September 2nd, 1945, the Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, signs the Instrument of Japanese Surrender, aboard the American warship USS Missouri, formalizing the end of the World War II.
Among many different kinds of weapons employed by the Allies, the airplane played a pivotal role to win the war. Together, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union produced several thousands of aircraft throughout the conflict and in order to fly those machines, the Allies also had to produce thousands of pilots.
Upon returning home, the survival pilots had many stories of bravery, honour and selfless service defending the free world from tyranny.
Naturally, a whole generation of kids were deeply influenced to pursue one dream: to became a pilot. For those who were really serious about making the dream come true there were only two options: one is to join a military academy and the other is to join a civilian flight school.
Either way, in the late 1940s, an aviator student had to learn his first lessons in a 1930s era biplane. Most of them were crude, heavy machines and to make matters worse the open cockpit provides plenty of wind and noise from the big radial engine. For some “true to the core” pilots, an old biplane can be a delight to fly, but for a “green” student it can be quite scary.
The Almost Perfect Trainer
The Cessna Aircraft Company had a good answer for this lack of a modern trainer, the Model 170. Built from 1948 until 1956, this little airplane was a nice surprise not only among student pilots but also among customers looking for an affordable and reliable aircraft. The 170 had some modern features like all-aluminum construction ( the first year of production the wings were still covered with fabric), an encapsulated engine, a closed cockpit, and the best feature for rookie pilots: high-mounted wing, which allows a perfect view of the ground while landing the aircraft. This concept was a copy of some reconnaissance aircraft from the war, like the German Henschel Hs 126.
The Cessna 170 is a very docile and forgiven aircraft to fly, it was the perfect choice for a trainer or as a personal plane.
- Engine: Continental 0-300, horizontally opposed 6 cylinder, air-cooled, 302 CID (5.0 liter). 145HP.
- Empty weight: 547 Kg.
- Service ceiling: 15,500 ft
- Max. speed: 230 Km/h
The qualities of the Cessna 170 soon caught the attention of the US Department of Defense, its low operational speed and excellent visibility made it a perfect surveillance/reconnaissance plane. A huge order of 3,200 were initially placed, the airplane was renamed L19/01 “Bird Dog” and delivered to the Marine Corps and Army, just in time to see action during the Korean War in 1950.
The Bird Dog was also extensively used during the Vietnam War, primarily for reconnaissance, target acquisition, artillery adjustment, radio relay, and convoy escort.
After 24 years of active service in the US military the CL19 Bird Dog retired, but it is not hard to spot a restored one, nowadays, at air shows around North America.
The Cessna 170 was an awesome little airplane but wasn’t perfect, just like most of the planes from the 1940s, it was born as a “taildragger” (see picture above).
This is not a problem per se, after all, most of the notable fighters of WWII (Spitfire, Mustang, BF109) were taildraggers. The biggest concern for a novice pilot flying such machine is: there is no clear view of whatever might be in front of the plane while taxiing. This is a detail that could easily be fixed, or should I say, improved.
Between 1948 and 1956, Cessna produced 5,174 model 170 (not mentioning the military production), the plane can be considered a commercial success but it was time to evolve.
In 1956 Cessna released the Skyhawk model 172 (4 seater) and model 152 (2 seater), equipped with the tricycle landing gear. The plane was an instant hit, it retained all the good qualities of the 170 but was the new arrangement of the landing gear that made the new Cessna the favorite aircraft among the flying schools around the world. The airplane is a pleasure to fly and especially easy to land, so easy that Cessna marketed it as “Land-o-Matic”.
During the 1960s and 70s, the sales of the 172 skyrocketed as it became the primary learning tool around the world. The plane isn’t just easy to fly, it is also extremely robust, it can withstand hundreds of taking off and landings on the hands of inexperienced students before going through some maintenance.
