircraft took its name from the 300 horsepower Lycoming engine that powered it.

The Extra 300 S is a single seat development of the baseline 300 that also features a reduced wingspan and improvements to flight controls.

Extra 330 SX and Extra 300 SP/SHP

The 330 SX was a more powerful development of the 300 S that included a 330 horsepower engine and larger control surfaces on the tail. A number of 300 S models were refitted with the larger rudder of the 330 SX.

The 300 SP was a variation of the 300 S that had reduced weight and the 330 SX rudder fitted to it.

The 300 SHP was a higher performance variant of the SP.

Extra 300 SR at Pardubice, Czech Republic in 2016.

Extra 300 SR

The 300 SR was a version fitted with a wing optimised for racing. Most specifically, it was designed for the Red Bull Air Race series that ran from 2003 to 2019.

Extra 300 L/300 LP

The Extra 300 L is the most produced of any member of the 300 family. It’s a two seat variant with the wings set lower on the fuselage than previous versions. The repositioned wing had no effect on the aerobatic qualities of the aircraft, but did make entering and exiting the aircraft easier for the pilot.

The 300 LP was to the 300 L what the 300 S was to the baseline 300; a weight reduced version with higher performance for competition flying. As of 2020, the 300 LP is still in production.

Extra 330 SC/LX/LT

The Extra 330 SC was developed to replace the 300 SP and 330 SX. It’s a single seat competition level aircraft with an improved roll rate over previous members of the aircraft family. The 330 SC really is the ultimate development of the Extra 300 design as pilots flying it have won the biannual World Aerobatics Championships five times: 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

The 330 LX is a two seat version of the SC.

The 330 LT is a development of the LX that is aimed at touring. Retaining most of its aerobatic abilities, the LX includes a baggage compartment and has all the required cockpit instruments and avionics required for longer cross-country flying.

As of 2020, all three of these versions are still in production.

Extra 330 LE

First flown in 2016, this was a fully electric powered single seat version powered by a Siemens engine. In 2017, it set new speed records for electric powered aircraft and became the first fully electric powered aircraft to tow a glider aloft.

Extra 300 S at Vyškov, Czech Republic in 2012.

The Extra 300 Today 

In 2019, Extra debuted their Extra NG, a fully new aerobatics machine that will hopefully prove a worthy successor to the Extra 300 legacy.

With a lifespan much greater than most aircraft in its class could hope to have, around 800 produced and still more being made along with a healthy demand for the type on second hand markets; the Extra 300 family is far from flying into the proverbial sunset.

Still a top notch performer in competitions and a reliable crowd pleaser at airshows, your chances of seeing a member of this aircraft family being put through its paces are far from remote.

Learning More

This link will take you to the official website of Extra Aircraft:
Official website of Extra Aircraft

This link will take you to an article from Pilot magazine that will give you an feel for what the Extra 330 LX is like from a pilot’s perspective:
Extra 330 LX article at Pilot magazine website

This link will take you to the website of Belgian aerobatics pilot, Kristof Cloetens. It’s a good “Voice of experience” type website that will give you insights into the life of an aerobatics pilot as well as judging criteria for competitions and so forth:
Link to Kristof Cloetens’ website

Acknowledgement:

I would like to extend thanks to Mr. Christian Hochheim of Extra Aircraft for providing me with extra information that filled some blanks I encountered while doing research on this article.