|Cessna 150: The Generic Trainer|
|Written by Bill Cox|
|Thursday, 24 February 2011 14:14|
Patty Brown has been a good buddy for a lot of years. When I met her in the late 1970s, she was working as a certified flight instructor (CFI) in Long Beach, Calif., hoping to parlay her hours and ratings into an airline career.
She did just that. After fighting the battle of the resume for six years, Patty finally went to work for Pacific Southwest Airlines (later absorbed by US Airways). Patty started on four-engine BAC-146s; progressed to Boeing 737s, 757s, and 767s; went to Airbus 320s; and eventually worked her way up to first officer on Airbus 340s, flying international routes across the Atlantic. A few years ago, after 15 years with US Airways, she took early retirement when the job of airline pilot became less attractive.
More to the point, however, is how Patty got started on her quest for, perhaps, the most sought-after job in aviation. She’d been working in South Lake Tahoe in the early 1970s and decided to buy a Cessna 150 as a time builder. Patty earned her private, commercial, instrument, and instructor ratings in that airplane, and she’s not certain she could have afforded the training without the help of her durable little Cessna.
I’ve heard similar stories from other pilots who’ve launched their career in tired, old 150s, earned most of their basic credentials in the airplane, and gone on to spend most of their life in aviation. In Patty’s case and most of the others, the aspiring airline captains sold their airplanes for close to what they paid for them, reducing the per-hour cost to a mere fraction of standard rental rates.
These days, it’s becoming slightly more difficult to find a Cessna 150 to rent, much less to buy. The last production 152, the follow-on to the original 150, was produced in 1985. Although there were well over 31,000 of the little devils built, the toll of thousands of hours of student abuse, the inevitable accidents, and the simple effects of aging in the great outdoors (few 150s are hangared) have reduced the supply to a considerably smaller, antiquated fleet.
With the current proliferation of new and semi-new light-sport aircraft (LSA), the shift to Skyhawks/Warriors/Archers as all-purpose trainer/family transport rentals, and the introduction of Katanas, Eclipses, Liberties, and other models in the trainer role, Cessna 150s/152s are more often found these days as economical, 2+1, fun transports than working teaching machines.
That doesn’t diminish the fact that they were and still can be spectacularly good buys, if you can find a decent one that hasn’t been thrashed by thousands of hours of flight training. A recent examination of used prices in Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest suggests that even later-model 150s/152s in excellent restored condition are readily available at prices starting well under $25,000. That can make the 150 one of the cheapest, ready-to-fly production airplanes you can buy these days. Here’s a quick look at the 150 market in the latest Bluebook.
New Price Used Price
1960 $8,950 $12,000
1964 $9,495 $13,500
1968 $10,135 $14,500
1972 $12,935 $16,250
1972 (Aerobat) $14,425 $17,750
1976 $16,745 $17,750
1976 (Aerobat) $20,000 $24,750
Even if you elected to buy an unmodified 150 and improve it with more power, new paint and interior, and a radio or two, you could still wind up with a reasonable airplane for far less than the price of an LSA.
The Cessna 150 first appeared in 1959 as a modern, nosewheel replacement for the conventional-gear Cessna 140, discontinued a half-dozen years before. Cessna correctly anticipated the coming boom in flight training and knew the 172 was simply too much airplane for the job. The Wichita company knew that if you bought four seats, you paid for all four, no matter how many you used. This made a Skyhawk an expensive trainer for primary instruction. At the dawn of the 1960s, Cessna reasoned another small, efficient, two-seater was the better bet, updated for the new decade.
The first model was fairly primitive by today’s standards, with a squared-off tail and a fastback fuselage. Those first nosewheel trainers sported big wings and low stall speeds, as well as extremely effective flaps capable of deflecting to 40 degrees.
Gross weight was initially set at 1,500 pounds. That increased over the years to 1,600 and, finally, 1,670 pounds on the 152; but airplanes, like people, gain weight with age. The 150’s gross-weight increases couldn’t keep up with the airplane’s weight gain, resulting in a reduced payload. The 150 continued in production through 1977, when it was replaced by the improved 152 that lasted thru model year 1985.
Physically, the 150 and 152 were essentially the same airplane, though the later 152 was fitted with a Lycoming O-235 engine of 108/110 hp, compared to the 100-hp Continental O-200 mounted on the 150. Flight characteristics and performance were pretty much identical. The later, Lycoming-powered airplane was less susceptible to carburetor icing, a vexing problem on the original airplane. The 152’s slightly higher gross weight offset any performance advantage of slightly more horsepower.
