Flight test: Refurbished Cessna F172N
- Credit: Keith Wilson
With more power and a glass panel, this refurbished and uprated 1970s Cessna offers almost all the advantages of a new aeroplane at a very attractive price | Words & photos: Keith Wilson
OK, I hear you ask, what's so new about this aeroplane that Pilot is doing another Cessna 172 flight test? Well, G-LANE is a very different example of what you may find out there in the second-hand or rental Cessna 172 market place.
Many of us will have flown Cessnas or still be flying them. When I learned to fly in the 1970s (yes!) the main training platforms were the two-seat Cessna 150 and four-seat (with certain limitations) Piper Cherokee 140.
Many flying clubs and schools also had at least one Cessna 172 on their fleet, available to hire once you had your shiny new Private Pilot's Licence in your sweaty palms, and I certainly aspired to fly one.
Other low-wing Cherokee variants were available to rent but?a bit like Marmite?the affinity for high-wing vs low-wing usually polarises pilots.
I continued to rent a C172 until August 1989, when I acquired a 1968 Cessna 172H, powered by the ultra-smooth six-cylinder Rolls-Royce Continental O-300 engine, for the princely sum of £13,500.
It performed well and provided me with lots of UK and European touring, as well as being an excellent camera ship for air-to-air photography. I kept the aircraft until early 2001, when it was sold to a new owner for almost twice my original purchase price. So yes, I am clearly a fan of the honest and versatile, high-wing Cessna 172.
In spring 2016, an aircraft for sale with one of Pilot magazine's regular advertisers, Just Plane Trading caught the eye of Mark Hadley. A glance at the photograph revealed what might be on offer so he contacted proprietor David Morris.
Following a conversation, Mark arranged a viewing and pre-buy engineering survey a few days later, which revealed only a couple of snags: a wire to the tail light, which had been incorrectly routed, and a corroded door hinge pin, both of which were fixed during the inspection.
Mark did a rough calculation of the renovation costs the aircraft had benefitted from?including the new panel?and came up with a conservative estimate of £120,000.
There and then he offered David the asking price of £62,000. "I knew what it was worth and I wasn't going to insult the man," Mark recalls. Later that day Mark flew G-LANE home to North Weald.
Mark admits that he didn't need the aircraft as he already had shares in a Yak-52 and a Twin Comanche but he adds "I knew the 172 was a bargain and that I could rent it out with ease. It would pay for itself in no time!"
He was also looking to the future?setting up a flying school with his friend Eddie Lamb at North Weald. With the recent emphasis on glass cockpit training, the aircraft would provide an excellent platform for this and the IMC rating, which could be done together.
180hp and Garmin glass
G-LANE is a 1979 Reims-built Cessna F172N Skyhawk II, which was imported new into the UK in June 1979. It changed hands a number of times before its then caring owner decided upon a major renovation around 2014.
It originally had a 160hp Lycoming O-320-H2AD engine but under engine STC (supplemental type certificate) SA4428SW, this was replaced by a factory-new, normally-aspirated, 180hp Lycoming O-360, driving a new McCauley two-blade, fixed pitch metal propeller.
Next, it had a good quality re-spray into a modern scheme, and the inside of the cabin was entirely replaced with a full leather interior, along with new headlining, carpet, and new front seats. All plastics and Perspex were also renewed.
Increased Takeoff Weight STC SA2196CE allowed an increase in the MTOW from 2,300 to 2,550 lb. As a consequence of the STCs, the 40° flap setting has been removed and the aircraft is now limited to a maximum of 30° for landing.
Finally, the panel was upgraded?and I do mean seriously upgraded?with state-of-the-art, modern flat-screen technology.
This is a list of the equipment which was added:
- Garmin G500 PFD/MFD with Synthetic Vision
- Garmin GTN750 GPS/Nav/Com touch-screen moving map display
- King KN64 DME
- King KR87 TSO ADF
- Garmin GTX 328 Mode S transponder
- Garmin SL30 Nav/Comm
- PS Engineering PMA8000BT Audio Panel
- Avidyne (TAS600) TCAS
- S-TEC (30) Autopilot with altitude hold
- Panel-mounted Garmin 795
- J.P. Instruments EDM 730 Engine Monitor
To meet the additional electrical demand, the aircraft has been fitted with a 28-volt alternator and battery, which cope admirably.
