Cessna 172 Skyhawk: The most successful aircraft in history


Do you recognize the world’s most popular aircraft? Unless you’re an amateur pilot – or aviation enthusiastic – the answer will probably come as a surprise?

It’s not the venerable Boeing 747, which is finally being phased out from modern fleets after a production run of almost 50 years. Boeing has delivered 1536 jumbo jets since 1969, which is nothing compared to the best-selling aircraft of all time: the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

The humble Cessna 172 first flew in 1955, a little over 62 years later; more than 44,000 Cessna 172 have been built, sold and shipped to clients across the globe.

  1. Who flies the Cessna 172 Skyhawk?

While the jumbo jet typically has room for between 416 and 524 passengers, depending on the preferred seating configuration, the Skyhawk has a capacity of just four with very little room to stretch their legs.

The Boeing 747 has a range of more than 9600km, and a top speed of around 965 km/h, while the Cessna 172 will fly for 1280km on a full tank, travelling at a stately maximum velocity of 240 km/h. Your average supercar would easily overtake it.

So don’t expect to find the Skyhawk gracing the fleet of a commercial airline. It is, rather, the aircraft of choice for countless student pilots. Thousands of young aviators have taken their shaky first steps at the helm of a Cessna 172. The Army and Air Force of various countries are using the variant of the model to train new recruits and beyond the training purpose it is also used by militaries for aerial surveillance by militaries in some parts of the world.

  1. Why Cessna 172 is it so successful?

Because it couldn’t be much easier to fly and land, making it the perfect training plane. The wings sit high above the cockpit, giving pilots a good view of the ground, and so simple, clean and robust is the design. It has always been relatively affordable too, with a new Cessna 172 priced at around $396,000 and a pre-owned might cost around just $44,000.

It was an instant success with the built of 1400 Cessna 172 in 1956, its first full year. That rate has rarely slowed, bar a break in production between the mid-1980s and 1996, and while tweaks have been made to the design, the 172s of today look remarkably similar to the original.

“The Cessna 172 was arguably the most elegant compromise in the history of aviation,” claims Aviation Experts. “It might not have been the best airplane at doing any one thing, but it was clearly the best at giving its owners a satisfying taste of everything they wanted in a personal airplane. For many of those owners, the 172 was the airplane of a lifetime.”

  1. The world’s longest non-stop flight

Its robustness and reliability was demonstrated in 1958, when two pilots, Robert Timm and John Cook, broke the world record for flight endurance using one. The pair climbed into a modified 172 on December 4, 1958, and took off from McCarran Airfield in Las Vegas. The plane wouldn’t touch down again until February 4, 1959. That’s 1558 hours of continuous flying. Food and drink were hoisted to the plane from a car travelling at the same speed as the aircraft. Fuel was transferred via a hose attached to a fast-moving tanker. The rear seats were replaced with a mattress so they so get some sleep. A small sink allowed the two to brush their teeth and wash. We’d rather not know how Timm and Cook relieved themselves during the marathon. “Next time I feel in the mood to fly endurance, I’m going to lock myself in our garbage can with the vacuum cleaner running,” says Cook afterwards. “That is until my psychiatrist opens up for business in the morning.”

Their aircraft, Hacienda, hangs from the ceiling of McCarran International.

  1. The Cessna 172 that stopped the Cold War

German pilot Mathias Rust landed a Cessna 172 near Red Square in 1987 in support of world peace – evading Russia’s supposedly impenetrable air defense systems. His feat saw a clutch of senior officials sacked and indirectly helped Gorbachev push through his Perestroika reforms – many of those dismissed were opposed to his policies. Rust served 14 months of a four-year prison sentence, but was later handed an official pardon. You can see his Cessna 172 at Berlin’s Deutches Technikmuseum.

  1. Accidents and incidents of Cessna 172

Given its popularity, and widespread use by inexperienced pilots, the model has unsurprisingly been involved in its fair share of crashes. US boxer Rocky Marciano was killed in a Cessna 172 crash in 1969. David Box, a former member of The Crickets, died when the Cessna 172 he was travelling in, went down in 1964.

  1. Tell me more about Cessna

Based in Wichita, Kansas, it is a now subsidiary of the conglomerate Textron, but was founded in 1927 by Clyde Cessna, a local farmer. He built and flew his own aircraft in 1911, as you do, becoming the first person to fly a plane between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

His nascent company was forced to shut up shot during the Great Depression, but was purchased by Dwane and Dwight Wallace in 1934. They turned into a success, helped by orders from the US Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.

It shifted its focus back to commercial production in 1946, a decade before the first Cessna 172 was built. Cessna has also made forays into the business jet market, its first being the Cessna Citation I, unveiled in 1969. It was bought by General Dynamics Corporation in 1985, who sold it to Textron in 1992. Despite suffering during the 2008 economic crisis, which forced it to lay off hundreds of workers, it remains very much in business, helping Textron Aviation post a first quarter profit of $US36m ($A48m) earlier this year.

  1. Which other aircraft have sold in vast number?

A couple of the 172s rivals are also among the world’s best-selling aircraft. The Piper PA-28 Cherokee, another single-engine four-seated, with a tricycle landing gear and specifically designed for pilot training, has sold more than 32,000 units.

Two more Cessna’s, the 150/152 and the 182, are almost as successful.

Beyond that, it’s largely military planes. Precisely 36,183 Ilyushin Il-2s, a mainstay of the Soviet Air Forces during the Second World War, were built in just five years (1941-45). Germany built 34,852 Messerschmitt Bf 109s between 1936 and 1958. And the world has welcomed 22,685 Super marine Spitfires.

  1. Which are the best-selling passenger jets?

As mentioned above, Boeing has sold just 1536 747s. It’s most popular aircraft, and the best-selling commercial jet still in the sky is the Boeing 737.

Next up is the Airbus A320, with 7874 deliveries to the likes of Nepal Airlines.

  1. And the worst?

Only one Hughes H-4 Hercules was ever built, making it a reasonable contender for the worst selling plane of all time.

And there has only ever been one Antonov An-225 Mriya, the longest and heaviest aircraft ever created.

Faring slightly better has been the Airbus Beluga, perhaps the strangest looking plane of all time. They are five of them out there waiting to be spotted.

The 10 most produced aircraft of all time

  1. Cessna 172, 1956–present, 44,000+
  2. Ilyushin Il-2, 1941–1945, 36,183
  3. Messerschmitt Bf 109, 1936–1958, 34,852
  4. Piper PA-28 series, 1960–present, 32,778+
  5. Cessna 150 / 152, 1958–1986, 31,500+
  6. Cessna 182, 1956–present, 23,237+
  7. Supermarine Spitfire/Seafire, 1938–1948, 22,685
  8. Focke-Wulf Fw 190, 1939–1945, 20,051
  9. Piper J-3 Cub, 1938–1947, 20,038
  10. Polikarpov Po-2, 1928–1952, 20,000 to 30,000
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