Just like its predecessor, the 172 also had a military version. In 1964, the company unveiled a new version specifically for the U.S. military dubbed the T-41 Mescalero. At this time the aircraft was not used as reconnaissance but as a trainer instead. Since military pilots are, in most cases, trained to fly high-performance aircraft, Cessna decided to replace the original 145HP Continental engine for a “spiced-up” version with 220HP. Aside from the engine, the new training aircraft for the Air Force and Army was nearly identical to the platforms civilian students were already flying. The plane was very successful and stayed in service with the US military for over 30 years. The Mescalero was also exported to several Air Forces around the world.
The Cessna 172, is not fast, is not pretty but it is reliable and affordable. As a friend of mine used to say: “Think of the Skyhawk as a flying VW Beetle. Back in 1966 you could buy a brand new, basic 172 for US$ 12,450.00; just to give an idea, a Fastback Mustang of the same year had the tag price of US$ 2,713.00.
The capacity of the 172 to operate on short, improvised runaways attracted some less than honourable customers: the drug lords of South America adopted the airplane to transport their “stuff”, easily crossing the borders of different countries, while flying over the Amazon Jungle.
During its career, the Cessna 172 was involved in some unusual adventures.
A world record of reliability.
In December of 1958, the pilots Robert Timm and John Cook decided to take advantage of the 172’s reliability to break a world record and stay airborne on the aircraft for 50 straight days.
They dubbed their Cessna “Hacienda” (farm in Spanish) and installed an extra 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 hoist fuel and food from a truck.
After 50 days of keeping the 172 in constant flight, they secured the record, but they decided to push it a little bit further. 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, is a testament to the reliability of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
Flying against the Soviet Empire.
At the peak of the Cold War tensions, during the 1980s, Mathias Rust, a German teenager and amateur pilot with only 50 hours of flying experience, made one of the most incredible stunts in the name of the World Peace. On May 28, 1987, he climbed aboard of a rented 172 in Helsinki, Finland, and at some point he drifted away from his pre-planned flight course and headed straight toward the capital of the USSR.
The world thought the air space over Moscow was, at the time, was impenetrable, but Mathias proved it otherwise. His Cessna was repeatedly mistaken for a friendly aircraft and by the time the Soviet Air Force finally scrambled a pair of interceptors it was too late since the “enemy” Cessna was too close to a populated area, the fighters were not given permission to fire.
Mathias landed his Skyhawk on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge right next to the world-famous Red Square in Moscow, he had fooled one of the most advanced air defences in the world and lived to tell the tale.
It was a tremendous embarrassment for the Soviet Union and as a result a few top military leaders were immediately fired.
Mathias was arrested and charged in multiples accounts of violating air regulations and illegally crossing the Soviet border. He received a sentence of 4 years but was pardoned after 14 months in jail.
It seems Rust’s intentions to promote world peace was indeed very successful, according to William E. Odom, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency and author of The Collapse of the Soviet Military, says that Rust’s flight irreparably damaged the reputation of the Soviet military. This enabled Gorbachev to remove many of the strongest opponents to his reforms. Minister of Defense Sergei Sokolov and the head of the Soviet Air Defence Forces Alexander Koldunov were dismissed along with hundreds of other officers. This was the biggest turnover in the Soviet military since Stalin’s purges 50 years earlier. Two months later, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to sign a treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
Mathias Rust’s Cessna 172 Skyhawk is in a permanent display at the German Museum of Technology, in Berlin.
The production of the 172 was interrupted 1986 as the result of the rising cost of insurance for personal airplanes but eleven years later Cessna restarted the assembly line and they don’t have plans to stop it any time soon. More than 44,000 model 172 were produced and sold since 1956, making it the most successful aircraft in history. Several variants were released throughout the years in order to keep the plane up to date with new technologies, while the basic design remained pretty much unchanged.
Most of the pilots crossing the skies around the world today had their first lessons on a 172 and the future of the little Cessna continues to look bright, as it is still considered to be the perfect trainer. If you have the desire to become a pilot, just spend some time flying a 172, and the plane itself will tell if you have what it takes.