Ferrari-Jaded Driver Tries $364,000 Skyhawk That Truly Flies

Keeping my eye out for intersecting traffic, I ease the wheel left and make a nice clean turn. We’ve just left Westchester, New York, and are headed up the Hudson River toward West Point, a picturesque day trip. Only this steering wheel is actually a yoke, and we’re at an altitude of 3,500 feet (1,100 meters).

Traffic will be other airplanes.

Today’s ride is a Cessna 172S Skyhawk, a four-person airplane starting at $364,000. That’s about the same price as, say, as a nicely outfitted Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, a supercar with a top speed of more than 210 miles (338 kilometers) per hour.

The Skyhawk has a maximum cruise speed of 124 knots, the equivalent of 142 mph. I’ve tested the F12 as well, but seeing as we’re skimming over tree-filled mountains, the plane seems much quicker than the Ferrari.

Like many people obsessed with vehicles, engines and speed, I’ve always dreamed of getting my pilot’s license. Yet I’m not entirely sure it would be worth the outlay of time and money. So today I’m taking a “discovery” flight with a Cessna pilot to get a better idea of the process of piloting a small plane, and also a taste of the company’s most enduring product.

Best-Selling Plane

Cessna Aircraft, a Wichita, Kansas-based unit of Textron Inc., says the Skyhawk, which went into production in 1956, is the “best-selling, most-flown plane ever built.” With broad, stubby wings, a single engine and nose propeller, it’s a homely thing. The latest model has incremental improvements over the previous generation.

“There are much faster Cessna models, like the twin-turbocharged TTx,” says my pilot, Ryan Todd. “But the Skyhawk is steady and perfect to learn on.” Essentially the 172 is a Volvo station wagon of the sky: long in service, less than glamorous, but safe.

I’d met Todd only a few minutes earlier at Westchester County Airport and was surprised to find that he was 21 years old. Wearing shorts, he looked even younger. Todd explained he was officially a Cessna “intern,” a title which discomfited me further.

Still, he’d been flying since age 16, with more than 500 flight hours, and spent last summer traveling around the country giving flights to people interested in becoming private pilots.

Cessna’s Discover Flying Challenge is a savvy way to drum up business. The program begins again this summer for other could-be, would-be private pilots nationwide.

Cup Holders

Clambering into the Skyhawk’s right side, I find that both front seats have identical controls, allowing either occupant to fly. With two foot pedals and the yoke/wheel, the interior seems familiar. There are leather seats, XM satellite radio, cup holders and sun visors. Not so different than the Ferrari.

This Skyhawk has Garmin Ltd.’s G1000 avionic system, with twin digital screens. One shows an intricate satellite map. The other is similar to a car’s instrument cluster, but with the horizon line and an altimeter.

The Skyhawk has a direct-injected, naturally aspirated engine with 180 horsepower, which is good considering its 1,641-pound (744-kilogram) weight. The plane can go as high as 14,000 feet and has a range of more than 700 miles.

The New York metropolitan area’s airspace is crowded, so Todd picked Westchester to minimize hassle and hazard. Even so, we took off after a sizable Delta Air Lines Inc. commuter jet, and I found the rapid patter between Todd and ground and air control daunting, with all of the Charlie-Niner-Bravo jargon.

Our plane lifted off easily, shedding gravity with deceptive ease. I’m one of those odd characters who even enjoys flying coach. This, though, is a front-row seat to the experience, with only that thin glass between you and all that glorious open air.

Taking Control

When we’re over a less-populated area, Todd tells me I can take control. The rudder pedals control the yaw of the nose. Push right and the nose swings right. The yoke, meanwhile, controls roll. It takes coordination of both hands and feet to make a smooth (or violent) turn. You also have to pay attention to the orientation of the yoke. Push forward to lose altitude; tug back to aim higher.

There’s that extra up-down dimension versus driving a car, but otherwise it too is familiar. Looking through the turn, I pick a visual cue on the land where I want to head, keeping an eye on the horizon line and altimeter. There are gentle vibrations through the yoke when we pass through air pockets. Otherwise, it’s serene.

“Not much to hit out here,” I say. Dude, I’m flying!

It’s a gorgeous day, the hills blanketed in green, and I spy many of the smaller roads where I often drive. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point shimmers on the west side of the river.

“Restricted airspace,” Todd notes.

License Dreams

We talk about what it takes to get a license. (Todd himself is completing college and expects to get a job with Cessna after.) If I wanted to pursue the dream, I could take lessons from a place like Panorama Flight School, located at the Westchester airport and owned by Houston-based Landmark Aviation. A basic license can be achieved after a minimum of 40 hours of flight time.

“Expect to pay around $15,000 to $20,000 for a private pilot’s license,” Jon M. Boyd, Panorama’s sales and marketing director at the time, told me. “Understand what you’re undertaking is the equivalent of a graduate level course.”

For the time being I’d be happy to follow the Hudson north for hours, but Todd takes the controls and we head back to the airport. It’s fascinating to watch the runway approach in both the digital screen and through the windscreen.

We touch down lightly and taxi in.

“What did you think?” Todd says.

“I’m thinking about Ferraris,” I say. “The Skyhawk is nice, but how long would it take to pilot something like the Cessna TTx?”

The Cessna Skyhawk 172S at a Glance

Engine: Air-cooled, fuel-injected four-cylinder with 180 horsepower.

Maximum operating altitude: 14,000 feet.

Range: 736 miles.

Price as tested: $364,000.

Best feature: Reliability.

Worst feature: Relatively slow.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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