Buying A Used Aircraft: Cessna 172

At more than 44,000 copies, the Cessna 172 is the most popular light aircraft ever built. Look no further than an easy-to-buy, easy-to-fly design for the reason why.

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Slow, but rugged and easy tempered, the ubiquitous Cessna 172 Skyhawk first flew in 1955 when company engineers moved the tailwheel of the Cessna 170 to the nose. This so-called “tricycle” gear wasn’t new, and arch-competitor Piper had already rolled out a nosegear design on the popular Pacer to fashion the Tri-Pacer. But the Cessna 172 handling and performance proved transformative, and the airplane became the mainstay for training and light family load-hauling for more than half a century.

More than 20 design variations have been produced in the Cessna 172’s 65-plus year history. Key milestones include an early fuselage change that allowed the addition of a rear window, stretched endurance with optional larger wing tanks, the addition of electric-actuated flaps, and always, the thirst for additional power. The latest iteration, the 172S, boasts a Lycoming fuel-injected IO-360-L2A of 180 horsepower, a far cry from its original normally aspirated Continental O-300 with 145 horsepower. The early 2000s brought Garmin’s G1000 all-glass cockpit to the Skyhawk, perhaps making these models the most desirable.

At an estimated true airspeed of 126 knots (75 percent power at 8,000 feet), the Cessna 172 carries 53 gallons of usable fuel for a range of about 518 miles. Yes, there are light aircraft that will go faster and farther, but you’ll pay in terms of fuel and upkeep, and won’t enjoy the Cessna 172’s reputation for durability and familiarity among mechanics.

Cessna 172 Landing Gear

With a lengthy lineage of tailwheel airplanes (with so-called “conventional” landing gear)—including the two-place Cessna 120/140 line and the swift and stout, radial-engined Cessna 195—the Cessna 172’s trike design was a big departure for the Wichita-based plane maker. The gear went through a long period of height and suspension modifications. This early teething is reflected in the airplane’s accident history, with 26 percent of the 172’s mishaps attributed to runway loss of control. Hard and bounced landings are right behind at 18 percent, followed by a peculiar 17 percent chalked up to a mysterious phenomenon called “other.” The easy explanation for these upsets rests in the 172s lengthy history as a trainer, and ham-fisted student pilots have been known to be less than gentle.

Cessna 172 Reviews

Owners like the Cessna 172 interior, which offers excellent sight lines fore and aft. They also laud the airplane’s knack for operations off short, unimproved fields.

According to Robert Dant of West Chester, Pennsylvania, “There are no particular gotchas with this airframe, unless it was used as a trainer, in which case attention to firewall damage is probably prudent. I’ve had no major maintenance surprises. There were a couple of magneto issues, a cracked spinner backplate (an issue with some Penn Yan installations), stuck flaps one winter and the pesky Cessna nosewheel shimmy. This was helped with installation of the Lord dampener. The original McCauley wheels (known for cracking) are still fine. I’ve made various upgrades from Power Flow, SureFly and Plane Power, but it’s essentially just a Skyhawk. Insurance is roughly $1000 for hull coverage and $1 million smooth liability.”

Cessna 172 Price

The universal axiom governing the price of used airplanes is clearly evident with used Cessna 172 prices, which are at an all-time high. Two recent examples found on Trade-a-Plane showed one 1973 airplane listed for $64,000 and a 1974 of the same variant priced at $115,000. Of course, the higher-priced airplane had a low-time engine and newer (but still not tip-top) avionics. Refurbed models with the latest avionics upgrades sell for a lot more. You will pay upward of $180,000 for a mid-aughts Cessna 172 with low time and Garmin G1000 integrated avionics. Models with the worthy 180-HP engine conversions also come at a price premium. In the current market, if your mission is low, slow VFR out of the home patch, you might be able to get a nice mid-1980s 172 for around $80,000—a near 40 percent increase from a few years ago.

For a deeper dive on the Cessna 172, head to Aviation Consumer and the Used Aircraft Guide, where you’ll get a detailed model history, historical resale values, recent FAA AD’s, competing model speed/payload/price comparisons and a detailed current NTSB accident scan summary.

