The Plane Every Pilot Trains On, and the Factory That Makes Them

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There is a very good chance that the pilot on your last airline flight once trained on a tiny Cessna 172 Skyhawk. It is a slow, stable, possibly even boring bug smasher. Its look could be considered dated: the Skyhawk is not nearly as eye-catching as its sleek, speedy friends, such as the all-composite Cessna TTX, or the Cirrus SR-20. But the Skyhawk is the most popular aircraft ever built, and universally loved by pilots.

I’m quite fortunate to have learned to fly in a Cessna 172. And for Gear Patrol, I’ve also met the good women and men at Cessna’s manufacturing facility in Independence, Kansas. This is a love story about the Skyhawk, the workhorse of general aviation.

Kansas, Aviation Hub

Kansas is the aviation state, with a long history of innovation. When you fly into Wichita, you can’t help but notice that the Kansas plain is sliced up with airport runways throughout the region, several of them mere miles apart. As you drive away from the airport, you’ll pass buildings lining the road that represent a who’s-who of general aviation: Garmin (trusty navigation equipment), McCauley (makers of propellers) and, finally, Cessna the company that makes the plane that will get students aloft.

Cessna has been producing the Skyhawk since 1955. It’s an incredibly stable plane, with a low center of gravity and high wings, and it’s very forgiving of mistakes. I’ve flown in a 1977 Skyhawk, just one year older than me — other than its age, it was no different than the 2016 model I’ve also flown. In an early advertisement, Cessna called it the “Land-o-Matic,” which is clever marketing but, of course, not entirely true. Even so, in the 172, Cessna built a winner. “You have a proven airframe, stellar safety record, and value proposition,” said Doug May, head of piston aircraft for Cessna, long-time test pilot, and self-described airplane guy.

By the mid-1980s, however, cracks started to form. Product liability lawyers (and some bad pilots, perhaps taking “land-o-matic” too literally) made Cessna and other general aviation manufacturers their target. The company was forced to cease production from 1986 to 1995. In 1995, buoyed by changes in the law, Cessna mobilized like it was preparing for war. The company created a manufacturing plant out of thin air, in a corner of Kansas not previously associated with aircraft making. In partnership with local schools, the company hired and trained workers at a shiny new plant in Independence, Kansas. Each new recruit spent three weeks going from zero experience to working on the factory floor, having learned about sheet metal, how to read blueprints, and how to seal fuel tanks. For reference, eighty hours of training alone are required to learn how to properly seat a rivet.

Cessna has been producing the Skyhawk since 1955. It’s an incredibly stable plane, with a low center of gravity and high-wings, and it’s very forgiving of mistakes.

Cessna developed a very deeply talented team that remains tightly knit to this day. Seemingly equal numbers of men and women have upwards of twenty years of experience and cheery dispositions all around. These are good jobs. One employee, overseeing a team finishing fuel tanks, has helped craft planes for 19 years; her previous gig was finishing leather gloves. The supervisor of the production line worked souping up cars before joining the company in 1997. Employees seem to love flying, and rightly so: This town of 12,000 has supplied several thousand workers over the years to craft Cessna piston aircraft. Some 500 are employed at the plant today. “These are people who left being a housewife or changing oil and now make airplanes. They’d never put a rivet together in their life,” says Mickey Heatley, a production foreman.

The spirit of aviation permeates Cessna. The company has its very own flying club, with some 400 members. Employees can join their top-notch flight school, get a pilot’s license, and fly one of fourteen brand-new airplanes, including 172s and up. Members of the club pay $70 per hour to rent a plane, which they can take anywhere from Aspen to Miami and everywhere in between. Given that the going rate for similar aircraft is upwards of $200 per hour, that’s a nice perk. (I’d volunteer to sweep the floors, if only to be invited to join.)

A Handcrafted Machine

The Skyhawk is a handcrafted plane. It is assembled from thousands of parts with skill and teamwork.