In addition to their preordained specialty of civilian flight training, Cessna 150s of all descriptions have been used for a variety of missions, including pipeline and power-line patrol, wildlife spotting and management, and even some military applications. (No, they were never deployed as fighters.) Nearly a dozen third-world countries use the type for military reconnaissance, aerial photography, forward air control, training, and other purposes. Here at home, the Air Force bought a number of 150s for airmen suitability and evaluation.
Like the Skyhawk, the 150 proved wildly popular. At one point in the mid 1960s, Cessna was cranking out one-and-a-half 150s every working hour. That’s 3,000 airplanes a year. When I was learning to fly in the early 1960s, there seemed to be 150s everywhere – except at my flight school. I didn’t fly a 150 until I had almost 250 hours in my log.
Though Cessna worked hard to maintain the model’s esthetic identity, there were actually dozens of improvements made in every area, from the gear geometry, baggage compartment, tail configuration, side windows, flaps, and stall warning to the center console, auxiliary-power plug, starter operation, airfoil, shoulder harnesses, and other items.
In 1970, Cessna certified the type for limited aerobatics, a somewhat surprising option, since the engine remained the same 100-hp Continental. The airplane was beefed up structurally to withstand a +6/-3 G limitation. The approved maneuvers consisted mostly of gentlemanly antics, including loops, hammerheads, spins, and a variety of rolls, but it was enough to introduce a student to vertical and inverted flight. Perhaps more importantly for a trainer, it allowed flight schools to teach spin recovery, regardless of the fact that the FAA no longer required spin demonstrations as part of the private-pilot flight test.
The Aerobats also featured overhead skylight windows that partially opened up visibility to the top quadrant. More importantly, they allowed a pilot in normal training mode to look into the downwind and final turns in the pattern, something that was difficult on the standard airplane.
Cessna 150s were approved for operation on bush tires, skis, and seaplane and amphibious floats. Various modifications allowed the type to be switched back to conventional gear (the Texas Taildragger) or powered up to accommodate a 150-hp engine, the famous 150/150 conversion. (Years ago, I flew a 180-hp Cessna 150 in Kenai, Alaska, that had been converted back to tailwheel configuration. The result was short-field takeoff and climb performance that was nothing short of amazing.)
The 150s were compact little trainers, especially for two, broad-shouldered people. The cockpit was only 40 inches across, so students and instructors were guaranteed to rub shoulders. Once you were settled inside, everything fell fairly readily to hand, an obvious benefit for new pilots trying to learn the discipline of the sky.
From takeoff to touchdown, 150s of every description were almost universally regarded as among the easiest trainers to fly. Takeoff was a leisurely affair, but the airplane’s big, 160-square-foot wing typically lifted the airplane into the air in less than 700 feet, and landing distance could be about half that, if you worked at it.
Considering that the model’s primary mission was to train pilots, maneuvering and takeoff/landing practice were the main order of business, so climb and cruise numbers didn’t mean much. If you did everything right, a grossed-out 150 could climb at 600-650 fpm on a good day to an alleged service ceiling of 15,600 feet.
If you elected to level at something more civilized, say 6,500 to 9,500 feet, you could plan on a max cruise of 100-110 knots, and plan to cover an easy 400 nautical miles (nm), with the standard 26-gallon tanks, and nearly 600 nm with the optional, 38-gallon, long-range tanks installed.
The true joy of the 150 was the way it flew. There was nothing threatening or difficult about the airplane’s flight characteristics. Takeoffs were the next thing to automatic, though far from exciting. The airplane seemed to levitate off the ground with little need for rotation, and climb was elevator-like, again with little need to set a precise deck angle. The 150 was ultimately controllable in all regimes, making the private-pilot maneuvers as simple as it was possible to make them. Roll rate was slow enough to keep a student from overcontrolling, yet fast enough to get the job done without laborious effort. It seemed everything in the 150 happened at a leisurely pace. The airplane would spin, but you had to be asleep not to notice.
Landings, always the acid test, were about as simple as they get. The stall was predictable, with plenty of aerodynamic warning, and recovery was conventional, so if you did stall the airplane in a high flare, you actually had a chance to recover before plunking onto the runway. Students with no three-dimensional orientation took to the 150 immediately.
No one has ever tracked how many students earned their licenses in 150s, but the number has to be a staggering figure. The Cessna 150 was so good at what it did, only the recession of the late 1980s could possibly have caused it to be shelved. Fortunately, there are many of the type still around, and any student with the will to learn and the ability to walk, chew gum, and pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time should find flying almost silly simple.
From the September 2010 issue of Cessna Owner