In December of 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history with their bi-plane contraption that managed to do the seemingly impossible: it gave man the ability to fly. The concept was so unearthly, in fact, that private aviation first took off not as a means of transportation, but as a sideshow of sorts. In those pioneer days, seeing a man use technology to overcome gravity was such a novelty that early aviators made their living mostly through exhibition flights.
Seven years after the Wright Brothers proved flight was possible, a car salesman by the name of Clyde Cessna found himself awestruck by one such exhibition in Oklahoma. He’d heard tales of men taking to the skies in these machines (and making thousands of dollars in the process), and now that he’d seen one in person he was certain: Clyde Cessna was going to build an airplane of his own.
The Birth of Cessna
Cessna soon sold his car dealership and thrust himself completely into the new endeavor, investing a whopping $7,500 (around $200,000 in today’s money) into an airplane kit he set about assembling himself at his home in Enid, Oklahoma. He and his brother had the aircraft assembled, complete with a motorboat motor Cessna himself had modified for flight.
But in those early days of aviation, building a plane was only half the battle. With no formal flight schools or even much in the way of informal instruction to be found anywhere on the planet, Cessna now had to find a way to fly this strange contraption they had pieced together out of spruce and linen.
In June of 1911, Cessna brought his newly assembled aircraft out to the nearby Great Salt Plains, where the surface was flat and even enough to allow for takeoffs and landings. There, he and his brother spent ten days living in a tent, attempting takeoff after takeoff—only to be met with failure.
His first flight ended abruptly with what aviators call a “ground loop.” The aircraft bucked as it attempted to leave the ground, bouncing off the ground and effectively coming to a fishtailing stop. The damage to the aircraft would cost another $100 to repair, but the brothers continued undaunted.
Each failed attempt at takeoff was as difficult on the pilot as it was on the aircraft, with Cessna feeling the full brunt of each abrupt stop. The effort proved so painful that Cessna himself declared that he would do away with the monstrosity of an invention just as soon as he could claim victory.
“I am going to make this thing fly,” Cessna said in frustration. “Do you hear me? I am going to make this thing fly and then I am going to set it afire and I’ll never have another thing to do with aeroplanes.”
But on his thirteenth attempt, Cessna accomplished what precious few others had at that point: he actually flew. The shaky monoplane aircraft, called “Silverwing,” rose from the salty earth and reached an altitude of about fifty feet, dragged skyward by the 40-horsepower, 2-stroke engine. It was the breakthrough Cessna needed, but as the engine began to overheat against the resistance of the wind, he realized he’d need to learn how to turn in order to swing back around for a landing.
Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be time, and as the Silverwing fought against the wind, the engine stalled and Cessna found himself in a barely controlled descent. The aircraft hit the ground, bounding back skyward once more before hitting the ground again and coming to a stop.
Cessna was banged up and so was his aircraft, but he’d proven to himself that he could fly, and it was time to show the world.
17 Miles Per Gallon
The challenges of aviation weren’t the only obstacles for Clyde Cessna’s new aircraft. In just a few years, he’d design a number of new aircraft concepts, this time using a more powerful Anzani 6-cylinder motor that would help keep the plane stable in difficult winds. But just as things were really starting to take off, the U.S. entered the first World War in 1917, and the market for Cessna’s exhibition flights collapsed.
And it wouldn’t be Cessna’s last endeavor to crash and burn. Following the war, he entered into a partnership with Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman, designing a new aircraft that would set world records for both speed and range. But disputes over Cessna’s monoplane design would eventually lead him to leave the successful enterprise, intent on forming a new firm that would grant him complete creative control.
In 1927, he and Victor Roos established another company, Cessna-Roos Aircraft, but just a month into their partnership, Roos resigned and Cessna was once again left on his own. He changed the name of the company to the Cessna Aircraft Corporation, designing new platforms like the Cessna CW-6 in 1928 and the DC-6 in 1929. He then began collaborating with his son on racing aircraft, until fate intervened again. This time, in the form of the Great Depression.