First, coils of various gauges of aircraft aluminum arrive at the Pawnee plant, where they’re cut to rough forms. The aluminum is coated with a pea-soup colored zinc phosphate, which has anti-corrosion properties. These sheets are surprisingly thin — a Boeing 747 fuselage is about the thickness of a quarter. The Cessna 172 is much thinner, at .32 gauge or around 1/16 of an inch of aluminum. These pieces are then sent to Chihuahua, Mexico, to be formed into plane sections, such as a tail section. (This is NAFTA at work.) Those same parts are then shipped to Independence, Kansas, where deliveries arrive weekly. Highly skilled teams of men and women then meticulously hand assemble the plane piece by piece.

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A look inside the Cessna factory. Photos: Mike Arnot

Crafting the planes requires significant manual dexterity. For example, to seal a fuel tank, a worker places beads of sticky sealant through holes in the wing upside down, using a mirror to guide them. And like all mirrors, they display the reverse image. It’s like a dentist holding a mirror when drilling through a cavity, and quite difficult to do. (I tried.)

Empty, the 172 weighs a svelte 2,000 pounds. If you pushed on the tail of the plane while it was on the ground, you could easily strike the tail on the ramp.

The plane sections move from station to station through a series of jigs. Throughout the process, the team meticulously cleans up after themselves with vacuums. Indeed, before assembly, the wings are lifted off the ground and given a good, physical shake as if they were shaking an errant pebble out of a shoe.

Once the structure is assembled into something that looks more like an airplane, a series of cables and pulleys are threaded through the inside of the fuselage from front to back and bottom to top. The control surfaces — the aileron, elevator and rudder — are connected to the yoke and rudder pedals through these cables and pulleys. Pull back on the stick, and it actuates a device that pulls a cable and transmits that request to the elevator through sheer physical force. Rotate the yoke to the left, and a chain transmits the energy into a pulling action on a cable that raises the left aileron and lowers the right aileron. This is literally fly by wire, and not in the electrical sense.

Empty, the 172 weighs a svelte 2,000 pounds. If you pushed on the tail of the plane while it was on the ground, you could easily strike the tail on the ramp. Leave it exposed to a strong wind without wheel chocks or tying it down, you might find your Cessna the next day pressed against a fence trying to escape.

The Engine that Powers It

Cessna itself does not manufacture the engine that powers the Skyhawk. They’re made by Lycoming Engines, a sister company, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The engine itself is a feat of mechanical engineering. At 180 horsepower, the engine is a horizontal four-cylinder piston engine. It shares a superhero secret with a gas-powered lawnmower: the magneto.

The engine itself is a feat of mechanical engineering.

Ever wonder why a lawnmower has no battery? Once you start a lawnmower with a hefty tug, the engine turning over and over provides energy to turn a magneto, which then provides the spark to the cylinders. The engine itself provides the spark; no batteries are required. This keeps the engine running forever, or at least until it runs out of gas.

In the case of an airplane, this veritable lawnmower engine on steroids up front will keep the propeller spinning. General aviation aircraft have two magnetos, so that should one magneto fail, there’s a second magneto that will keep firing, and thus keep your engine running in flight. You could lose your radios and your lights, but the engine will keep purring like nothing has happened. Brilliant redundancy, really.

Not Exactly Affordable

Want to buy a Cessna of your own to park at the field? A Skyhawk rolling off the line with the latest in avionics and a “new plane smell” will set you back a mere $369,000. That’s the price of a really nice home in Wichita. It’s a slight jump from the $8,275 price offered in 1957, even adjusted for inflation. Nobody said these planes are inexpensive.

So, who is buying the 150, or so 172s that Cessna sold last year? Flight schools. Cessna’s secret sauce and brand loyalty are developed through the Cessna Pilot Centers around the U.S. (and the world). You, too, can find such a flight school near you. There are more than 150 Cessna Flight Schools around the U.S. While you can certainly learn to fly with a different aircraft, such as a Cirrus or Piper, or at schools that are not affiliated with Cessna, you benefit from 60 years of experience, a familiar platform, and a meticulously made aircraft.

The next time you’re on a commercial plane, ask the captain or first officer how he or she learned to fly. Chances are, it was a plane from Kansas. Now you know how it was put together, and the good people down there who do it.

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