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)
Air & Space Magazine

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In 1966, designers raked the tail back to match the little trainer’s bigger siblings—and because it made the airplane look faster (jets and Cadillacs all had swept tails). But the change had absolutely no aerodynamic effect; as in Detroit, it was strictly for styling. During that same “model year”—an affectation the company adopted to further bolster the association with the Motor City—the flaps, previously operated by manual lever, got an electric actuator motor, perhaps to better prepare pilots for bigger airplanes.

The 150 could deploy a full 40 degrees of “Para-Lift” flaps, which were slotted and, considering the airplane’s size and weight, quite powerful. My instructors typically called for flaps to 10 degrees on entering the pattern, 20 turning base, 30 on final, and 40 just prior to touchdown. If the circuit breaker popped and you couldn’t raise the electric flaps, a touch and go turned into a full stop, and a go-around became a challenge. With the flaps at 40 and the engine at full throttle, you had an exhilarating sensation initially, akin to being hoisted to the heavens, followed quickly by the alarming realization that the airplane would barely climb, and on some hot days it wouldn’t climb at all.

Maybe that’s why Cessna reduced maximum flaps to 30 degrees on the new and improved 152, which also got a new engine: a Lycoming O-235 rated at 110 horsepower, a boost of 10 percent over the Continental O-200’s rating of 100. Aside from that, the only differences in the two models are minor; must be, because I can’t remember any.

Piper’s first tricycle-gear airplane was the PA-24 Comanche, which made its first flight in 1956 and aspired to compete with Beech’s Bonanza. In 1960, the company introduced the PA-28 Cherokee, a tricycle-gear airplane that was cheaper to build than the Comanche, and produced a stripped model, the 140, priced to compete with Cessna’s 150.

Cessna, Piper, and Beech all began as family-run companies serving limited markets, but by the 1970s they had begun a growth spurt that changed how they sold airplanes. Professionally trained and experienced marketing managers began to apply more current ideas and practices like brand management, which involved a theory that the first airplane new pilots experienced would “brand” them, and when they later bought heavier airplanes, they’d stick with the manufacturer they’d trained in.

Aviation photographer Russ Munson, whose work has appeared in Air & Space/Smithsonian, is one pilot who felt such loyalty. He learned to fly in a Piper Super Cub. “It looked mighty small,” he remembers. “Two narrow seats, one in front of the other, and just a handful of basic instruments on the panel. Earl Irish, an accountant in town and former military pilot, was in the back seat as my instructor. For my private pilot check ride, I needed to transition to a rental Cessna 150 because of its more complete instrumentation and avionics, but I think pilots always have an affection for the ship they first learned to fly in. I sure do. I later bought a Super Cub, and flew it all over the country for 37 years.”

Air & Space contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson also learned to fly in a Piper, although a Cherokee, not a Cub. “The Cherokee did create, if not brand loyalty, a kind of type loyalty,” he says. “To those of us who learned to fly in low-wing Pipers, high-wing airplanes seemed positively antediluvian. I mean, really, who ever made a high-wing fighter? Cherokees seemed big and substantial, while 150s were flimsy, tiny, tight—barely an airplane. So I would never have considered buying a high-wing airplane, and indeed the only airplanes I have actually owned were all low-wing: first an Alon Aircoupe that I bought brand-new, then a well-used Piper Comanche, and finally the Falco that I built.”

By the mid-1970s, all three manufacturers had embraced the theory of branding and had established retail identities that would draw pilots and prospective flight students to centers for training and aircraft sales. Cessna Pilot Centers were built around the model 150; its two competitors, Piper Flight Centers and Beech Aero Centers, needed equivalent trainers that would brand new pilots. In the late 1970s, Piper introduced the model PA-38 Tomahawk, while Beech—the last to the party and seemingly the most reluctant to be there—unveiled its Model 77 Skipper. The Tomahawk and Skipper were lookalike low-wing, T-tail, two-place trainers. Cessna met the competition with an updated trainer that retained its high wing: the aforementioned model 152. All three manufacturers chose the Lycoming O-235 engine.

Numbers tell the story: Cessna produced almost 24,000 model 150s and over 7,500 152s, whereas Beech rolled out a grand total of 312 Model 77 Skippers. Piper’s run of 2,484 Tomahawks ended in 1982, at about the time the industry entered a precipitous decline. A fourth company that started life as American Aviation and then was acquired by Grumman, and later, Gulfstream, produced the AA-1 Yankee and two trainer variants; all told, it produced more than 1,800 of all types of the two-place, single-engine aircraft, many of which served the pilot training market.

And after it all stopped, no new trainers with Federal Aviation Administration certificates were being manufactured. That is still the case today, although a new category known as Light Sport Aircraft, or LSAs, has been positioned as training aircraft to replace the 150/152 and its peers, which are unlikely to be manufactured ever again.

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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