Friday, February 12, 2010


While looking for something else on Google I came across this question from a nervous private pilot student expressing concern that his Cessna 172 training airplane was "flimsy."

Flimsy? It's certainly not sexy, and it's definitely tiny and low performance compared to a triple seven, but I don't consider it more fragile. You can stall a C172 onto the runway from high enough to hurt your butt without bending the gear or wrinkling the fuselage. You can fly it through a tree, buckling a wing strut and half tearing and twisting a significant portion of the horizontal stabilizer, yet still fly it home. You can land it on the nose so hard that the fuselage does buckle, the ends of the propellers turned back like hooks, and the poor thing will still fly a circuit and return for a safe landing. An insurance adjuster once told me that in all the claims he has investigated, the only ones where there were deaths were where the pilot had stalled or spun the airplane. The ones who flew it through trees survived. The airplane will tolerate errors of about 30 percent in approach or climbout speeds, and you can fully deflect the rudder at cruise speed without damage.

I believe the aluminum skin of the triple seven is thicker than that of the C172, but not by a lot. All aircraft are built as lightly as their designers dare to maintain the necessary strength, but honestly if I had to choose between "flimsy" and "robust" for the C172, I'd choose the latter.

The student got some good responses and some not-so-good ones, as other misinformed students chime in. I like this description of a landing approach in which a student feels he nearly died: "the instructor flew very low over some trees in a fierce wind, dropping the aircraft onto one side and heading for the ground." It's a pretty good description of a correctly executed crosswind landing. The crosswind technique in a Cessna 172 requires you to bank the airplane into the wind and apply opposite rudder in a way that makes the airplane feel off balance. And of course if you want to land, heading for the ground is an excellent plan. You might be surprised at how many students are nervous about descending low enough to actually land at the airport. Getting them to put the nose down and leave it there until the flare is sometimes a bit of a battle.

Of course I wasn't present as the maligned instructor performed that particular landing, but it's likely that his only error was in not briefing the student on what to expect in a crosswind landing situation. The first lesson is too early to treat a crosswind landing as a full-on demonstration, but any student, or even a passenger, deserves a simple heads up such as, "We will be landing tilted into the wind. This is normal. I'll put the left wheel down after we're on the runway." It turns what can be a scary situation into one where the passengers are impressed by your control because you put the wheels exactly where you said you would.

For anyone operating small aircraft, the whole thread should be a lesson in what students or passengers see and feel that frightens them if the instructor doesn't explain. I had a passenger in a C172 endure fifteen minutes of silent terror through not identifying a banging sound as rain until I happened to say "isn't it cool the way the rain streams off the windshield without any windshield wipers?" If you fly airplanes, and there is something in your work environment that looks bad and that you can't comfortably explain, find out the explanation and/or get it fixed, even if your flight instructor didn't.


Julien said...

Great post Aviatrix. One of my pet peeves with flying schools and clubs is that they don't understand how little details such as worn seats and headrests, broken trimming and dangling headset sockets can really scare passengers. That I think also contributes to that "flimsy" feeling.

As pilots we are happy to know that maintenance money goes first into engines, propellers and systems, and only then into "cosmetics".

Passengers, or low-time student pilots, however don't see it this way. They assess the condition of the airplane based on what they see in the cabin. If you enter a friend's car and notice dirty windows, broken seatbacks and food on the floor, will you assume your friend gets his car serviced diligently?

Well-presented training airplanes go a long way in projecting a professional image and making students and passengers feel at ease.

grant said...

I'd happily spin a C-172! A B-777? Nay! Nay! For general robustness, the C-172 wins everytime.

GPS_Direct said...

Yes, it can be the little things that we forget about that really spook our PAX.

Autopilot disconnect, anybody? Or the stall warning horn just as you're in the flare, inches from the runway? I've learned - from observing white knuckle moments - to brief both those events, and gear warning horns too...

It's certainly incumbent on us to prepare our PAX to give them that tranquil ride that keeps them coming back. The "unknown" and a minor surprise can turn simple caution and nervousness into a life long phobia.

My uber-boss, had to evacuate down a slide once. All due to a single flat tire (on a dual bogie), but the brakes caught the rubber on fire. Today, she hates ALL airplanes and would rather drive 7 hours and stay two nights for a 2-hour meeting, while I can fly there and back the same day.

And I had to LOL at Trix's first words - "While looking for something else on Google..." How much in lost productivity has that phrase cost the world?

rw2 said...

"You might be surprised at how many students are nervous about descending low enough to actually land at the airport."

I wouldn't be surprised at all, I was one of them!