During my flights the ammeter did not fall off the edge when the power was reduced to idle but the old-technology low voltage warning light did occasionally illuminate, although the ammeter still showed a positive charge, and the EDM Engine Analyser would have reported a discharge if it were occurring. According to the engineers, both the modern indicators work correctly while the low voltage warning light is the weak link in the system.
With full fuel (forty US gallons), G-LANE still has a useful load of 760 lb, permitting four occupants and some baggage to be carried. By way of comparison, Mark had previously flown a 300hp Cessna 206 fitted with a Robertson STOL kit: with full fuel the useful load was only around 1,000 lb for all six seats.
Cost is one of the biggest factors in the argument for an upgrade, as against buying new. A new Cessna 172 will set you back over £300,000, almost three times what was spent on G-LANE to restore her to a 'like new' condition.
You also get a greater choice of how you want the aircraft to look and the avionics you would like installed, perhaps preferring one manufacturer over another. There are many different options available today with new options becoming available every year (see 're-equipping G-LANE' box below).
Owner Mark Hadley's decision to purchase G-LANE was an easy one: it is a serious amount of aircraft for what was a relatively low purchase price. G-LANE has just about everything you could need fitted in the panel.
The estimated upgrade cost was around £120,000, while a new C172 with Garmin G1000 costs around $400,000 not including the TCAS ? although in the USA that is operated around the new ADS-B 'In and Out' protocol which is not available in the UK and Europe yet.
The G500 PFD/MFD G-LANE is fitted with is certified for installation in most aircraft below 6,000 lb. The next model up, the G600 is designed for aircraft over that weight limit and has 'Level B' Software design assurance. The G600 includes most of the 'feature unlocks' ? Synthetic Vision, Radar Interface, GAD 43 ? whereas making these operational is an option for the G500.
Both have the option of Jeppesen Chart View. The G600 is almost twice the price of the G500, the difference being that it has all the toys enabled ? and of course it is is certified for bigger aircraft.
With a new aircraft you get the G1000 system but in terms of advantage that's it! If Mark had an opportunity to complete a fresh C172 renovation for himself, he would definitely do it. "I would have it stripped, re-painted and a new interior fitted, although I'm not sure if I would go quite so mad with the avionics as they did with November Echo. That said, I regard the latest touchscreen Garmin G500TXi as essential.
"I doubt if I would include the ADF. I would add the Garmin GFC 500 autopilot in place of the S-TEC 30 version for around the same money."
When G-LANE was renovated the GFC 500 was not available, which is a shame as it is a sophisticated and well engineered digital autopilot with all the features required of an airliner: FD (Flight Director); NAV, APP, TRK and HDG navigation modes; and VS, IAS, VNAV and ALT altitude Modes.
Ben Smith of Garmin offers a second opinion: "The upgrade of an old aircraft adds huge value to the airframe but most importantly it adds significant safety enhancing features. Mark's 172 is fairly well equipped already, and it's always a question about the mission the owner/pilots are doing when it comes to choosing avionics, balancing the dollars spent and the capability of the avionics for the type of flying.
If I were to put the absolute latest and greatest in a 172 and do some IR flying, I would probably do a Garmin fit that looks something like this:
- G500 TXi 10" PFD/MFD/EIS with Synthetic Vision Enabled (ROM list price $12,000
plus $1,500 SV option)
- GTN 750 GPS/NAV/COMM ($17,500)
- GTX345R Remote Transponder ADS-B In & Out ($5,000)
- GMA35R Remote Audio Panel ($2,600)
- Flight Steam 510 Bluetooth and WIFI capability ($1,500
- GNC355A GPS/COMM ($7,700)
- GFC500 Autopilot ($7,500)
- G5 Backup Attitude Indicator ($2,500)
- GSB 15 USB Charger ($350)
The touring test
What better way to see the real capability of G-LANE in action than to fill it with four people and full fuel and take a day trip across the English Channel to Le Touquet? At North Weald I met Mark and his partner Haimini who, along with my partner Carol, would be making the trip across the water; with fine French cuisine being the secondary objective.
The walk-around brought back fond memories of my own old Cessna 172H. It felt just like putting on your favourite pair of old slippers. There were no surprises from the airframe?other than the remarkably shiny paintwork on 'NE.
