Oct 19 2012

Best Basic Trainer – 172 vs. 150

It came barely noticeable for the most of the planet population, that lowly Cessna 172 became the most produced airplane in history – finally bypassing the Soviet WWII biplane Po-2. Cessna 172 is probably the most widely used basic trainer, only seeing competition from its elder and smaller brother, Cessna 150/152.

People tend to pick 172 for its larger cabin, and 150 for cheaper flight hour price, but digging a bit deeper, differences between the two aircrafts become much more interesting – making each of them a useful piece of training equipment in its own right.

But let’s begin with similarities, explaining why airplanes made by Cessna became a de-facto flight training standard pretty much around the planet:

  • Both airplanes provide side-by-side seating– with yoke controlled with the left hand, and engine controlled with the right hand. This layout is standard for all modern transport machines and passenger airliners;
  • Both airplanes are designed to fly specific set of “hardcoded” speeds, consistently achieving exactly the same performance flying by the numbers. Set a specific RPM, look in a specific direction, drop a specific amount of flaps, and you will touch down the runway precisely at the same point, every time;
  • Both airplanes are built to train “drivers”, not “fliers”. They have a tricycle gear– making takeoff, taxi and landing as easy, as riding a kiddie tricycle. They seamlessly recover from any “unusual attitude”, and do not demonstrate even a hint of adverse yaw when banking into a turn;
  • Both airplanes have enough space on the dashboard to scatter it with advanced navigation equipment, permitting to train the future Boeing and Airbus drivers in using all the bells and whistles.

Overall, both Cessnas are easy to fly and maintain, very forgiving to the pilot errors, and sturdy enough to withstand the consequences of incompetent handling. Ham-fisted dummy can fly Cessnas any time uncoordinated, landing flat and yanking the plane into the air without even realizing there may be any more finesse required. Put him in anything less forgiving, and he’d crash it – but modern airliners are flying pretty much like Cessnas, so our dummy can happily fly all his life through an airline captain career… unless at some point he would need actual piloting skills to survive – but that’s a different story.

So let’s return to detailed comparison between 172 and 150. What one can do, that other can’t?

  • 172 insists that its pilot use trim – 150 can be set to 60 knots glide and left like that forever, applying minimal muscular effort to adjust the speed while in the pattern;
  • 172 is heavier, and not nearly as nimble as 150 – the difference in the control input required is like between driving a Fiesta vs. Camry;
  • Pilot can sit way too high in 172, thanks to its adjustable sits – and get accustomed to a helicopter-like forward visibility, not present in most aircraft (excluding the airliners and cargo planes);
  • Sitting too high helps smacking the plane flat on the runway, or learning to pull way too much back during the flare – which may be dangerous in “hot”, fast machines with high wing loading;
  • Pilot is a quarter of the human load aboard the 172 – and half of it for 150. Amount of available fuel is also bigger for 172, which simplifies weight and balance calculation for the smaller plane;
  • Both in the air and on the ground, 172 accelerates slower than 150 – which is already not quite a drag racer;
  • Nose wheel shimmy damper of 172 is less efficient that the one on 150. When riding a bad surface, 172 will start gurgling and shaking earlier than 150;
  • Once trimmed, heavier 172 sits in the air more solidly than 150 – reacting less to the turbulence, gusts and crosswinds;
  • Rudder of the 172 feels heavier than that of 150, and requires significantly larger input;
  • Once accelerated, 172 doesn’t slow down as easy as 150 – this is especially noticeable when doing spins, wingovers, or similar high speed and load maneuvers;
  • 172 doesn’t slip nearly as good as 150. Both planes can be kept at a pretty aggressive yaw, but sink rate of 150 will be significantly higher;
  • Stall horn on both airplanes is very annoying and comes off rather early. With 172 the pre-stall buffet is more pronounced and begins earlier, making it more noticeable than in 150;
  • 172 requires a way more work to get it spinning (in trainer configuration), and converts a spin into a spiral easily. 150 enters the spin, if you clearly ask for it, and recovers normally;
  • 150 has a slower cruise, than 172 – not really THAT slow for a typical training cross-country, but slow enough to be noticeable;
  • Full flaps can literally stop the 150 in the air – in case of 172 and 152 they can’t be dropped so low, and being heavier, 172 can overcome the flaps and accelerate on approach – requiring better timing;
  • 150 can be landed real short, if there is enough headwind. 172 would require a fair amount of runway to be spent, whatever you do to land it slowly – and floars way more than 150, so don’t come in too hot;
  • On the roll-out, 172 can wonder off the runway harder than 150 – and differential braking won’t be as helpful, so moving the yoke in right direction is required to stay on the centerline when a crosswind is present.

All in all, nimble and light 150 is more of a “stick and rudder” airplane, while 172 gives more of a truck driving experience – and that’s what is actually needed for most commercial pilots in our times.

Whichever of the two airplanes you’ve been flying, attempt to convert to a, say, Super Cub or Citabria would be painful. You’d have to learn much more in order to become capable of handling the adverse yaw, different stall and spin characteristics, as well as a completely distinct ground handling, take-off and landing techniques.

However, if you plan to move from Cessna to Seneca, and later to King Air, etc. – everything would work out nicely. Fixed speeds, tricycle gear, excellent forward visibility, inertia, required weight and balance, take-off and landing distance calculations – you’ll need all that experience.

Stick and rudder flying is less and less needed in our time, so if a prospective student pilot is not too bothered by financial constraints, or specifically target flying lighter and older airplanes in the future, I would suggest going for a 172 as a basic training platform. It will take a bit more time to master, but would make you a better airplane driver.

And then, when you’ve got your license, guess which airplane would be the most widely available for rental? Sure, the same 172 you’ve been trained in. And it will be omnipresent in the airplane classifieds as well, in case you’d like to buy something on your own.