2010 Cessna 172S: Skyhawk in Year 54 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   
Thursday, 24 February 2011 13:46

Is it just me, or does the Cessna Skyhawk seem younger than 54? After all, take away the panel, paint and interior and you might mistake a 2010 for a 1964 if both airplanes were parked side-by-side on the ramp in bare aluminum livery. But while the current model’s configuration is physically very similar to that of the older models, the 2010 172S is a very different machine from that early version.

No, we’re not planning to detail a half-century of Skyhawk changes. We’re more interested in what the 172 has become than what it used to be. We’ll also skip any discussion of comparative price, as price is always relative.

Before you scoff and allege that the 21st century Skyhawk represents 20th century technology in contrast to the Cirrus SR-20/22, Diamond Star and Cessna’s own Corvalis 350/400, consider that what went before and still remains continues to have an undeniably strong attraction for many pilots.

Right up front, the 172 Skyhawk is the most successful airplane in the world — period. There have been a total of 43,000 units delivered. More to the point, the company has sold some 4,000 new generation Skyhawks of all descriptions since the company restarted production in 1997. At an average $175,000 per unit, that represents $700 million in sales in a mere dozen years.

The 2010 Skyhawk S continues the tradition of the 172, and it’s the final recipient of a half-century of engine evolution. The original airplane was born with a 145-horsepower (hp) O-300 Continental engine. There was even a short-lived, 175-hp geared version. Then, Cessna transitioned to a 150-hp Lycoming O-320 powerplant. In 1977, the company pushed the O-320’s power to 160 hp, and the new generation Skyhawk finally settled on 180 hp with an injected Lycoming IO-360 in 2009. (Yes, there was a prior 180-hp model back in the 1980s, the Cutlass, but relatively few were built.) The former 160-hp 172R was available through 2008, but few were sold, and Cessna discontinued the lower-powered airplane in model-year 2009.

After 30 years of writing about each subsequent Skyhawk, it might seem tough to find anything new to say. The truth is, however, regardless of what you think of their level of innovation, you have to admire their staying power. Cessna’s durable, everyman’s single is an all-around good airplane. It’s always been such a good design in so many ways that even its detractors have to acknowledge its strengths.

The simple fact remains that, even if an airplane isn’t outstanding in any one category, there are few San Andreas-level faults in general aviation designs. The Skyhawk may not be the fastest, the quickest climber, the best load lifter or even the cheapest, but it combines enough high marks to come out near the top in any competition.

Skyhawks have long been regarded as perhaps the premier, entry-level, family airplane, a reasonable 2 + 2 machine with reduced fuel and a forgiving two-seater in full fuel mode. Indeed, in addition to their use as rental leasebacks, Skyhawks remain among the most popular trainers in general aviation.

Like many of you, I’ve logged my share of hours in Skyhawks of various vintage, driving some across oceans and pedaling others on local hops when my airplane was in the shop. I may have a slightly different perspective than some pilots, however, as I’m fortunate to fly virtually all the competition each year. While that definitely doesn’t give me a corner on ultimate truth, it does impart a certain perspective on the relative merits of a given design.

Better still, the lady in my life is a low-time student pilot just starting off in aviation who’s also had a chance to compare a number of airplanes. In less than a year, Peggy Herrera has flown about a dozen models so far, including all three new Cessnas (Skyhawk S, T-Skylane and T-206), a Piper Archer and Malibu, a Beech F33A Bonanza, a Mooney Executive, a Marchetti SF.260, the Goodyear Blimp and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

“From a student pilot’s perspective,” says Herrera, “the Skyhawk is an extremely simple airplane to fly in almost every respect — almost. I’ve been lucky to train in an air-conditioned, 2008 model with a Garmin G1000 glass panel display. The Skyhawk couldn’t be more straightforward, and I certainly understand why it’s such a popular trainer. Control response is slow and gentle, the flaps are very effective, and stall speed is so low that nothing needs to happen very fast in the pattern.

“That’s an important advantage for new students having trouble keeping up with the airplane, especially during landing,” Herrera continues. “I’d love to have ropes on the nose of the airplane, like the Goodyear Blimp, so a ground crew could help me land, but short of that, the Skyhawk has to be one of easiest machines to put back on the ground.”

Herrera feels perhaps the most challenging aspect of the newer Skyhawks is the G1000 glass panel. “It’s a little overwhelming until you understand the logic, but the technology is impressive,” she says. For short people such as Herrera, the Skyhawk’s tall panel presents a bit of a challenge, but at least both front seats are vertically adjustable in partial compensation.

Cessna hasn’t changed the airplane’s internal dimensions much over the years. It’s relatively easy to climb aboard, and the AmSafe seatbelts/airbags spring from the center to attach at the doors rather than the other way around. In other words, you’d best fasten the belts before closing the doors.