Once we were all strapped in it was time to fire up the new 180hp engine. Engine start is remarkably simple: three smooth shots of the primer (it may need an extra prime in cold weather), turn the key to 'start', and after a few blades it fires.
Gradually increase rpm to a smooth idle of 1,200. With the engine idling steadily, the avionics master is switched 'on' and what happens next is like the annual switching on of the Blackpool illuminations! Five screens and the radio stack light up across the entire panel.
Rather than a dry description of exactly what is located where on the panel, take a look at the illustrations opposite. Mark demonstrates the flight plan entry procedure on the Garmin GTN750 and then allows me to complete the waypoints: DCT DVR, DCT LFAT.
Data entry on the GTN750 is both simple and intuitive. With the flight plan activated on the GTN750, the heading bug on the Garmin G500 screen directly in front of me indicates the track to Dover, our first waypoint.
I taxi to the holding point and complete the power checks, all of which are straightforward and 'typical C172'. Mark gives me the option of one stage of flaps or a flapless departure from North Weald's long (almost 2,000 metre) runway. He also warns me of the pitch change that will occur when I retract the flaps.
Old habits die hard and I opt to go with the first stage. Before I apply power, Mark offers a few words of advice: "remember to use the old, analogue instruments as back-up only. The new, digital displays are more accurate and right under your nose!"
Once cleared, and with power being added progressively, the aircraft seems to accelerate a little quicker than I was expecting. It also needs a bootful of right rudder to keep it on the runway centreline.
With gentle backpressure applied to the nosewheel, the aircraft flies itself off the runway at sixty knots and accelerates nicely towards the sky. At this point the synthetic vision on the Garmin G500 display shows the runway underneath the aircraft, permitting a climb out along the runway centreline.
I make a gentle left turnout on track before continuing the climb. Mark was right with his earlier warning. When I retract the flaps, there is a significant pitch up and I have to be quick on the yoke to anticipate and neutralise it.
44,000 not out
Measured by its longevity and popularity, the Cessna 172 is the most successful aircraft in history. First flown back in 1955, more than 44,000 have since been constructed by Cessna and its production partners; and the 172 is still in production today.
The Cessna 172 started life as a tricycle landing gear variant of the taildragger Cessna 170, with a basic level of standard equipment. In January 1955, Cessna had flown an improved variant of the Cessna 170, equipped with a Continental O-300-A 145hp six-cylinder, air-cooled engine.
The Cessna 170C had larger elevators, a more angular tailfin and had a maximum gross weight of 2,200lb (998 kg). Although this model was fully tested and certified, Cessna decided to fit it with a tricycle landing gear, and the modified aircraft, still referred to as the 'Cessna 170C' flew again on June 12, 1955.
To reduce the time and cost of certification, the type was added to the Cessna 170 type certificate as the 'Model 172'. Introductory base price was US$8,995 and over 1,400 were built in 1956, its first full year of production.
Later, the 172 was given its own type certificate, 3A12. The 172 became an overnight sales success and a total of 4,195 were constructed over five years.
In 1960, the 172A incorporated revised landing gear and the swept-back tailfin, which is still featured today. The final aesthetic development, found in the 1963 172D and all later 172 models, was a lowered rear deck allowing an aft window. Cessna advertised this added rear visibility as "Omni-Vision."
Production halted in the mid-1980s (following expensive Product Liability issues in the USA), but resumed in 1996 with the 160 hp (120 kW) Cessna 172R Skyhawk. Cessna supplemented this in 1998 with the 180 hp (135 kW) Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP.
In recent years, Cessna have offered new 172 aircraft with Garmin G1000 equipment as standard, providing the aircraft with something of a renaissance with commercial flying operators where the G1000 is also a good lead-in training facility for airline operations.
At this point I am very aware that this does not feel like your regular C172. It is much heavier on the controls, very smooth but heavier, much like its big cousin, the 182. The extra power manifests itself in the climb.
Even at close to maximum all-up weight today, she climbs at 750fpm at around 75 knots. Initially I have to arrest the climb at 1,400 feet to stay under the Stansted TMA but only briefly and we are soon on our way up to 2,400 feet in the London TMA and then 3,000 feet once outside of it.
Levelling out, the speed picks up quickly and with 2,400rpm the aircraft is nipping along at almost 115 knots. In the winter, with denser air, it will get to 120 knots. But that big engine is guzzling fuel at around thirteen US gallons per hour and leaning back to ten US gph brings a semblance of order to proceedings.
