The 162 Is (Almost) Ready PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   
Thursday, 24 February 2011 14:04

The proliferation of Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) since the FAA announced first approval at Sun ‘n Fun 2005 has been little short of amazing. There are now something like 100 different companies producing LSA.

You can’t help recalling a similar rush to create the general aviation market following World War II. In those days, practically everyone with a slide rule and a drawing board was designing little airplanes for the plethora of military pilots returning from Europe and the Pacific.

It was a boom that turned bust in record time, leaving the dregs of several dozen aircraft companies in its wake. Yet, here we are only four years after the introduction of LSA with 100 companies marketing the type.

With Cessna’s heritage as the most popular manufacturer of general aviation trainers, the Wichita company was virtually guaranteed to enter this new market. The model 162 Skycatcher was announced by Cessna president Jack Pelton in 2006, and the first production airplane was delivered last December. As it turned out, that delivery was little more than ceremonial. Production was temporarily suspended shortly thereafter and is expected to resume in mid 2010.

Cessna hopes the new 162 will help solve a minor problem at Cessna since the demise of the 152. Like Piper and the old Beech Aircraft (in the days of the Musketeers), Cessna has always fostered a basic trainer in hopes of strengthening the step-up market. The premise is that pilots who train in a particular brand are more likely to buy from the same manufacturer.

Trouble is the pilot population, both general and students, has declined dramatically in the last 30 years. In 1980, there were 820,000 licensed pilots. By 2007, that number had shrunk to well under 600,000. Though there was a slight uptick in pilot population last year, Cessna knew they needed to facilitate the recovery by offering a trainer of their own.

Despite the Skyhawk’s remarkable simplicity and durability, it has always been too much airplane for the job, both in operating cost and purchase price. The latest Skyhawk has a base price of $297,000. I know of a flight school in Long Beach, Calif., that rents a well-equipped, air conditioned G1000 Skyhawk SP for $159 an hour.

For flight schools struggling to survive in a tough economy, the hourly rate is the primary key to profit, and even if a new Skyhawk is a lease back, the rental rate may be prohibitive for all but the most affluent students.

The 162 is intended to confront that problem head-on. Accordingly, the original base price has been set at $112,250, and Cessna calculates a typically-equipped airplane will go out the door at just over $130,000. At only 40 percent of the cost and half the operating expense of the Skyhawk, Cessna estimates operating cost of the Skycatcher at about $62 an hour. On that basis, it’s hard to imagine even a new, well-equipped 162 renting for much over $85 an hour. But more on pricing later.

Cessna loaned the first production conforming article to King Schools in San Diego, the contractor developing the CPC private pilot training curriculum. From there, Cessna ferried the airplane to the AOPA Summit in Tampa, Fla., and that’s where I flew the first machine.

Operating from Tampa Executive Airport 15 miles east of the city, Cessna chief pilot Kirby Ortega and I flew the test airplane one day before the AOPA Summit. The 162 was designed with economy of both price and empty weight in mind, the latter specifically to preserve a reasonable useful load.

To that end, a standard production airplane will come in with an empty weight of about 830 pounds. (The test 162 was still outfitted for flight test, so it was about 60 pounds heavier.) That should leave 490 pounds for people, fuel and stuff. With a full service of 24 gallons, the airplane retains 346 pounds of payload.

Starting at the spinner, the final production 162 uses an all-metal, fixed-pitch McCauley propeller in place of the original composite blades. Similarly, the proof of concept (POC) airplane’s Rotax 912 has been replaced by a 100-hp Continental O-200D, a new, improved version of the old Cessna 150’s O-200A powerplant. Cessna asked dealers and former customers for their preference, and the overwhelming favorite was the Continental.

