by Budd Davisson, courtesy of
The First of an Enduring Breed
hard-core antiquers and sport aviation
enthusiasts, it's hard to look at something
like an old Cessna 172 and see anything but
a used airplane. How can it be considered a
classic? Even a contemporary classic? And
why would anyone want to spend any time
Look around folks. As old
Robert Zimmerman (Dylan) used to intone in
his twangy style , "...The times, they are a
changin'..." One look at Jim Landers's 1957
C-172 leaves little doubt that the
definition of "classic" has to be flexible
enough to allow for the accumulation of
time: it has been 41 years since the C-172
was introduced. It's age alone should allow
its inclusion in the classic genre. Besides,
I dare anyone to tell the world a Chevy of
the same vintage isn't a classic. If the
term fits a Chevy, it sure ought to fit a
Undoubtedly, what stops
most from considering the C-172 as a
"classic" is that it is still in production.
The usual mind-set is that anything worthy
of restoration shouldn't still be in
Applying those criteria,
it could be argued that the original C-172
ISN'T still in production. It has gone
through literally hundreds of evolutionary
changes. Some minor, some major. It's
general lines have gone from funky and
square to swoopy and stylish. Including its
latest incarnation, it has gone through at
least three distinct engine changes.
Regardless of the endless evolutionary
changes, however, it is still the same four
seat, easy to fly, utility-oriented machine
it was at the beginning. So, although the
original 172 may not still be in production,
its soul is still alive and well.
Jim Landers's airplane is a shimmering
example of the 172 at its very inception.
Built in 1957, only one year after the
airplane was introduced, it is the
quintessential early Cessna which is usually
referred to simply as a "square tail."
When the airplane was
evolved out of the earlier C-170B
taildragger, the two most important changes
included moving the little wheel to the
other end of the airplane thus creating what
Cessna brochures referred to as the "Land-a-Matic"
landing gear. The av-advertising of the day
was loaded with "...if you can drive, you
can fly..." metaphors. The tri-cycle gear
took the airplane out of the realm of those
experts called pilots and put them in the
hands of mere mortals who, if the ads could
be believed, needed to know nothing more
than was needed to herd their Chevy Belair
to the market and back.
With a styling concession
to the times, the rounded, art-deco tail of
the 170B disappeared to be replaced with a
more severe, rectilinear unit more
representative of the 1950's. The era of the
tail fin was upon us.
The rest of the airframe
was basically 170B, including the fastback
fuselage and the wonderfully effective
Fowler flaps which went down to a full 40°.
The gross weight was identical although the
useful load went down 45 pounds. The
important thing is the airplane was close to
being, as advertised, "...if you can drive,
you can fly...". It became wildly popular in
a matter of months and started a dynasty
which endures to this day.
Incidentally, there are
some interesting comparisons between a 1957
Cessna 172 and one 20 years newer (172N).
For one thing, the base Blue Book value is
$25,000 compared to $41,000. The gross
weight of the newer aircraft is 100 pounds
higher but the useful load is 70 pounds less
(940 compared to 870). The newer airplane
picks up 6 more gallons of fuel, to 43
gallons and its cruise jumps up to 122 knots
(that's what the books say, really!) while
the older airplane, which has 145 hp versus
160 hp, will only make 108 knots (also,
slightly optimistic). The stall speed drops
from 50 knots for the original airplanes to
44 knots for the newer one, probably as a
result of the "Camber-Lift" wing introduced
evolved slowly over the years with most of
the styling changes coming one at a time.
The square tail, for instance, disappeared
in 1960 with the introduction of the 172A.
The new swept tail is slightly different
than what we see today, because the fuselage
shape remained the same. The older fastback
fuselage had enough side area that a dorsal
fin wasn't needed. When the fuselage was cut
down for the "Omnivision" rear windows in
1963 with the 172D, the engineers had to
compensate for the loss in side area by
attaching a dorsal fin. That became the tail
most recognized by the Pepsi Generation.
Incidentally, there's an
old wives tale floating around that says the
fast back airplanes were faster than the
airplanes because the flow was better on the
older ones. If that's the case, it's not
represented in the specification tables.
However, in speaking with engineers around
at the time, they'd admit they had to do
their work carefully to keep from giving up
any speed to marketing changes.
In 1961 the "B" model
came out with a float kit as an option. 1961
is an important year, if for no other reason
than the fact that the name "Sky Hawk" was
introduced. If our references are correct,
the term was originally used to designate
the more deluxe version of the basic 172.
The 172 purists will probably point out that
there is, and always have been, two levels
of the same airplane; the 172 and the Sky
Hawk. To the rest of the world, however, the
two aircraft are one in the same.
Electric flaps were
introduced in 1964 with the 172E and the 150
hp Lycoming 0-320-E2D replaced the 145 hp
Continental 0-300D in 1968. The so-called
Camber-Lift wing showed up in 1973 and the
in-famous 160 hp 0-320-H2D in 1977 (172N
II). No other major changes were made until
the aircraft went out of production in 1986,
exactly 30 years after its introduction.
interesting historical trend: The 172 was
introduced at $8,750 (base price). Ten years
later it was $12,840 (47% increase). 20
years after introduction it was up to
$20,750, a 61% increase over the last
decade. At shut down in 1986, its window
sticker read $53,050 ($74,705 equipped) a
whopping 155% increase in the previous ten
years. Most of the increase came after 1979.
The current price of
$126,000 is an increase of 137% over the
last models produced, although that's not
exactly an apples to apples comparison
because of engine and equipment differences.