Here the EDM 730 Engine Monitor comes into its own, displaying accurate fuel burn figures both before and after leaning the mixture, as well as the individual cylinder head temperatures.
With avgas currently averaging about £1.75 per litre, leaning by around three US gallons an hour (just over eleven litres per hour) amounts to a saving of almost £20 per hour?not an insignificant sum.
In addition, on a three-hour cross-country, you should arrive at your destination with an extra 34 litres of fuel, allowing nearly another (lean mixture) hour in the air, should it be required. Three hours is comfortable for my bladder, anyway. According to Mark, if you fly higher (9-10,000 feet) and continue to lean, the endurance can be increased to nearer five hours, but he does have a much younger bladder than mine!
Flying should be fun: I am too old to enjoy being pushed to my limits by weather and other issues in the air and like to enjoy my flying time. However, I have absolutely no guilt about using the two-axis S-TEC autopilot fitted to the aircraft. Each of the axes needs to be set independently.
With the aircraft flying straight and level, and the heading bug pointing to our track for Dover, I engage directional control by pressing the button on the autopilot controller twice. A single green light illuminates to confirm it is locked onto the required heading.
Next, with the aircraft at the correct level, and the altitude selector on the HSI also set to the same height, I press the single button on the control yoke to engage the altitude control. The S-TEC autopilot also has a clever sensor that detects if the trim is out of balance and provides a warning by a flashing light on the control panel indicating in which direction the trim wheel needs to be turned.
A slight change can be made to the manual trim to correct the situation, and the light should extinguish.
Flying just below the base of the clouds on the way to Dover, I am monitoring the aircraft's progress along the magenta line, hands and feet off the flight controls. It is a genuinely relaxing way to fly.
It provides the passengers with a nice smooth ride and a calm atmosphere in the cockpit, while also giving me the time to check the chart, the next radio frequency, or to respond to the occasional radio message. No stress, just a relaxing and fun way to fly.
My only complaint about this system is when you need to increase altitude. Following best practice, I amend the required level on the PFD before I disengage the altitude hold on the control yoke, then move the mixture to fully rich, increase the throttle to full power and climb.
The heading mode will keep you on track as long as you don't mess with the control column and remember to put in some rudder to correct the power change. At the required altitude, I level off and then reduce the power setting to cruise before re-engaging the altitude hold.
All that is then required is to lean the mixture back to the ten US gph mark. Should I need to disconnect both altitude and heading mode at the same time, I simply press the big red button on the control yoke and revert to manual flying. To be honest, I leave the autopilot in for the Channel crossing and all the way down until we commence our descent into Le Touquet.
Approaching our destination, Mark demonstrates some of the comms capabilities of the Garmin GTN750. The GTN750 (and 650) has a 'find' feature which helps you locate your required frequency quickly. First touch the 'standby com' frequency window which brings up a keypad.
Select 'Find' which presents four options: 'Recent', 'Nearest', 'Flight Plan' and 'User'. We select Flight Plan and then LFAT (Le Touquet) which displays all the available frequencies for the airport.
I take the ATIS option first before setting the Tower frequency. Around ten miles from Le Touquet, I start our descent. First, I amend the required altitude on the HSI before disengaging the altitude hold.
I pull out the carb heat and reduce power to allow a gentle descent to the required 1,000 feet for the join. I leave the heading bug in so the autopilot maintains our track. At 1,000 feet, I level off and then press the big red button on the yoke to disengage the autopilot.
Mark had warned me that the approach and landing were probably when I would notice the difference in this Cessna 172 from other models. Not only is the maximum flap limited to 30° instead of the original 40°, as mentioned previously, but the heavier engine and bigger prop push the C of G forward, making the aircraft feel very slippery on the approach?so watching and controlling the numbers is paramount.
Mark feels this particular C172 can take a little more getting used to than say, a Piper Warrior. Some people have struggled at first with the aircraft because of their poor speed control and lack of planning ahead.
So here goes. As I join downwind I start to slow the aircraft to the white arc speed of 85 knots. Thankfully, the circuit is empty and my circuit speed is not being dictated by others. I lower the first stage of flap and re-trim while keeping the speed at seventy.
