Flying a Straight-Tail 172
By Michael R. Little
Like many of us, I earned my Private license flying Cessna 172s. In my case these were in ex-Air Force T-41A trainers, 172Fs and a 172H, retired from active duty and passed to the LeMay Aero Club at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. These were what I was familiar with. Then, through a bizarre turn of fate, I won a 172 in a raffle, a fundraiser for the 1940 Air Terminal Museum in Houston, Texas. No need for a checkout before flying it because a 172 is a 172, right?
As I learned, not quite.
To begin with, mine is a 172 "zip." I have been asked repeatedly for its letter designator, and have replied every time "none, just 172;" no A, B, C whatever, kind of like the "NMN" in some people's names. When I picked it up, everybody said it was a 1958 model. A pristine 1958 POH was in the glove compartment and from the maintenance records (which are beautifully complete) it was clearly built in 1958, but if it’s not actually a 1959 model, it definitely has a lot of 1959 features. I doubt these were added later because so much of the airplane appears to be otherwise original, e.g. the paint job, which some previous owner seems to have clearcoated. I don't mind because these features include things I like, such as having fuel gauges in front of me instead of in the wing roots, more like what I'm used to.
There's quite a bit I wasn't used to. Externally, one major difference is that it has venturi tubes to provide suction for the artificial horizon and directional gyro. The main issue with this is that the system doesn’t start “sucking” until sometime during the takeoff roll. "Sometime" because the vacuum gauge is not something I typically monitor during takeoff, so I’m not entirely sure. I cage the DG, set it to the runway heading during engine runup and uncage it during climbout, refining the heading later once I'm cleared on course. The instruments themselves make me wonder if Cessna may have economized by equipping their airplanes with WW II surplus. The artificial horizon is a black ball with a line across it and the DG is one of those horizontal bar things that functions something like a whiskey compass, e.g. when the heading you want is to the left of the lubber line you turn right. This is quaint but sometimes confusing, and sooner or later I plan to update these instruments.
Climbing into the airplane one of the first things that hits you is that the view forward is phenomenal compared with more recent models. This is a clear legacy from its taildragger lineage, and highlights the fact that early 172s are basically late-model 170s with a square tail and tricycle landing gear. The drooped nose was designed to give the 170 pilot a decent view while taxying.
Another thing that can’t escape your attention is having to step over the wheel fairings. I’m not sure how much they help performance, but on the theory that they really do give me another 3-5 knots of airspeed, I’ve kept them. However, one complication they add is checking the tire pressure. There is no easy way to do it. Periodically I pull the fairings and confirm the pressure, but in between times I just eyeball it. I’m toying with putting little doors in them, like newer planes
Internally, the manual flaps with a "johnson bar" control is a glaring difference, one which I've come
to like. It operates in 10 degree increments up to 40 degrees, just click-pull-click per ten degrees of
flap. No pushing the flap switch and counting "one one-thousand one, two one-thousand,
three one-thousand" and then peering at the indicator to make sure. Note: I rarely use the 40 degree
setting, since it tends to make go-arounds more dramatic than they need to be.
One thing I'm not too crazy about is the location of the fuel selector valve, which is on the floor
between the front seats. It's easy to see and easy to reach, but I'm careful to let my front seat
passenger know that when I put my hand down there nothing personal is intended.
Despite the differences my old 172 still flies like a 172, meaning that although it may not have the sexiest performance figures it is a steady, forgiving, practical airplane, one I'm happy to be putt-putting around the sky in!