None of this means
anything to Jim Landers, as he tools around
the skies over Phoenix in his immaculate '57
square tail. All he knows is the airplane
does what he expects of it and he never
pulls up to a gas pump without drawing a
crowd. Often the crowd includes owners of
later 172s who are attracted to his airplane
because of its attractive, period
appearance. It didn't always look that way.
Landers says, "When we
got the airplane it was painted black and
white and, if you saw it following you over
the highway, you'd think the highway patrol
was clocking you."
The paint was anything
but perfect which made little difference to
Landers, who, from the beginning had
pictured himself returning the airplane to
its original factory paint scheme, although
he hadn't purchased the airplane as a
"I had started flying in
a flying club back in 1980 and rented
airplanes for a while. Then, in 1988, I
decided to buy a Cessna 150. I had a teenage
son who needed something to focus on and
this was it. By the time he turned sixteen,
he had over 180 hours in the airplane. We
soloed him on his 16th birthday and the next
day he went down to get his drivers
Landers and his wife used
the 150 for a lot of trips but, "...she had
trouble learning to pack small and light,
which the 150 demanded."
A new airplane was in the
offing and that's where the squaretail came
on the scene. It only had 3,400 hours total
time and 1,000 hours on the original 0-300
Continental. Most important, it had plenty
of room for baggage.
Landers was lucky in that
the airplane had spent most of its later
years in Texas and Arizona, so, when he
began to strip the paint, he found only
minor skin corrosion. Also, in working
through the airframe he didn't find the
usual collection of mouse nests and the
pockets of corrosion, they often generate.
Once the airplane was
stripped he began the labour intensive task
of polishing it. As with anyone who jumps in
to that kind of project, Landers quickly
developed his own polishing sequence.
"On the bad areas I would
start with a concentric stitched
edge-polishing wheel, rather than the usual
flat polishing buff. I'd use a 5X brand
white polishing rough stick. That would
knock the worse stuff off. Then I'd use a
paint buff on a 1500 rpm buffer with varying
grades of 3M polishing compound. At the very
end I'd use Finesse-It, which is super fine.
To maintain the polish I use a combination
which is one part of Blue-Magic to two parts
of Finesse-It. I use Sparkle cleaner to get
the black polishing stuff off."
Landers says even after
flying the airplane for four years, he
doesn't consider it a true four place
airplane except for local flights. He says
the high density altitudes and higher
altitude airports in Arizona force him to be
very careful about how the airplane is
loaded and used. With only 145 hp, he
doesn't feel it is wise to load it up to
gross and expect it to cope with density
altitudes which in areas like Flagstaff
often top 10,000 feet.
To those who have never
flown an earlier Cessna, their first
thoughts on climbing into the cabin is that
they are sitting so high. This is an
illusion caused by the fact that modern
Cessna instrument panels are so much higher
than the older ones because of the demands
for more places to put more gadgets. Also,
the seating position is slightly more erect
giving you the impression, you're on a front
porch looking down over the nose. In cruise,
the nose seems ridiculously low although
it's actually in exactly the same place.
panel itself is probably the most noticeable
difference between old and new. When the 172
was introduced, the VOR system was still in
its infancy and most approaches were still
being shot with low-frequency A-N ranges and
surveillance radar. An ADF was a much more
usable cross country nav-aid. The panel
didn't have to be very deep because there
weren't that many avionics gadgets in
existence that the space was needed. For
that reason, the radios were still mounted
low, generally on the pilot's side. The
concept of a centre stack radio set up
hadn't yet developed because there was no
need for it.
The panel has a
remarkably innocent look to it.
Flying an early 172 is a
joy, if only because they are usually
lighter and quicker than later ones. Also,
despite being slightly lower powered, the
0-300, six-cylinder Continental is so much
smoother than the Lycomings it's almost
worth the trade-off.
Landers says the
Continental's only nagging problem is the
accessory section tends to seep oil. The TBO
on the engine is supposedly 1800 hours,
although Landers's engine decided to break a
rod cap bolt and shove a rod through the
case at 1,400 hours. It was in the process
of rebuilding the engine that he developed
"Since the engine hasn't
been in Cessnas since 1968, a lot of the
overhauled cylinders out there have seen a
lot of time. I opted to go with a set of
Superior Millenniums just so I wouldn't have
to worry about it."
On takeoff, the amount of
load on board will determine how the
airplane reacts. Flown as Landers flies the
airplane, as a two-place airplane with a big
baggage compartment, it moves along
sprightly and gives a solid 500-600 fpm
climb. Although the handbooks say it should
do that at gross, most 172 owners know
better and plan accordingly.
Landers flight plans
117-120 mph (104 knots) which is only
slightly less than what the handbooks said
it would do when new. At that speed he's
burning less than 8 gallons gallons per hour
which, with its 37 gallon tanks gives nearly
In terms of flying
qualities, a 172 hasn't changed enough to be
noticeable in nearly 40 years. The
personality that has let it endure for so
long was there at the beginning and has
gotten better with the addition of items
like the later tapered-rod landing gear. The
early airplanes give 95% of what the later
ones do with slightly lower operating costs.
The only penalty is finding room to stack
enough radios to make it compatible with
today's avionics-intensive IFR environment.
The early airplanes can deliver most of the
utility. There is, however, something the
later airplanes absolutely cannot deliver.
The early square-tails evoke a feeling of a
time past. Of a very young Elvis Presley,
the innocence of the Eisenhower years, of a
time when everything, including airplanes
were simpler and just a little more pure.
Certainly all of that is worth the elbow
grease it takes to transform a lack lustre
old airplane into a shining representation
of the period of its birth. They may not be
true time machines, but dollar-for-dollar,
they're close enough.