The new engine employs lighter components and a physically smaller battery — it looks very much like the battery on my BMW motorcycle — again in pursuit of the most difficult economy in aviation, reduced empty weight. In total, the new version of the O-200 is 35 pounds lighter than the original used on the Cessna 150. As with the O-200A, the new engine burns 5.5 to 6.0 gallons per hour at max cruise, so 24 gallons allows about three hours endurance plus reserve. Time between overhauls (TBO) is 2,000 hours.

In pursuit of safety, Continental designed the oil dip stick with a clever 90-degree lock position. If the stick cap isn’t locked into place by folding it horizontally, the oil service door won’t close, making it obvious from the cockpit that something’s not right.

The nose gear is non-steerable and full castering, and to my mind, that’s a perfect combination for a trainer: lightweight, yet capable of providing better ground maneuvering than any airplane with a conventional, steerable nosewheel. If you need to maneuver in a tight space, it’s possible to turn the airplane 180 degrees in its own wingspan by simply holding one brake and adding power. In truth, locked-wheel turns aren’t a good idea (they tend to flat spot tires), but they’re at least possible with a full-castering nosewheel. Just don’t try to push the airplane straight backwards without a tow bar.

Perhaps in keeping with Cessna’s tradition of building all-metal airplanes (with the exception of the Corvalis models, which are primarily composite, but they didn’t start off as Cessnas), the 162 is basically all-aluminum, with only a few fiberglass components. The wheel pants, wingtips and wing/tail attach fairings are about the only pieces that aren’t aluminum.

The wing is set well back on the 162 design, with struts mounted far enough aft that they don’t interfere with the two cabin doors. Ailerons and flaps are interchangeable from one side to the other, and the ailerons offer max up travel and minimum down travel, an anti-spin improvement that was a fallout from the two spin accidents.

Both those incidents have been well-chronicled, so we won’t belabor the subject here. The more relevant point may be that full-power/full-flaps/full-cross-controlled stalls are well outside the province of LSA anyway. The FAA doesn’t require such antics for LSA certification, but Cessna felt the tests were necessary to assure a safe airplane, especially one that would be used for a steady diet of flight training.

The 162 is the first Cessna to offer doors that open out and up, hinged at the top and spring loaded to fold against the bottoms of the wings. The windows are fixed, and there are no small, storm windows, so the airplane is approved to taxi with doors full up. As should be obvious, you can’t open the doors in flight. Cessna employs standard airline Wemacs near the wing roots for internal airflow.

Like the rest of the airplane, the 162’s cabin is a little different. The seats are fixed, though both sets of rudder pedals are adjustable fore and aft to accommodate long-legged aviators. The cabin is 44 inches wide at the shoulders, making the new model the second-widest piston airplane in Cessna’s lineup (the Corvalis is widest at 48 inches across). I’m only about 5 feet 9 inches tall, but it was obvious headroom was easily adequate for a 6-footer.

The 162’s pitch and roll control was specifically designed to reduce weight and improve cabin access. The single handgrips look a little like side sticks, but they work more like conventional joysticks. (Don’t bother to twist your wrist as you would on a Cirrus or Corvalis. It won’t accomplish anything.)

The trick is the sticks translate from the panel rather than the floor boards, closer to a yoke than a joystick. This unblocks panel space and frees up foot and leg room during entry/egress. The sticks offer conventional travel left and right, forward and aft with no more friction than a stick or yoke control.

Pitch trim is electric, again a concession to weight. Failure mode is simply to overpower the trim, not a problem on such a light airplane. Flaps are manually deployed with a Johnson bar between the seats. There are four positions, 0, 15, 25 and 40 degrees, and control pressures are moderate, with little buildup at the higher flap positions.

The panel is all Garmin, built around the new G300, a miniature, all-in-one, economy version of the popular G1000. In addition to most of the talents available on its big-brother, do-it-all glass panel, the 162’s G300 offers one mode that’s not available on the G1000. It’s a weight and balance feature that offers a graphical representation of the center of gravity (CG) envelope. The pilot merely inputs people, fuel and baggage pounds, and the system pops up a pictograph of the appropriate balance point. Pretty clever.

