A 172S at Prague, Czech Republic in 2016.
Power in Numbers
When the basic Cessna 172 flew for the first time in 1955, its designers likely did not suspect that their creation would go on to become a watershed event in aviation history. More than fifty years on, The Cessna 172 is indisputably the most produced aircraft in history and quite likely has been used to train more pilots than any other type.
As of 2012, over 40,000 units of the Cessna 172 had been built in over 30 variations and was still very much in production. In fact, with the exception of a ten year period between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s, Cessna 172 production has gone on largely uninterrupted.
The Cessna 172 has done for post Second World War general aviation what the DeHavilland DH.60 Moth series of aircraft did for general aviation in the interwar period; brought aviation to the general public to such a degree that it ingrained itself in popular culture. The Cessna 172 is the definitive light aircraft for most casual observers; many people will look to a light, single engine aircraft passing overhead and simply call it a “Cessna” even if it’s not a Cessna aircraft at all.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the more pertinent events in the life of this aircraft thus far:
Cessna 172 Skyhawk Milestones
1955: First flight of prototype Cessna 172.
1956: Basic Cessna 172 enters series production.
1960: 172A version with redesigned tail introduced.
1962: 172B version introduced and “Skyhawk” name used for the first time.
1964: United States Air Force chooses the 172F as their new basic trainer.
1965: 172F production line opens in Reims, France.
1968: 172I becomes first variant of the family to have a Lycoming engine.
1973: Introduction of the 172M, the first “Skyhawk II” variant.
1980: 172RG introduces retractable landing gear to the family.
1986: Beginning of a ten year suspension of 172 production.
1996: Production resumes with the 172R model
1998: 172S production begins.
2005: 50th anniversary of first flight.
2012: Proof of concept electric powered 172 completes several successful test flights.
A Critical Catalyst
No discussion about the Cessna 172 and its place in history could be complete without touching on the May 1987 flight by German pilot, Mathias Rust. Rust, who was only 19 and a very inexperienced pilot at the time, flew a Cessna 172P deep into Soviet airspace and landed it near Red Square in Moscow.
The incident is regarded by many Cold War experts as the catalyst which gave Mikhail Gorbachev, then the relatively new leader of the former Soviet Union, the justification he needed for dismissing many key military leaders who were powerful opponents of his proposed Glasnost and Perestroika reforms.
That a western aircraft could not only be allowed to fly unopposed so deeply into Soviet territory, but also land in the middle of the capital city was a permanent blow to the credibility of the Soviet military in the eyes of the populace. Gorbachev seized the opportunity to remove his opponents from power and the beginning of the end of the Cold War began in earnest.
The aircraft Mathias Rust used, registration D-ECJB, is preserved in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.
The 172’s Future and Useful Links
The Skyhawk is still in production at the time of writing and Cessna is still marketing it very strongly while countless examples of it are flying from airfields large and small around the world. There’s no reason to believe that the 172 will stop developing any time soon or that it doesn’t have at least another 50 years of active, practical life in it.
This website contains a lot of great information about the 172 including a detailed list of variants and their differences:
This link will take you to a 2012 article about why the 172 remains relevant more than 50 years after its first flight and why it’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future:
This 2012 BBC article made on the 25th anniversary of Mathias Rust’s historic flight contains archival footage of Rust landing in Moscow and a link to a contemporary interview with him: