Flight test: Refurbished Cessna 152
PUBLISHED: 18:11 16 February 2021 | UPDATED: 18:11 16 February 2021
Keith Wilson 2020
Refurbished, retrimmed and kitted out with 21st century avionics, Cessna’s classic two-seater 152 remains a contender in the training market
Words: Dave Unwin Photos: Keith Wilson
The glow of the latest Garmin glass and the opulent scent of luxury leather seats seemed strangely discordant with the familiar yoke in my left hand. “This thing’s a bit different to the Cessna I learned on,” I observe to Cambridge Aero Club’s Head of Training, Anthony Cooke.
“I’m sure it is,” he replies and then pauses reflectively. “Of course, it’s still a 152, but you’ve got to admit−it’s a very nice 152!”
Along with its equally honourable contemporary the Piper PA-28, the good old Cessna 152 is surely one of the all-time great light aircraft. It may not be the fastest, the most charismatic or even the prettiest trainer ever designed, but it has made an almost incalculable contribution to the history of general aviation. The 150/152 series has trained several generations and many tens of thousands of civilian pilots and, I don’t know about you, but I was one of them.
On 27 September 1986, I taxied ‘November Six-Six One Four Niner’ out solo for the first time. It was a rather well-worn 150 that I gingerly steered around the grey Missouri sky that day. The paint was peeling, the interior trim cracked and faded, and the engine sounded a little weary, but that little Cessna got me safely up, around and down that day, and for all I know N66149 is probably continuing to do so for an entirely new generation of pilots.
The 152 is not perfect−far from it. Indeed, there are several areas in which it can be found wanting, but for an entirely objective overview of the marque, consider the following: between the first 150 rolling off the production line in 1958 and the last 152 in 1986, Cessna built an incredible 31,318−which, by anyone’s standards, is a lot of aeroplanes! Even today, if you want an EASA licence then it is quite likely your early flights will be in a 152, as they are still the real money-earner for many flying clubs and flight training schools.
With such an impressive track record, combined with the fact that it will continue to be the principal two-seat basic training machine for the foreseeable future, we decided that it was overdue for another look at what must surely be one of the most influential light aircraft of all time.
Obviously, I could have found one to test a lot nearer to home, as all the nearby flying clubs have at least one available for hire and as there are several hundred 150s and 152s on the British register, I wouldn’t have had to travel far to find one. The reason I went to Cambridge is that the club has recently placed on its fleet a pair of 152s, with a third due to arrive soon. And what makes G-CLNB, the subject of this flight test, and its sister ships G-CLNA and G-CLNC particularly interesting is that they have all been extensively refurbished by the same company. Imported in January 2020, ‘November Bravo’ is one of three Cessna 152s purchased by Andrew Brinkley from a Cessna maintenance company and operator in Oklahoma USA. They were dismantled and shipped in forty-foot containers to Brinkley Aviation at Meppershall.
As the aircraft were already in pieces, a detailed structural inspection was carried out before reassembly. The old avionics, interior and carpets were removed, and the interior panels repaired and repainted. Brinkley Propeller Services overhauled the props and the engines were fitted with factory-new cylinders, even though they’d been ‘zero-timed’ as recently as 2016. The seats were recovered by Cooper’s Cabin Craft, and new carpets fitted. New Garmin flight instruments and avionics were installed and the aircraft then flown to Airtime Paint at Bournemouth for a full respray. The aeroplanes are now appreciably lighter because of the new instrumentation, as the engine-driven vacuum system has been removed. The three have matching colour schemes and consecutive aircraft registrations.
Making the reacquaintance
So, here I was at Cambridge to reacquaint myself with a type, that I’d not flown for fifteen years or so. Of course, I knew all about the extensive overhaul that had been carried out, but still had to concede that although ‘November Bravo’ was twenty years younger than me, it was wearing much better. Of course, I’ve never had any work done (much to the wife’s disappointment) but the Cessna had also lost some weight recently. It certainly looked very smart in a coat of fresh paint, and from the tip of the sharp-pointed spinner to the top of the rakishly sweptback fin, it is quite an attractive little aeroplane (and this is doubly true of the rare Texas Taildragger conversion).
