How Important Is a Pilot’s First Airplane?

Why older trainers often have the edge on newer ones.

A trio of classic Cessna 152 trainers tour Pennsylvania. (Mark Deangelo)
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The first flight in my first logbook is dated December 5, 1970, and says I had .8 hour of dual instruction at the Teterboro School of Aeronautics in New Jersey with an instructor whose name I can’t remember and whose signature I can’t make out. Under remarks, he wrote “FAM FLT”—a familiarization flight, which we’d made in a Cessna 150. One thing I do remember vividly is a feeling of queasiness that made me wonder whether I was cut out for flying. Air is unpredictable. Wind gusts produce bumps, and during the earliest phases of flight training, students can feel uncomfortable.

Subsequent flights in the winter of 1970-71 were with a Teterboro School instructor named Joe Cosma, who saw me through to first solo, in May 1971. All were in Cessna 150s. By the beginning of summer, I’d logged a total of about five hours of solo time. During the early stages, when the instructor was at the controls and I was effectively a passenger, he demonstrated flight maneuvers, and I recall many instances when I felt a little airsick and probably turned ashen before I asked if we could land soon. That began to dissipate the more I did the flying while Cosma sat back and talked, but I wonder how many students give up before they learn the lesson I did: When I did the flying, I wasn’t troubled by motion sickness.

Although the logbook doesn’t record the time of day when I flew, I remember that as that summer wore on, I learned to move my flight schedule to earlier morning slots to avoid the heat of day and the resulting turbulence. The Cessna 150 had fairly low wing loading—the number of pounds of aircraft weight borne by each square foot of wing area. The airplane was relatively light, and the wing area was generous so that the little thing would glide benevolently rather than sink at a rate that would frighten a student. The downside was that in gusts, the airplane got tossed around. I paid the price early on with a bit of discomfort. A trainer with higher wing loading confers a smoother ride, and students appreciate the difference.

Even though I was bent on a career in aviation, I was also pretty sensitive to the cost of my training. At the time, after a student earned a license as a private pilot and progressed to more vocational ratings, the GI Bill provided for 90 percent of his or her flying training. The rationale behind the law was simply that private pilots can’t earn any money carrying passengers and therefore can’t be considered to have an aviation career. As soon as I started on my commercial ticket, the GI Bill started helping.

Before the 152, Cessna offered student pilots the 140, a taildragger. (Darrell Crosby)
Pilots looking for something bigger and faster than the 152 can upgrade to the 172. (Fyodor Borisov)
An ad touts the company’s 177, produced from 1968 to 1978. (Cessna Aircraft)
Beech introduced a low-wing trainer, the Model 77 Skipper, in 1979. (Andres Contador/Airteamimages)
The Diamond DA-20 is a popular trainer in Europe. (Ruud Brinks)
Cessna’s line of 162s has come to an end. (Cessna Aircraft)
The 150 instrument panel has analog displays. (Alex McMahon)
The 162 has a digital cockpit. (Cessna Aircraft)

When I was a new student, there were three major American light aircraft makers—Cessna, Piper, and Beech—competing for the general aviation market. An anticipated post-World War II boom in personal flying had proved a bust, and light airplanes quickly settled into a niche market: wealthy people and businessmen whose itineraries took them far from major cities.

Yet during the 1950s and 1960s, advertising was aimed directly at non-wealthy non-fliers with a secret wish to become pilots, and the centerpiece of those marketing efforts was the trainer. A cheap trainer made it possible for Cessna to run an advertisement headlined “If you’ve always wanted to fly an airplane, this offer is for you,” including a clip-out coupon for a five-dollar introductory “flying lesson” complete with a free logbook to record for posterity those first few moments aloft. And, presumably, leading to the decision to sign up. The same pitch was used in an ad reading “$5 to Satisfy a Dream” and another leading with “If you’ve never flown an airplane…” and proffering the introductory offer. That approach to recruiting students—trying to dispel the notion that flying is too expensive for the average wage earner—endured until the general aviation market collapsed in the 1980s.

In the early 1950s, Cessna was designing airplanes with conventional landing gear—two main wheels up front and a small tailwheel at the end. Prospective buyers gave the company’s entry-level models, the 120 and 140, a lukewarm reception. At about the same time, Piper offered its Vagabond and Pacer, also with tailwheels. On tailwheel arrangements, the airplane’s center of gravity is located just aft of the main wheels, which bear most of the weight while the rest of the airplane rests lightly on the relatively tiny tailwheel.

Beech was not making trainers, but it was already building an airplane that rode on tricycle gear, which places the third wheel of the landing gear forward—up near the engine—so the center of gravity resides between the main wheels and the nosewheel. Tricycle gear eliminated a nasty tendency known as a ground loop, which is something of a misnomer. The term describes the outcome of a bad landing: As the airplane slows, the center of gravity, located in an unstable position behind the mains, begins to swing forward, and the airplane wants to swap ends. If it does, the airplane goes out of control, usually heads off the runway, and will probably flop over and damage the wingtips.

Cessna introduced the new model 150 in September 1957, and its tricycle gear reflects the designer’s desire to create a student-friendly airplane that won’t ground-loop. The original Cessna 150 was a barely modified 140 with tricycle gear, a truly vertical tail, and an aft fuselage uninterrupted by the rear window later marketed as “Omni-Vision” (which came complete with a rearview mirror on some models as part of the I’m-a-car-not-an-airplane marketing). Cessna introduced the rear window in 1964, producing the desired effect of automotive visibility, but it cost a couple knots of airspeed, which helps explain the continued appeal of the original “razorback” 150s with no window. They might look older, but they fly faster and climb better.

About George C. Larson

George C. Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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