In 1931, Cessna closed the doors of the Cessna Aircraft Corporation, seemingly for good. There was simply no market for civilian aircraft during a time when most civilians were struggling just to get by. Though Cessna reopened the business in 1934, he soon relinquished control to his two nephews: an aeronautical engineer named Dwane Wallace and his brother Dwight Wallace.
Clyde retained only a symbolic role in the company from 1936 forward, opting for the simpler life of farming instead. Under Wallace’s engineering, a new high-wing monoplane design soon began rolling out of Cessna factories. Not only did it perform exceptionally well, the high-wing position allowed for unparalleled visibility for the pilot. That shift, coupled with a very clean wing-flap design granted the Cessna C-34 the ability to fly at an average of around 17 miles per gallon of fuel—an accomplishment impressive enough to make it the most fuel efficient airplane on the market at the time.
Clyde Vernon Cessna passed away on November 20, 1954, but the combination of his name and Wallace’s high-wing monoplane design would go on to help shape the world of aviation as we know it.
Aviation for the Masses
While the Cessna company would go on to design and sell a number of aircraft variants, no airplane in history has proven to be as long lasting or widely accepted as the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, which in 1955, was really little more than the older Cessna 170, with a somewhat controversial new addition: tricycle landing gear.
The Cessna 170 had already demonstrated itself as a capable and reliable platform, but when Cessna learned that Met-Co-Air in Fullerton, California, had found a fair amount of success in selling tricycle landing gear that could be added to the tail-dragging 170, they decided it was worth pursuing the change themselves. The 172 was an immediate hit despite criticism from some purists at the time.
The success of the new aircraft was thanks in no small part to its clean design that adopted the high-wing placement first introduced by Cessna’s nephew Dwane Wallace years prior, along with the new tricycle landing gear that made the plane so easy to land, Cessna marketed it as the “Land-o-Matic.”
It’s the ease of flying, and especially landing the 172, that helped propel the aircraft’s success as a teaching tool for aspiring pilots that were still developing their skills behind the stick, a fact that’s as true today as it was more than 50 years ago.
“It’s the perfect size for instructors and students to comfortably and confidently work together to improve flight skills,” Nicole Yager, a mother of four that’s currently taking flying lessons in a 172, told Popular Mechanics.
“It allows you to feel confident, while reminding you just how powerful it really is, and its size really helps condition your senses to what flying planes correctly should feel like.”
Flight schools all around the world utilize the 172 for training, because its reliability and durability are essential when teaching beginners how to fly.
“I think it’s really the robustness that’s been behind the aircraft’s success,” explained Doug May, the vice-president of piston aircraft at Cessna’s parent company, Textron Aviation. “It’s able to take six to eight to 10 landings an hour, hour after hour.”
May claims more pilots have earned their wings in a 172 than any other aircraft in the world, and that claim is supported by the sheer number of 172s zooming around airfields today. With more than 43,000 Cessna 172s sold since the aircraft’s first production year in 1956, it is hands-down the most successful airplane ever to hit the market.
“I flew F-16’s for the better part of a decade. The jet was designed in the late 60’s and has aged better than almost any aircraft in the world. The one aircraft that beats it is the Cessna 172,” Major Justin “Hasard” Lee, a U.S. Air Force F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilot, tells Popular Mechanics.
“It might not turn heads like the F-16, but nearly every pilot I know has spent time behind the controls of one. It’s safe, it’s reliable, and it’s cheap—it’s the perfect training airplane.”
A Civilian Aircraft at War
While Cessna would earn its reputation in the hands of student pilots, it would also go on to do much more. In 1964, the company unveiled a new version of their popular 172 specifically for the U.S. military dubbed the T-41 Mescelero. Aside from swapping out the 145-horsepower Continental O-300 engine that came in the 172 for a 210-horsepower Continental IO-360 engine, the new training aircraft for the Air Force and Army was nearly identical to the platforms civilian students were already flying.
The aircraft remained in use as a pilot trainer for the U.S. military for more than thirty years, before being replaced mostly by the Slingsby T-3A Firefly in 1996. However, even today, a number of national militaries continue to run the 172 for a number of operations ranging from training to reconnaissance.