During the preflight inspection I found it interesting to study the aircraft from a more objective viewpoint−approaching it as if I’d never seen one before, as opposed to merely ascertaining that it was serviceable. One aspect that drew my eye was the flaps. The 152’s area-increasing Fowler flaps are excellent by light aircraft standards. They have four settings (0, 10, 20 and 30 degrees) and are electrically actuated. In complete contrast to the flaps, the ailerons don’t look so clever. They are the unrefined, flat plate type, attached to the trailing edge of the wing with simple piano wire hinges.
The strut-braced wing uses a NACA 2412 aerofoil which features a constant-chord centre section with tapered panels outboard of the struts. The tailplane is fixed and has separate elevators, that swept-back fin and a generously-sized rudder. There is a large trim tab in the starboard elevator.
The main undercarriage arrangement certainly looks nice and simple. Imaginatively called ‘Land-o-Matic by Cessna’s advertising department, the main wheels are carried on a tubular spring-steel leg that looks robust and is essentially maintenance free. This is just as well as any training aircraft is bound to be subjected to a considerable amount of abuse by ham-fisted students. The nose wheel is carried by an oleo strut which can also take a pounding, particularly if the aircraft is ‘flown on’ in a three-point attitude. Although it looks (and is in normal use) more than adequate, many students have succeeded in ‘testing it to destruction’. The mainwheels carry hydraulic disc brakes.
Whenever possible I prefer to fly the aircraft I test for Pilot with a representative load and so we ensured ‘NB was full of fuel and very close to the maximum all-up weight. As the Cessna is a high-wing aircraft, checking the fuel level in the wing tanks means getting above the top of the wing. Unlike earlier 150s, it is permissible to step on the wing struts while checking the fuel, and two footholds (one on the strut and one on the fuselage) and a handhold have been included on each side of the aircraft to facilitate this. Incidentally, I was very impressed that the gap seals on the steps incorporated into the main undercarriage were present, as they very rarely are! As part of the refurb all the external lights are now of the LED type.
Time to fly. Entry to the cockpit is quite good - the car type doors are of a reasonable size and the steps are well placed. Although I am not afraid of heights, width has always been of considerable concern to me - both my own and the cockpits that I fly from. This is an area where the 152 been found wanting, and even though the cockpit of the 152 is slightly wider than its predecessor it is still definitely on the tight side for two. In fact, I’ve often wondered why it is so narrow, as just a little bit more room would make all the difference. Of course, it is undeniable that people were generally smaller back in 1958 – remember the contemporary BMC Mini of 1959 was marketed as a four-seater…
If it smells good...
Thus far, November Bravo had held no real surprises–but as soon as I sat down the unmistakeable smell of quality leather seats delighted my nostrils, while a veritable feast of fresh Garmin glass filled the panel.
Directly in front of the pilot are a pair of Garmin G5s, the top one configured as a PFD (primary flight display) and the bottom as an HSI (horizontal situation indicator). To its left are an old-school analogue ASI and electric turn coordinator, to its right, old-school altimeter and VSI.
The avionics stack is centrally mounted and consists of an Aera 660 GPS moving-map, a GNC 255 transceiver and a GTX 335 ADS-B transponder. As the flight instruments are now all electric, Brinkley removed the engine-driven vacuum system and its ancillaries. Consequently, the 152s are all around 9kg lighter than when they were imported.
As for engine instruments, the tachometer and ammeter are to the right of the panel, with oil temperature and pressure, and the notoriously inaccurate fuel gauges half-hidden behind the pilot’s yoke.
I’ve never really liked Cessna’s positioning of the oil gauges and would prefer to see them mounted a bit more prominently. It’s a shame that some sort of electronic Engine Monitoring System wasn’t fitted where the comprehensive checklist now sits.
A fascinating facet of the fuel gauges is that interestingly and unusually for a trainer, they show both volume (in US gallons) and mass (in pounds).
Carried on a narrow sub-panel underneath the instruments is the split, rocker-type master switch, a combined rotary magneto/starter switch and a row of small, identical rocker switches for the electrical services, along with the circuit breakers. Below the avionics are the carb heat, plunger-type throttle and Vernier mixture control, with the elevator trim position indicator logically situated next to the trim wheel, to the left of the throttle. The flaps and flap position indicator are on the opposite side. To operate the flaps the pilot simply moves the flap-shaped selector to the desired setting and the flaps extend to the required deflection. A small flap position indicator moves when the flaps are in transit and follows the flap lever to the desired setting. In all, an efficient, effective and intuitive system. Earlier 150s had a simple toggle switch which allowed you to set the flaps to any setting between zero and 40. On a trainer this was possibly a bit too much, particularly if the student attempted to go around with full flap extended as the aircraft would not climb at all. (as I can attest – Ed.)
The only adjustment available to the pilot is the seat, which moves fore and aft. This is acceptable, although I must confess that I’ve never liked the seatbelt arrangement. The lap strap is fine but the single shoulder strap never really fills one with a lot of confidence. Maybe it’s just me, but I never really seem to get the shoulder strap both tight and comfortable.
Taxying is easy, the perfect combination of toe operated differential braking and nose wheel steering, and with such simple systems the pre-takeoff checks can be completed swiftly. An excellent example of the level of simplicity is the extremely straightforward fuel system. Fuel flows by gravity from the two 49-litre wing tanks to the carburettor via a fuel shut off valve in the cockpit floor. That’s all there is to it: no booster pumps, cross-feed valves or multiple tank selections, the fuel is either on or off−just what you want in a trainer.
How does it handle?
With the oil warm and everything else looking good, our three aircraft taxi out onto the active runway and line up. On shorter fields, ten degrees of flap is advisable−but as you can barely see the other end of Cambridge’s 1,965m Runway 05, flaps-up is the only way to go today, and having checked in with the other two Cessnas I open the throttle. Acceleration is brisk and fifty knots comes up quickly. Smoothly rotate into the flying attitude and the little Cessna is soon climbing nicely.
As per the brief, we’ve taken off in stream, with Anthony and I leading in November Bravo, well-known aviatrix Amanda Harrison in November Alpha and Keith and Cambridge Aero Club MD Terry Holloway in Cambridge’s immaculate 182. Keith is shooting from the start and, with the first sequence done, Terry realigns the flight with Amanda in the lead. The image Terry really wants is the two matching 152s with the famous Kings College in the background, and with that in the can he realigns the formation again with the 182 in the lead, November Bravo in the slot and November Alpha as No.3. Finally, Amanda goes home and I move into close formation.
Moving around the 182 in two-metre increments is precision work, and I soon become aware of some of the 152’s less impressive aspects, below-average lateral control being one of them. The rudder is nicely balanced and the elevator is reasonably crisp and effective, but for some strange reason Cessna chose to fit rather indifferent ailerons and the aircraft has a somewhat soggy feel to it in roll. I think the designers placed more emphasis on stability than control. To be fair they’re not really that bad−they’re just not very good. Luckily for me, Terry flies a super-smooth lead and the air is serene, otherwise I might have had to work harder than I care to in order to remain in formation.
The pictures safely in the can, I move onto a deeper examination of the control and stability, and a couple of steep turns soon reveal another area where the Cessna and indeed practically every other high-wing aircraft falls down−the field of view in the turn is very poor, necessitating the into-turn wing to be lifted prior to the aircraft being banked in that direction. I don’t have space to go into the great high-wing versus low-wing debate here: both configurations have their strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, in a busy circuit that blind spot can seem awfully large.
The stall is very innocuous; the warning horn is triggered by a reed type device in the port wing and starts bleating anxiously between five to ten knots before the wing actually stalls, at around 43 knots, power off. Add a dribble of power and the ASI gives up before the wing. Even a full-power ‘departure stall’ is only notable for how insipid it is. This is a very safe aeroplane.
A look at the stick-free stability confirms my initial impressions of the emphasis being on stability, as it is positive around all three axes. Checking the cruise performance on the way back to Cambridge verifies the claim that these particular refurbished 152s are effectively ‘factory-fresh’ aircraft, as 2,400rpm (75% power) at 2,000ft gives a TAS of 101kt−exactly what the POH says it should. However, at 23 lit/hr the O-235 is quite thirsty, and a more representative power setting of 2,200rpm (59%) at the same altitude trues out at 91kt, for 18 lit/hr. The optimum altitude is 8,000ft, at which the POH claims 75% power produces a TAS of 107kt. The trimmer, I note, is nicely geared.
