01 November 2010

A First Look At The Cessna 162 Skycatcher

Skycatcher serial number 16200010 (number ten built) was brought to Ottawa by Anna Pangrazzi of Leggat Aviation, the Canadian Cessna representative. The aircraft was displayed at Rockcliffe Flying Club on 30 October and Ottawa Flying Club on 31 October and a number of rides were given, limited by the inclement weather. I was offered a chance to fly the Skycatcher, but had to decline for ergonomic reasons, as I will describe.

As I have written before, the Skycatcher has attracted a lot of criticism for Cessna's decision to have it built at Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in China, especially when more than half of Cessna's workforce has been laid off and don't look to be coming back to work anytime soon. It probably makes matters worse that Shenyang was scheduled to build 300 Skycatchers in 2010, against an order book of 1200, but will only deliver a total of 30. The Skycatcher is built in China and then boxed and shipped to the USA without being test flown. The aircraft are then mated with engines and avionics and assembled by Yingling Aircraft of Wichita, Kansas, who test fly them then. As a production aircraft Skycatcher number ten was built in such a fashion.

The Skycatcher will inevitably be compared with its predecessor, powered by the same Continental O-200 engine of 100 hp, the Cessna 150. Both are two seat, side-by-side trainers, with a high, strut-braced wing and tricycle landing gear. Both are similar in size, although the 162 has 3 ft 4 in less wingspan and is two feet shorter. Looking at the specs the 162 is lighter with a 1320 lb gross weight, limited by the US Light Sport Aircraft rules, versus the 150's 1600 lb gross weight. The Skycatcher is also a bit faster turning in a top cruise speed of 112 KTAS versus 106 KTAS. Even with its smaller wing of just 120 sq ft (the 150 has 156 sq ft) the Skycatcher has a better climb rate of 890 fpm against 670 fpm for the 150.

Of course the 162 has the famous Cessna name on it and that guarantees it will sell. The current orders of 1200 aircraft attest to the strength of the Cessna brand and if Shenyang delivers the Skycatcher will make up about half of all the Light Sports in the USA in a few years time.

Obviously Cessna has got some things right in the 162 design, although I have to admit that they have also got a few things wrong.

In walking around the aircraft and sitting in it here is what I think they got right. First is the fit and finish. The aircraft has been put together as well as any light aircraft has been. The riveting on the metal structure is well done, the paint is flawless and everything fits together well, except the fibreglass cowling which had some wows in it where it should have been flush. Shenyang have built tons of supersonic fighters and even lots of airliners, they know how to built aircraft well. Sitting on the ramp it looks like a Cessna, the 150 lineage is evident, but with an updated look for 21st century flight training.

The second thing that is done right is access. The old 150 has struts in front of the cabin doors and the doors open until they contact the struts, about 45 degrees. The 162 has the struts behind the doors, which is the right place for them. The doors open hinged from the top and supported by gas struts to avoid damage. These are very nicely wrought and work well. The cabin is well done and features fixed seats and knob-adjustable rudder pedals, glider fashion. The cabin is very similar in size to the 150's, except that instead of the seats touching in the middle they are separated by a good eight inches, giving the occupants a bit of elbow room. The flap handle, yes it has good old manual flaps, thank goodness, occupies the space in between the seats. Cessna says the cabin is 44 inches (112 cm) wide at the shoulders, which is definitely an improvement over the 150. That Cessna can get this wider cabin to move through the air six knots faster on the same horsepower shows that a bit of comfort doesn't have to cost performance.

One thing I think Cessna really got right is the control stick. It is a true centre stick, but it is mounted to a horizontal rod that disappears underneath the instrument panel. In fore-and-aft elevator control it slides in and out as you would expect. Aileron control is not the expected twisting motion, but instead it pivots in an arc as if from a pivot point located on the floor. The motion feels very natural, but best of all, without the floor-mounted stick, it stays clear of your legs throughout its range of motion. I think the stick design is truly inspired.

