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 airplane that emerged was the Cessna 162 Skycatcher, almost a direct replacement for the old 150/152, with a high wing, two seats, and a Continental O-200 driving the prop (see “A Flight in a Skycatcher,” p. 57). But it’s also very different. The interior is much roomier, with more window area providing improved visibility. The seats are fixed, while the rudder pedals adjust fore and aft, and instead of a yoke there’s a stick-like single horn for pitch and roll control. All 162s come with a Garmin “glass” cockpit, replacing the old “steam gauge” panel and its dial-pointer indicators with an electronic display.

And the choice of glass for the panel and avionics has set off a lively discussion about how a trainer should be equipped. The brainy panel of the 162 does a lot of thinking for the pilot, especially in terms of situational awareness, which the older group of instruments couldn’t. (It will even calculate weight and balance, ensuring the airplane isn’t overweight and will be stable in flight.) At Savannah Aviation, a Cessna Pilot Center that teaches flying with a new 162 on the flightline since December 2011, along with older types, Mike Calarruda, the owner, says: “I believe in going with steam gauges first, then glass. With steam gauges you have to do the planning and the calculations. Glass saves you all that. It’s hard to go from glass back to steam gauges.”

Three years ago, the Flight School Association of North America was formed to advocate on behalf of thousands of independent flying schools. The CEO, Robert Rockmaker, has focused on one startling statistic: “If you take 100 new customers who start to learn to fly this month, and at different flight schools, not all at the same school, we will find collectively that somewhere between…20 [and] 25 to 30 percent of them will actually go all the way through and complete [the requirements] to get their first private pilot certificate.”

Rockmaker believes that the success of a given pilot candidate has little to do with the age and technology level of the training fleet. “We need people to fly airplanes first,” he says. “Not computers. Not simulators. I’ve seen people fly in these glass machines, and they are just totally focused on the computer and hardly put their head out the window [to scan for terrain or traffic]. So the idea that by having a newer airplane, perhaps with a lot of the glass inside, is going to make things better, make people happier—well, it may make people happy because they’re so used to seeing computer screens. The age of the airplane does not have a direct relationship to the quality of the pilot.” He says there are no precise numbers out there, but the current age of the average trainer is 20 to 25 years.

For the foreseeable future, U.S.-based student pilots will continue to train in older airplanes. At the National Business Aircraft Association convention last October, a reporter asked Cessna CEO Scott Ernest about the 162, and Ernest said it had “no future.” And in January, Cessna notified aircraft dealers that the company’s lineup no longer includes the Skycatcher. The decision was based on soft sales: Only about 200 162s have been sold. Says Tracy Leopold: “Cessna always lets the market dictate what we build and don’t build.”

So if you are thinking about taking flying lessons, be prepared to do so in a used aircraft—probably a good old Cessna 152 trainer.

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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