The cabin is 39.5 inches across by 48 inches high, so you’re better off being tall than wide. In fairness, the door panels are recessed at the armrest to accommodate elbows. The cabin does narrow in back, so those passengers relegated to the rear have good reason to be small of beam.

Once you’re properly perched in the left seat, the view is good, with plenty of Plexiglas in all the right places. The Skyhawk’s tricycle gear provides a fairly stable ride on the ground with little need for brakes to steer the airplane.

Even with 180 hp out front, nothing happens too quickly when the left knob goes full forward, again more of a positive than a negative. The Skyhawk S boasts a reasonable 730 feet per minute (fpm) climb at gross, so students, owners and renters alike can score reasonable climb from sea level most of the time. Similarly, the airplane is fairly adept at training from semi-high-altitude Mountain West locations such as Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev. Service ceiling is 14,000 feet. That means cruise can be as tall as 10,500 feet without an especially labored climb.

Maximum cruise performance comes at 8,000 feet, however. The NACA 2412 airfoil is optimized more for climb than cruise, but the airplane will still generate about 125 knots if the center of gravity (CG) is full aft, the vents are closed, propeller and engine are working at optimum, conditions are otherwise willing and your biorhythms are all on a high.

Specific fuel consumption (sfc) is fairly immutable, and the Skyhawk’s durable IO-360 engine scores about 0.43 lbs/hp/hr. From that, it’s fairly easy to extrapolate fuel burn at 75-percent (135 hp), 65-percent (117 hp) and 55-percent power (99 hp). The pure numbers work out to 9.7 gallons per hour (gph), 8.4 gph and 7.1 gph, respectively. If that’s too precise to remember, just think of burn as 10, 9 and 8 gph respectively, and you’ll always be on the safe side.

Despite their high use rate, Skyhawks benefit from an excellent safety record. That’s partially a function of the model’s low approach speeds, and also because the airplane is a reasonably tough machine. Drag is sufficient to keep speed from building excessively, even if a pilot gets into a graveyard spiral (though it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do that in a Skyhawk). With those thick, tough struts connecting the wings to the fuselage, even full control deflection shouldn’t break anything, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has few reports of in-flight structural failure. As Peggy Herrera described above, students and owners love the airplane, and that’s partially a function of how many cheeks it’s been able to turn to the mistreatment of pilots and the hands of time.

The first Skyhawk was the first modern three-passenger Cessna with four seats installed. Today, a typically-equipped airplane sports a payload of 500 pounds, easily enough for two folks up front plus one or two munchkins in back. Full fuel is 53 gallons, and if you leave 20 gallons in the truck (with about 2.5 hours endurance plus reserve remaining), payload increases to just over 600 pounds, not quite four folks worth. The good news is that pilots are rarely tempted to fly a full seats/full tanks mission in a Skyhawk, though the new glass panel and Garmin autopilot would make the trip next to automatic.

One trick that’s fun in a Skyhawk if the load isn’t heavy is a short-field takeoff. The technique is simple: power to the stop against locked brakes at the first foot of runway, release the binders when power peaks, count to three, lever in two notches of flaps, and rotate at 35 knots. It’s not that dramatic, but if you do it right, the airplane will transition to the sky in less than 800 feet.

Similarly, the 172’s low stall speed allows short-field landings shorter than 500 feet if you’re willing to use the bush pilot’s 1.2 Vso approach speed. Approach at 57 knots rather than the recommended 65 knots, and you can ground the airplane and brake to a stop in less than 500 feet. The usual proviso applies, however. Don’t try this at home unless you’re very familiar with the stall characteristics and the wind is steady and right down the runway.

There was a time when you could buy a Skyhawk in bare bones configuration, then add options at will. No more. The “basic” Skyhawk S is hardly basic in any respect. At $297,000, it comes standard with the Garmin G1000 glass panel, including terrain and traffic, XM satellite weather and Mode S transponder plus Garmin’s do-everything GFC 700 autopilot, the aforementioned vertically-adjusting, all-leather seats, plus most of the other options most pilots normally order.

The option list is short; primarily including air conditioning, listed at $29,365, TAWS-B Terrain, $8,935, Synthetic Vision Technology (SVT), $9,400, AmSafe seatbelts, $1,785, and three-frequency emergency locator transmitter (ELT), $7,920.

At 54 years old, the latest Skyhawk has aged better than Heather Locklear (who’s only about five years younger). It may not win the swimsuit competition, but along with the more recent Cirrus SR22, the venerable 172 has proven to be one of the airplanes most pilots buy most often.

From the June 2010 issue of Cessna Owner