Timothy Cole has served more than 30 years as chief content officer of Belvoir Media Group, publisher of AVweb.com, Aviation Consumer, Aviation Safety, and IFR. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and has approximately 1,300 hours in a succession of Mooney M20Js.  In previous reporting assignments, Tim wrote about climate change research at The South Pole, the Russian space program, America's nuclear Navy and first-person accounts of flying aboard a variety of American military aircraft, from the B1-B Lancer to the F-18 Hornet, to the B-52 Stratofortress, and the Hercules LC-130 used for Antarctic transport. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with his wife, Sarah Smedley.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve owned my 1975 Cessna 172 Skyhawk II for over 36 years … since it was 10 years old. Sold new as a leaseback in Long Beach and used at Vandenburg AFB for two years (I actually saw it there), I bought it for $13,500 — you read that right — with ~2,000 hrs on its original -E2D 150hp engine from its second private owners. I put 400 hours on it in the first 6 years and decided to it was time to either rebuild it or install a larger engine; I went with the later option … installing a factory new high compression 160hp -D2G engine. I went that way vs. a 180hp engine because my airplane has standard tanks of 38 gal usable. Had it had long range tanks, I may well have gone with the 180hp engine. The 10hp increase with a prop pitch increase of 4″ made a dramatic difference in performance with literally no noticeable increase in fuel consumption. I rented a 180hp airplane before I went with the 160hp engine and decided the increased fuel flow wasn’t worth the price. I made the right decision. Nowadays with the Power Flow exhausts and electronic mags, you could achieve the same power with the -D2G engine, I think.

    IMHO, the “M” model airplane is THE model to have. “M” airplanes were the first with the camber lift wing design which is still in use. Of the four years (’73 to ’76) the “M” was made, the ’76 is the one to have because the panel design matches the later airplanes. A ’77 “N” airplane IF it has the -D2G engine installed would be desirable, too? Not widely realized, the control yoke shaft comes out of the panel at a lower height on the ’76 et sub airplanes allowing the flight instruments to be mounted directly in line above that shaft and the engine/fuel instruments on the L side of the pilot side panel. My ’75 and earlier airplanes have the instruments offset L and R of the shaft because there isn’t room for them above and the other gauges on the R panel. No biggie but this is a subtle difference. ALL “M” airplanes and the ’77 “N” airplane have 12 volt systems. ’78 and newer airplanes went to 24 volt systems.

    The ONLY shortcoming of my airplane is the standard range tanks. I wish it had the long range 50 gal tanks. There are ways to add fuel but the cost/benefit ratio of adding that mod isn’t worth it to me.

    I’ve had opportunities to buy better airplanes but … why? I rarely carry more than one other person and am a day VFR septuagenarian pilot these days. Shortly, I plan to have the airplane painted and do a VFR panel upgrade myself( I already have ADS-B) and that’s all I need. With Basic Med taking away my fear of losing my medical for some stupid reason, keeping my trusty 172 turns out to have been a good decision. When it comes time to turn it over to a new owner, the rise in values will have the ultimate full cost of ownership likely being free? How could it get any better’n that? Now with 2,800 hrs on the airframe, the airplane would likely sell in one day over the phone?

    For 16 years, I also owned a ’67 PA-28-140. So I’m in the unique position of critically comparing the two airplanes. There were plenty of days that I’d climb out of one and into the other. Aside from the high wing / low wing argument / preference, I think the 172 is a far better airplane overall. At Edwards AFB in the desert, I once took off with four adults in the airplane at full gross and high density altitude and the airplane performed. I’da never done that in the PA28. The ONLY place that the PA28 shines over the 172 is in stability. You almost have to command a PA28 to do things whereas the 172 is wandering all over the place if you take your hands off the yoke. When I decided to sell one of the airplanes, I gave the buyer his choice … he went for the PA28 because the paint was perfect. He later regretted this decision and now wants my 172 … sorry !! 🙂

  2. The article states “26 percent of the 172’s mishaps attributed to runway loss of control. Hard and bounced landings are right behind at 18%.
    Just wondering how can you loose control of a tri gear plane? hummm