The intellectual part of my brain busily attempted to tell the reptilian part that everything would be fine, but it definitely took 2-3 lessons before it managed to articulate a convincing argument (one that can be summarized as "come on already, we've done this before you aren't dead")

@gps given the paragraph above, you would be correct in betting I try to put my pax at ease. In order to avoid missing something part of my brief is "you are going to hear a bunch of different kinds of sounds at different times and the plane is going to feel different depending on what I'm doing at a given moment, but rest assured that everything you will feel is completely normal. Feel free to ask questions unless I've specifically asked you to keep quiet because we're near an airport or I am doing something on a a radio"

That pretty much covers everything, and folks do ask questions.

nec Timide said...

Indeed. My LORAN-C navigator has helpful red, yellow and green lights that give me information about how things are going. I quickly learned I have to brief passengers that a red or yellow light on this device applies only to that device and is essentially a quality indicator of navigation data only, not anything to do with the airplane generally. I then point out the four other sources of navigation data I have at my disposal.

Sarah said...

@nec Timide: My LORAN-C navigator has helpful red, yellow and green lights that give me information about how things are going.

Does that mean Canada is going to continue running their Loran stations? The US is in the process of turning ours off.

Maybe we can sell a perfectly fine Apollo Loran to some nice Canadian. Cheap!

Anonymous said...

As to briefing your passengers, the worst thing I ever did was to show my wife some stalls while her sister was riding in the back. My wife continued to knit away while her sister was convinced she was going to die.. She was too scared to even make a noise. Fortunately she forgave me and even continued to go joy riding with me. I still have guilt feelings

Aviatrix said...

What type is in utility loading category with a back seat passenger? Or is that why you're anonymous?

nec Timide said...


As far as I know we will keep ours running. I don't think Garmin provides database support anymore so using them for anything other than day VFR, or situational awareness, in Canada can be an issue.

It is nice, cause even in my dogeared Cherokee I have GPS, VOR/ILS, Loran-C, ADF and looking out the window as navigation sensors. Not necessarily in that order. At $190M US the Loran system seemed like good value to me, but according to CNN all the US transmitters have gone dark except those that participate in Canadian and Russian chains. Those will go dark this summer.

dpierce said...

It seems (maybe I'm wrong) that newer generations increasingly lack the capacity to understand that engineering and design is all about balancing various trade-offs to meet a design, mission, or business requirement. The simplistic mentality expressed is often "Which is better, X or Y?" or "I think X is horrible, don't you?" without regard for the other important part of the question: "in what role?"

"Flimsy" also fits with "economical to buy", "fuel efficient", "easy to repair", and "adaptable". Rigid things break under load. Main battle tanks, which aren't flimsy, don't fly very well. Understanding design trade-offs is more important in aviation than perhaps some other fields, because the whole zen of flying involves balancing two (or more) forces.

Regarding LORAN -- I think it's a mistake to get too dependent on GPS. But I already sound old and cranky enough in this posting.

nec Timide said...


I stand corrected.

Michael5000 said...

I always wish that I could ask questions as a commercial passenger. "That growl in the engine -- normal?" "Is the rust around that third screw anything to worry about?" "Do we really need to bank this far?"

Aviatrix said...

Maybe not quite this far. But it's soooo much fun!

Anonymous said...


"What type is in utility loading category with a back seat passenger?"

Since when do you need to be in utility category to perform a stall?

Are you going to require people to be in +-10g unlimited to spin it? :)

Aviatrix said...

Anonymous: Since when ...

Since the memory of someone who hasn't done flight instruction or flown Cessnas in a while conflated the POH and operational requirements. Spins are in the lesson immediately after stalls, so the airplane needed to be in utility for stalls in order to accommodate the demo at the end of the lesson.

Thanks for the reminder.

wendryn said...

I had two people in a Cessna 172 with me at one point. The person in the copilot seat who was taking flight instruction and I were talking about everything. The person in the back seat got completely freaked out because we kept talking about where we would land if we had to. Apparently that wasn't something he wanted to hear, but we were having fun discussing the pros and cons of various spots.

Sometimes it's hard to remember what it's like when you are new to airplanes, specifically little ones.

I'd never thought of a 172 as flimsy. Little, but definitely a solid plane.

New reader and looking forward to reading more - I've enjoyed what I've read so far. I'm addicted to flying, specifically aerobatics. My license has been down due to time/money constraints, but I should be able to get back to flying at some point in the next 9-12 months.

Traveller said...

I was up in a glider one time and needed to get down ahead of a squall line. In addition to full spoiler, we were as far into a forward slip as the rudder would allow (at least 30 degrees off direction of flight). Even gliders will descend in a hurry when you turn them sideways. :-)

We were down clean and had the plane secured when the gust front hit.