|If you had arrived on earth from beyond our galaxy with the mission of discovering this planet’s most abundant life form, you would eventually determine that it’s copepods and diatoms, the exceptionally abundant planktonic life forms in our oceans. If you were to then survey the aircraft you found here, you’d surely come to the conclusion that the most commonly occurring airplane is the Cessna Skyhawk, better known as the 172. Since Clyde Cessna’s four-seat high-wing made its debut in 1956, nearly 40,000 of the high-wing four-seaters have left the factory, its total production numbers exceeding just about everything that man has ever made to fly. And as much as the comparison might rub a few aestheticians the wrong way, the Cessna 172 is certainly the most recognizable general-aviation silhouette in the world and, in its category, as iconic as the P-51 Mustang is to warbirds.|
|Like any good success story, there’s
always “the other one”—in this case, the prodigy
of William Piper. Spawned away from aviation’s Kansan epicenter,
Piper and his team in Lock Haven, Pa., were the leading high-wing
airplane manufacturer in the world until the 1950s. Then, in 1954,
they tried something different—Piper’s first low-wing,
the Apache, followed by a low-wing single, the Comanche. In 1962,
the first Cherokee rolled out of production and, almost immediately,
pilots began to polarize toward one aircraft or the other, the Cessna
or the Piper. Much like the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys,
the debate over the virtues of the Cessnas and the Pipers has continued
Unlike the aircraft themselves, the arguments, both pro and con, have changed very little over the years. The more pragmatic discussions focus on actual flight characteristics—which airplane is most forgiving, the easiest to land, the best-handling and so on, though just as much of the debate seems to be rooted in their basic designs, high wing vs. low wing. You hear things like, “No fighter has those stupid high wings,” and, “Oh, yeah, then how come the masters of flight, birds, all have high wings?”
The obvious truth is that the world is full of examples of great high-wing and low-wing airplanes, and each approach to lifting a fuselage has its pluses and minuses. You don’t need a ladder to check the fuel in a low wing and the runway is easier to see during turns in the pattern, the place where an awful lot of accidents occur. But then, hot summer days can be more comfortable in a high-wing airplane, and if you’ve ever stood by your airplane in the rain, no one would argue the value of that metal awning above your head. Many would argue that high-winged aircraft are easier to get into and out of, while others would give their souls for a low-winged airplane when faced with landing in a nasty crosswind.
Low-wing airplanes are easier to bolt landing gear to, but a wing attached to the belly increases drag. That’s because the wing-to-fuselage angle is greater in a low-wing than a strut-braced equivalent (although Piper is quick to remind us the extra drag can easily be balanced by wheel fairings). Some aerodynamicists would argue that high-wings have more stability in cruise flight, an opinion echoed by many Cessnaphiles. The claim stems from the fact that low-wings typically require more dihedral than a straighter high-wing design and provide a more streamlined track into the relative wind.
At the end of the day, the simple fact is that there are differences in the two airplane designs, and each has its collection of good and not-so-good points. Those differences grow and recede in importance given the aircraft’s particular mission du jour.
Both Pipers and Cessnas have evolved over the years, at times improving in some categories while taking a hit in others. Comparing nearly 50 years of modifications and model improvements with 40-plus years of Pipers is an invitation to madness. For that reason, we’re limiting our attention to each company’s later models and ending with a head-to-head comparison of the 2003 Cessna 172 Skyhawk and the Skyhawk SP, and the New Piper PA-28-161, 181 Warrior and Archer III.
Cessna: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Like most of the other aircraft in its category, the 160-hp Skyhawk is a solid three-seater or a four-seater with limited fuel and baggage. Most owners verify an eight- to nine-gallon-per-hour fuel burn resulting in true airspeeds in the range of 110 to 115 knots, and typical annual maintenance costs ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 a year. Potential Skyhawk buyers should remember that the 172 has a blazing presence as the training aircraft of choice and many on the market may have been employed as such, resulting in a much higher maintenance profile for the first few years (see Figure 1).