Turning base and going down smoothly I lower the second stage of flap with speed still at 65. Onto final and I foolishly lower the nose a little and the speed picks up quickly. Pitch up to get the speed back to sixty before lowering the final stage of flap and correcting the attitude.
Initially I am a little high and have four white lights but soon get these back to two. Again Mark offers some advice: "If you are too fast the aircraft will float… and float, all the way down the runway. Don't get impatient with it at this stage and do not push forward."
Now a school aircraft
Initially, Mark purchased the aircraft for people who wanted to do a bit of instrument and glass cockpit training, as well as touring, within a small group of around ten people - who would all look after the aircraft.
Mark was keen to ensure that members were professional in their attitudes to both flying and maintaining the aircraft. Now, however, the aircraft will be used in a newly-formed flying school (Academy Aviation - www.academyaviation.co.uk) at North Weald, operated in conjunction with Eddie Lamb.
Mark is an FI(R) while Eddie is FI, IR(I), MEI as well as a PPL, MEP and IMC Examiner renewals as required. They also have an agreement with Damyn's Hall so training can take place there if required.
The ATO is already set-up and approved with the CAA. The new school offers PPL, LAPL, Night Rating, IMC and IR(R) training. They have a lovely Cessna 152 and the four-seat F172N which can be used for training.
The school also offers aircraft rentals and licence renewals. Eddie is also an FAA instructor/CFI/CFII/MEI so can conduct FAA training and renewals.
Mark and Eddie plan to add further aircraft to the school which Mark insists people will be proud to fly, not like some on offer.
Most of the UK training fleet is 30-40 years old but they don't have to look it. "Learning to fly is an expensive pastime so for an extra £5 to £10 an hour you can fly in a nice, well-maintained and attractive aircraft," says Mark.
As we approach the threshold I maintain a little power to arrest the descent. "Just fly it six inches above the runway," says Mark. I gently flare and patiently wait for it to stop flying. It touches down firmly on the two mains before the nosewheel finally meets the runway. This aircraft definitely behaves differently to my old 172.
"Coming down the approach it is very hard to bleed the speed back. You see people pitching the nose down and aiming for the runway, which is obviously not what you should do, and they arrive at the numbers travelling far too fast and they float a long, long way.
At North Weald it is not so much of a problem but at shorter strips you are never going to land (on the runway, that is!)" As an instructor Mark often sees things happening at the base leg stage. "If they start to sort it early enough you know they will be OK.
"It they start fast you know they will have lots of work to do… or go around." Speed management in the circuit?and especially on final approach?is the key to a good, safe landing.
The purpose of today's trip is to examine the aircraft's capabilities and enjoy the gastronomic delights of French cuisine. With passengers on board, there was little opportunity to examine the aircraft's slow speed handling but during a later flight I got to sample these characteristics.
Despite the changes in engine power and slightly forward C of G, there was very little difference in slow flight characteristics. Clean, it stalled at around fifty knots with a little pre-stall buffet and a slight tendency to drop a wing, but seriously mishandled it may react differently. In landing configuration (with thirty degrees of flap) it stalls around forty knots.
On both the outward and return legs, traffic was relatively quiet. The TCAS was operating throughout and occasionally provided us with both an aural warning and visual display on the HSI. On the return leg, while routeing through Southend's controlled airspace, we were aware that a jet was being routed onto final approach around us.
We knew it was below and to our left but we couldn't see it. However it was displayed on both the G500 MFD and GTN750. Then, shortly after leaving the Southend zone, we got a "Traffic, traffic, ten o'clock low, less than one mile" which turned out to be a PA-28 departing from Stapleford on a training flight.
G-LANE's Avidyne TAS600 TCAS costs around $10,000 when new, and according to Mark, is "the best he has ever used, including those on commercial turboprops and bizjets". Most of the other systems only warn with the message "traffic traffic" but the Avidyne also provides a direction-based clock position, altitude and range of the offending object.
I would say G-LANE is a superb, all-round, four-seat going-places IFR aircraft and, with the engine/prop upgrade, is very capable of getting into and out of short grass strips. It is probably the nicest retrofitted 172 example around.
Since Mark acquired G-LANE the marketplace for good Cessna 172 aircraft has changed. Today, a newish aircraft with low airframe hours, good paint, Mode S transponder and basic steam-driven equipment will set you back around £50-60K.
At just £62,000, G-LANE really was an absolute bargain!