“The high wing placement in the 172 makes it a great photo reconnaissance platform,” Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL turned experimental aircraft pilot, tells Popular Mechanics. “You can fly at very low speeds with clear line of sight from inside the cabin of the aircraft.”
Because of this, the 172 or its military variant, the T-41, have seen use in nearly two dozen national militaries ranging from Thailand to Turkey. Many nations continue to use the platform for day-to-day operations, including the Iraqi military facing ongoing combat operations against surviving remnants of ISIS.
A Soviet Embarrassment
The 172 has even been used as a means to embarrass a military or two over the years.
On May 28, 1987, a teenaged amateur pilot named Mathias Rust made the arguably ill-advised decision to send a message to the aggressive Soviet Union right in the midst of the Cold War. He climbed aboard his 172 in Helsinki, Finland, and with only 50 hours of flying experience, turned his Cessna off his pre-planned course and headed directly into heavily defended Soviet airspace.
At the time, the air defenses around Moscow were thought to be nearly impenetrable, but as the slow-moving Cessna and its young pilot meandered toward the nation’s capital, it was repeatedly mistaken for a friendly aircraft. Intercept fighters were eventually scrambled, but they were not given permission to fire.
Rust finally brought his Skyhawk down for a landing on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge right next to the world-famous Red Square in Moscow. The Finnish teenager had done the seemingly impossible: he’d flown his small aircraft right down the middle of some of the most advanced air defenses in the world and lived to tell the tale.
A number of Soviet leaders lost their jobs in the aftermath, including the Minister of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.
Some contend that the dismissal of some of these long-embedded Soviet leaders aided in Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts, which had previously suffered from a lack of support from within the military. Rust himself was arrested and charged with multiple crimes relating to illegally crossing the Soviet border and violating air regulations.
He was sentenced to four years in prison, but served just 14 months before receiving an official pardon.
A World-Class Plane
Way back in December of 1958, pilots Robert Timm and John Cook took off in a lightly modified Cessna 172 with a bold plan: they would remain airborne in their airplane, dubbed “The Hacienda,” for 50 straight days, in hopes of breaking the world record.
They added a 95-gallon fuel tank to the belly of the aircraft with an electric pump that could transfer fuel to the internal tanks in the wings. They also replaced the co-pilot’s door with a special accordion-style setup that allowed them to lower the door for better footing as they refueled and resupplied from fast moving cars that would meet the aircraft as it flew just a few feet above the tarmac.
After 50 days of sleeping in shifts and keeping the plucky 172 aloft, the record was their, but they decided to see how much further they could push it. After 64 days, 22 hours, and 19 minutes, the two men finally brought their little plane in for a landing. Their record, which stands to this day, isn’t just a testament to the reliability of the Cessna 172 Skyhaw. In a way, it also serves as a worthy metaphor for how the aircraft itself has thrived for decades.
The Cessna 172 is just one aircraft in Cessna’s modern day line, but its longstanding design and unique aesthetic has made this specific airplane a flying symbol for a brand that began in the mind of one man and has since gone on to shape the lives of hundreds of thousands of pilots.
Aside from a short stint in the 80’s and 90’s, the Cessna 172 has remained in production since its inception back in 1955, with dozens of variants introduced over the years to incorporate new technology into the old design. Today, the future of the 172 continues to look bright, as aviators young and old continue to see the plane as far more than the sum of its parts.
“I still enjoy flying Cessnas,” F-35 pilot Justin Lee tells Popular Mechanics. “The other day, my wife and I took a 172 to a neighboring city for burger. You can’t beat it for a day trip.”
When aspiring aviators ask Lee how they too can find their way into piloting the most advanced fighters on the planet, Lee often tells people that the path to flying fighters often starts behind the single-prop of a 172.
“The advice I give to people who want to become a fighter pilot is to build time in a Cessna. It’ll let you know if you have the aptitude and desire to pursue a career in aviation.”