All electric switches are at top center panel, including master, avionics and lights. The landing light and position lights, from Whelen, are multiple element LEDs that should make the new model easy to spot. The 162 is approved for day/night/visual flight rules (VFR) flight only, though it can serve for instrument flight rules (IFR) training in VFR conditions. The test airplane didn’t have the autopilot or ballistic parachute options, but it was otherwise typically equipped. The ballistic recovery system (BRS) costs $6,000 and weighs 35 pounds. It will be interesting to see how many people order the parachute, considering the loss of payload.

The fuel system is either on or off with a simple push-pull switch at center panel, no left, right or both positions. Fuel gauges in each wing are the bubble variety, simple tubes that indicate quantity by head pressure. Interestingly, some engineer at Cessna wins the “Duh” award for finally employing an inexpensive, silly-simple method of partial fueling. You can fuel each wing through one of three access tubes beneath the cap that correspond to half full, three-quarters and topped. The standpipes merely extend into the tanks to different levels. Again, pretty clever.

The space behind the seats is large, perhaps a little too large, as you may wind up with more cubes than pounds. Technically, the aft weight limit is 50 pounds. In keeping with the definition of LSA, Cessna will not offer an aft child’s seat as an option, since the airplane is only approved for two folks.

Back at the tail, there have been more changes as a result of the spin tests. The vertical stabilizer was reconfigured and enlarged slightly, and a ventral fin was added beneath the tail. The trim tab on the right elevator also received a Gurney device, a small, wedge-shaped, metal tab attached to the trailing edge.

It’s inevitable that the 162 will be compared to the old 150, and the new airplane comes off predictably better in practically all categories. With the same 100-hp engine and 280 pounds less weight to lift, the new airplane shines in every performance parameter. Climb is an easy 200 feet per minute (fpm) quicker at gross, and cruise is at least 10 knots faster than the 150’s. Even payload is superior.

Roll response is faster than you’d imagine for an LSA. I tried a max stick deflection exercise from 60 degrees left to 60 degrees right, and the airplane responded far quicker than a Skyhawk or Skylane. Pitch rate is also more sensitive than either of the next airplanes in Cessna’s model line.

Dirty stall speed is about the same as the 150’s, but characteristics are more benign, if that’s possible. I tried a variety of stalls, including a full power departure stall with 50 degrees of bank, and the airplane did little more than bob its nose and roll back toward level.

Landings are similarly simple, flown as slow as 50 knots (for short fields) with full flaps. The 162 retains reasonable flare with no tendency to drop out from under you, and landing roll can be as short as 650 feet.

One flight regime that takes a little adjustment is power-off descent. Cessna lists the 162’s glide ratio as 10.1 to one, considerably better than the 152’s 7.4 to one lift to drag (L/D) or the 9 to one recorded by most other piston singles. I had to use full flap slips several times during my time with the airplane to get it down near the beginning of the runway.

Overall, the 162 is an attractive package that’s bound to give other LSA manufacturers major headaches. At about $130,000 reasonably equipped, it should attract significant investment from flight schools. A comparable Flight Design CTLS series, the most popular LSA, sells for about $9,000 more than the 162. Tecnam’s Eaglet, the third most popular LSA, is almost $13,000 more with the same features. The Remos GX, the fourth bestselling, costs about $16,000 more. (The Czech-built Piper Sport LSA, previously known as the Sport Cruiser, will start at $119,000 and range to $139,000 fully equipped.)

As everyone must know by now, the 162 is being built in Shenyang, China, test flown and certified, then disassembled, containerized and shipped to the United States for reassembly and sale. When I flew the Skycatcher in Florida, Cessna’s order book stood at just over 1,000 airplanes.

Generally, flying the 162 is a ball. It’s hard to find much to dislike about the Skycatcher.

From the July 2010 issue of Cessna Owner