Drawing from Cessna’s own Service Difficulty Reports from 1987 through 1993, Skyhawk owners can expect the possibility of exhaust value difficulties, and, consequently, a number of aircraft mechanics recommend valve cleaning every 300 to 500 hours as a matter of scheduled maintenance. It should be noted that in 1997, Cessna began producing 172s with the Lycoming IO-360-L2A, which resulted in a lower incidence of aggravation.
The Skyhawk operates easily out of strips of 2,000 feet or more, and experienced pilots can do even better. The standard 160-hp engine can quickly feel its limits with respect to density altitudes, but boasts a modest 13,500-foot service ceiling. Looking for performance deficits in the 172 is somewhat of a witch-hunt, but the most common complaint from the complainers is in regard to pitch. Poor technique can lead to pilot-induced oscillation, especially in stressful situations like bounced landings or extreme crosswind situations. Inexperienced pilots often find themselves making ill-timed pitch inputs—out-of-sync attempts for correction that can ultimately lead to loss of control. And despite the 172’s relatively forgiving and honest nature, some pilots continue to find ways to bend it (see Figure 2).
The Skyhawk SP makes up for some of the standard 172’s short-comings by virtue of the extra horses available from its Lycoming IO-360-L2A, rated to deliver 180 hp at 2,700 rpm. Pilots report a modest increase in both climb and cruise, plus an almost 100-pound advantage in useful load.
Piper: The Good, Bad And The Ugly
Piper’s popular Warrior, the PA-28-161, ranks near the top of the affordable, easy-to-fly-and-maintain aircraft. With fuel to the tabs, the 160-hp low-winger is happy to carry three people or four smaller-than-standard FAA-sized folks. Like its competitor, the Skyhawk, the Warrior drinks about seven to 10 gallons of 100LL an hour while pushing along at 110 to 115 knots. The 48 gallons of fuel on board gives the Warrior good range, which at lower power settings can exceed the limits of passenger and crew bladders.
Like the upgrade from the standard 160-hp C-172, the Skyhawk SP, the Cherokee Archer enjoys 20 more horsepower. And like the more powerful Cessna, the Archer climbs better and cruises faster, but only delivers about 50 pounds more useful load.
The flaps in both Cherokees are manual, as opposed to the Cessnas, which are electrically driven. Fans of the hand-operated flap system will tell you that 1) they still work when your battery doesn’t and 2) with a lever that clicks positively into one of three positions—15, 25 or 40 degrees—there’s never any doubt about how much flap you have hanging out.
For pilots trained in high-wing aircraft, the transition to low-wing Cherokees can require a period of adjustment. Wind moving across the top of a low-wing is immediately shunted toward the ground, allowing the airplane to “float” in ground effect, at least when compared to the Cessnas. Pilots moving into high-wings have exactly the opposite experience and frequently complain that Cessnas fall out of the sky at the last minute and onto the runway.
A big difference between Cherokees and Cessnas is their fuel system. Both airplanes store fuel in their wings, but Cessnas use gravity to deliver it to the engine while Pipers must pump it there. To do that, PA-28s have an engine-driven fuel pump, backed up with an electrical auxiliary. As long as everything works the way it should, how the fuel gets to the engine is of little importance—except when the pilot puts his hand on the fuel selector.
Cessnas, of course, allow the pilot to select the left tank, right tank or both. The concept behind that, of course, is that feeding from both tanks simultaneously will keep the fuel loads from both tanks equal. Rarely does that happen. Small things, like making more left turns than right turns on a flight, can make one side drain faster than the other. Add an airplane that’s a little out of rig and the problem gets worse, enough so that a noteworthy fuel imbalance can be waiting for you at the end of a long flight. Pipers, on the other hand, allow a pilot to select only the left or right tank, requiring some sort of participation by the pilot in balancing the fuel load. The problem with that idea is that human beings are involved and, consequently, Pipers have suffered more than their fair share of fuel-exhaustion accidents in which pilots have flown long enough without switching tanks for the engine to quit (see Figure 3).
If you’re looking for the final answer, a clear-cut winner in the Cessna/Piper Showdown, you’re not going to find it here or, in reality, probably anywhere. The worst you can say is that both of these aircraft represent compromises—for performance, safety and value. The best you can say is that few of us could have ever learned to fly without them.