Back in the circuit at Cambridge, another facet I appreciate is that unlike many modern LSAs, the flap-limiting speed (VFE) is a very reasonable 85kt. Circuits are as undemanding as every other part of the flight envelope. You can keep the speed up in a busy circuit, as full flap soon washes off any excess energy. Anywhere between 55-60 over the fence is fine, but if you nail the airspeed to 54 and use a bit of power impressively short landings are possible. However, if you’re heavy on a hot day and decide to go around it is imperative that you get the flap retracted to twenty degrees as soon as you’ve applied full power, otherwise you may not go around in the style to which you would like to become accustomed i.e. safely! For most approaches slowly bleeding the speed back to 55kt at the threshold works well, and there is plenty of elevator authority available for a smooth arrival on the main wheels before gently lowering the nose. In fact, as long as the proper speeds are used landing is as effortless as every other aspect of the operating envelope.
Standing the test of time
Nothing sparkling or special; just simple, straightforward and entirely predictable. It is irrefutable that Cessna designed a fundamentally good, reliable little aircraft that has more than stood the test of time. Remember that the prototype 150 first flew more than sixty years ago, and it seems quite likely that the little 152 will continue to be a common sight at the airfields of the world for the foreseeable future. I recently made the case for modern microlights, but if pressed I’d have to admit my doubts that any modern trainer that enters service with a flying club this year will still be earning its keep in 2060 (November Bravo first flew in 1980).
As I climbed out at the end of the flight I couldn’t help but admire the glass panel and leather seats one more time. As Anthony had pointed out earlier, November Bravo may indeed only be a 152, but it is a very nice 152!
Child of the ‘50s
The prototype 150 made its maiden flight in September 1957. Essentially a scaled-down version of the popular 172 four-seat tourer, it was of identical construction, being a high-wing monoplane of stressed-skin construction fitted with a tricycle undercarriage, and powered by a 100 hp Continental O-200. Early 150s featured mechanically operated flaps an upright fin and rudder, and a rather deep rear fuselage that blocked the view rearwards. Over the years several improvements were incorporated into the basic design, such as electric flaps and tubular spring steel mainwheel legs. In 1964 the aft fuselage was re-designed to incorporate a rear window, while the now familiar swept-back fin and rudder first appeared the following year.
By 1968 the base price for a 150 was $7,285 and it was available in four different versions the 150 Standard, Commuter, Commuter Two and Aerobat. The only real difference between the standard and commuter models was the varying levels of installed equipment, but the Aerobat featured jettisonable doors, was stressed to +6 and -3g and was cleared for a number of aerobatic manoeuvers. When production ended in 1977 an impressive 23,836 examples had flown, including 1,754 built by Reims Aviation of France as the Reims F150. The same year saw Cessna commenced production of the 152 series. Although in many ways bearing a remarkable similarity the 152 did feature several design changes, the most notable of which was the engine. The 150 had always been a bit gutless, especially two up on a hot day, so the hundred horse Continental was replaced with a 110hp Lycoming O-235 that had previously been fitted to 150 Aerobat. As with its predecessor, the 152 was available in four versions: the standard model, the 152 II, the 152 Trainer and the Aerobat. When the production line finally closed in 1986 (another casualty of the litigious climate of the time) 7,482 152s had been built, including 640 built under licence in France by Reims Aviation.
CESSNA MODEL 152
Wing span: 9.97m
Wing area: 1.59m2
Empty weight: 522kg
Max AUW: 757kg
Useful load: 235kg
Wing loading: 51kg/m2(10.5lb/sq.ft
Power loading: 9.23kg/kw(15.2b/hp)
Fuel capacity: 98 lit
Climb rate: 715ft/min
Service ceiling: 14,700ft
Take off to 50ft: 396m
Land over 50ft: 365m
Engine: Lycoming O-235-L2C air-cooled flat-four, producing 110hp (82kw) at 2,550rpm
Propeller; Sensenich metal two-blade fixed pitch
Manufacturer: Cessna Aircraft Company