In my opinion Cessna also got a surprising number of things wrong with this aircraft. First is the name, Skycatcher. I am sure that the Cessna marketing department thinks it goes well with Skyhawk, Skylane, Skywagon and so on, but neither pilots nor the public get it. At the flying club get-together I overheard one wife-of-pilot exclaim, "Its called a Flycatcher, no? Skycatcher, why would they call it that?" It is getting called Flycatcher, Skysnatcher and other less polite things. Even my spellchecker thinks it should be Flycatcher. Overall the name is not that important, most people will probably call it a "162" and leave it at that.

The biggest thing Cessna got wrong has to be the ergonomics of the plane. Out of a group of about 12 pilots who came out to look at the plane, four could not fit in it. We are all taller and the aircraft, with its fixed seat and moveable rudder pedals cannot seat crew over about 6 foot 1 inch without your shins hitting the instrument panel and not being able to properly actuate the rudder pedals. There is room to have installed the seat up to three inches further back, but it is bolted to the floor and that makes this no aircraft for taller people. At 6'4" I could not get in it and COPA Publisher Michel Hell had to decline a flight for the same reason.

The second biggest problem with the aircraft is payload. It doesn't have much. The Skycatcher started life as a proof-of-concept aircraft powered by a Rotax 912S 100 hp engine. The 912 is a great engine, cruising on 4.5 US gal/hr of premium auto fuel, but in surveys the US flight schools didn't like it and so the Continental O-200-D was installed instead. The O-200-D is a special new lightened version of the venerable O-200-A, the first version of which was run in 1947. It produces the same horsepower as the 912S, but burns 5.5 US gal/hr in cruise. Lightened as it is, the O-200-D still weighs 48 pounds more than the 912S does. Today Cessna advertises the 162 as having a standard empty weight of 830 pounds (in the Cessna brochure) and a typical equipped empty weight of 834 lbs (Cessna website). As I had indicated I was very keen to see what the demonstrator has for an empty weight. This aircraft has a basic weight of 833 lbs, to which is added "installed" equipment. It is equipped with the second EFIS tube, fire extinguisher, ELT, wheel pants and sun visors. Yes the basic weight excludes all those things, even the sun visors. Something that is very unusual is that the basic weight does not include the unusable fuel or the engine primer, these are also on the list of "installed" equipment. Considering that the engine cannot be started without the primer and the aircraft cannot be flown without unusable fuel it seems very hard to understand why these are listed under options and not included in the basic weight. The engine oil isn't indicated on the weight and balance either, so presumably it has to be subtracted from the useful load, too.

The "installed" equipment, including the primer and unusable fuel, brought Skycatcher serial number 10 to an amazingly high empty weight of 865 pounds. Fill up the tanks (144 lbs) and this particular 162 will carry 311 lbs of people and baggage, or most likely 304 lbs with some oil in the engine. Compare this to my old Cessna 150, with its empty weight of 1065 lbs, which would carry 408 lbs of people and cargo with full fuel. It is hard not to conclude that the 162 is not really much of a two-seater.

As confirmed in October 2010 with Transport Canada, the Skycatcher is eligible to be registered in Canada in the Limited Class, allowing it to be flown privately with AME sign-offs on the maintenance. It will not be able to be used for flight training until the LSA category comes to Canada. This was a recommendation of the 2005/06 TC Recreational Aviation Working Group and has been accepted by CARAC and Transport Canada, but today it looks to be at least ten years off in implementation, if ever.

Leggat Aviation's Anna Pangrazzi reports that the company has already sold one Skycatcher in Canada to a private owner. Rockcliffe Flying Club has two on conditional order, the condition being that the rules change to allow them to be used for flight training. As I have previously written it would be possible for a flight school to have Cessna 162s as rental aircraft outside their operating certificate, but check-outs and insurance could be an issue.

Overall the 162 is an attractively-designed aircraft with reasonable performance. It looks well made and should prove a good aircraft for private owners in Canada, provided you are small in stature and light in weight.

Some additional information:

*Wikipedia background on the Cessna 162
*Video of the Cessna 162 at the Ottawa Flying Club 31 Oct 10


Adam Hunt said...

Cessna has a new price for the C-162, it is up now to $112,250, from the previous price of $111,500.

Michael Shaw said...

Cessna is not making it easier to buy...