If theres such a thing as the family sedan of airplanes, it surely must be the Cessna 172. And if its not the Skyhawk, then Pipers venerable and popular Archer must, by most accounts, share first or second place.
Although the Skyhawk predates the Archer-even its earliest variants-by nearly a decade, these two aircraft have endured, serving as both entry-level trainers and family transportation for two generations of aircraft owners.Faced with buying one or the other, how do they compare across the board, in terms of performance, cost of ownership and ever elusive ramp appeal?
We recently dusted off the performance manuals, probed the logbooks, took a couple of test flights and totaled up the costs of two examples of these aircraft. No new surprises, to be sure, but the market clearly votes with its dollars: Both of these models enjoy brisk sales on the used market and both have appreciated steadily in value.
Comparing models nose-to-nose is fraught with compromise. Should the models be categorized by seats, retail value, horsepower, speed, retractable gear or some other criteria? Our view is to take the simplistic approach: Would the two (or more) models being examined be likely candidates for the same buyer?
With the Skyhawk and Archer, the answer is definitely yes. Even though for equivalent model years, the two are typically separated by $7000 to $9000-the Archer being higher-we dont view that as a deal killer in this market. Both models share common attributes, including operating cost, realistic four-person payload, acceptable range but not blistering speed.
Similarly, both are well-suited for a combination training and transportation role, doing acceptably well at the latter task long term for trips shorter than 300 miles.
Indeed, we know of several pilots who have purchased Skyhawks or Archers solely for instrument training, then moved on to something faster with little or no risk of taking a bath on the aircrafts resale value. You cant say that about every potential aircraft purchase.
Other comparison possibilities? See the chart below. The Hawk and Piper Warrior or the Archer and the Cessna 182. Or for that matter, the Warrior and Beech Musketeer or Sundowner or the Beeches against the Cessnas. Or the Archer and Cessna Cardinal. Take your pick; theyre all legitimate comparisons. For this analysis, we drew the line between the Hawk and Archer.
Consideration one, of course, is price and its where most potential purchasers begin their deliberations. Both the Skyhawk and Archer have appreciated in value, the Archer somewhat more rapidly.
Lets consider a mid-1970s example for both models. A 1976 Archer II-the first year for that model-retails for $57,500, according to the Fall 2000 Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest. The same year Skyhawk retails for $48,500, a $9000 price delta thats relatively consistent throughout the two lines from year to year. That number represents an 18 percent difference in price among used models but when the new models are compared, the Archer is 32 percent higher than the Skyhawk. According to our most recent price analysis in 1998, used Archers increased in value by some 82 percent between 1982 and 1998, or an average of 5 percent a year. By comparison, during the same period, used Cessna 172s appreciated by about 56 percent, or an average of 3.5 percent a year.
Our view is that this is a direct reflection of how the market values the Archers slim but discernible advantages. Were sure its also a function of supply and demand. There are simply far fewer Archers to pick from than 172s.
If you think the Cessna 182 is a more apt comparison to the Archer, youll pay more for one. A lot more. A mid-1970s Skylane retails for a lofty $90,000, well above what the nicest Archer might bring. Or how about a Cessna 177 Cardinal against the Archer? At $57,500, the fixed-gear version is virtually a wash with the Archer but, surprisingly, the Cardinals used value has doubled in the 16-year period between 1982 and 1998.
How It Started
Not for nothing is the Cessna 172 one of the most popular airplanes ever built. Nearly 36,000 rolled off the lines in Wichita before Cessnas pistons went into hibernation in 1986. Thats a lot of airplanes and a long production run-31 years virtually uninterrupted.
The models enduring appeal has been validated by its reintroduction in 1997. Despite a mild case of sticker shock and never mind the availability of sleek new models such as the Cirrus and Lancair, the dowdy Skyhawk sold briskly at a base price of $135,000. (The price has since escalated to about $154,000, typically equipped.)
Although Cessna hasnt met its lofty production goals of 2000 piston airplanes a year, it did nonetheless move 287 Skyhawks in 1997, 422 in 1998 and will do nearly the same for 2000. For reference, the 172 accounts for just shy of 30 percent of all new piston airplanes manufactured. The Hawks success dates to the heady days after World War II, when Cessna introduced the 170 taildragger. After an experimental nosegear version was nearly axed by Cessna, a backdoor R&D project kept the idea alive and the first 172 was introduced in 1956, with the six-cylinder Continental O-300-D. (Retail price: $11,751.)
Youd hardly know the beast, with its straight tail and stiff-backed fuselage with no window. But Cessna got plenty of market reaction and over the next three decades, the airplane was continually improved.
Major changes include the swept-back tail in 1960, the signature rear window in 1963-Omni-Vision, as the marketing suits called it-along with a one-piece windshield.
Through the 1960s, other improvements included electric flaps, the modern instrument layout and, in 1968, a switch to the Lycoming O-320-E2D, a variant of which the airplane had until Cessna stop building it in 1986. When production resumed in 1997, the Hawk got a fuel-injected Lycoming IO-360-L2A de-rated to 160 HP which has delivered generally good service.
Having driven out the major bugs in the airplane over its long production run, Cessna suffered few significant blunders with the Hawk. Except one. As environmental restrictions surfaced in the late 1970s and lead-dosed 80 octane was headed for extinction, Lycoming developed the O-320-H2AD engine, which was supposed to be low-lead tolerant and could be built economically on the plants new automated line.
Although it had 10 extra horses, the H2AD engine was a service history disaster, with lubrication problems that caused cam and tappet spalling and premature failure, especially in engines operated in cold weather. (Those flown in the warmer area of the country suffered little, if at all.)
Three major ADs addressed this engine (77-20-7, 78-12-8 and 78-12-9) and given their age, it seems unlikely any problem H2AD engines are still out there. But theres always the possibility of a barn dweller so check the logs. Bringing the model up to date, the current 172R is available in the two variants, standard and the Skyhawk SP, which boasts an additional 20 HP by dint of a re-pitched prop. Although Cessna has encountered chronic quality control problems with the new Skyhawk, witness the AD list, the 1997 and forward aircraft are significantly improved over the ones made the decade before.
While Cessna stuck close to the original design through the 172s production run, Piper took a different tack with the airframe that eventually morphed into the Archer. The PA-28 began life as the Cherokee 140, a two-placer with a small bench seat in the back for a third (light) person.
To a degree never pursued by Cessna, Piper stretched that basic airframe, re-engined it and added retractable gear, producing under the PA-28 flag the Cherokee 180, Archer, Dakota and Arrow, all Lycoming powered. The first 180 appeared in 1963, just as Cessna was improving the Skyhawk, even though its debatable if the two competed then for marketshare.
The so-called Hershey-bar 180 got an increase in wingspan in 1973, a fuselage stretch of five inches and a gross weight increase to 2450 pounds, plus a new version of the Lycoming O-360 that powered the first 180. Piper aficionados know this airplane as the Challenger, a short-lived moniker that became the Archer in 1974. (If you see the rare Challenger nameplate on a Cherokee, youre looking at a pre-Archer, since the airplane changed little when it was renamed.) In 1976, the airplane got yet another name, the Archer II and with it came a new semi-tapered wing and another engine, the Lycoming O-360-A4M. With the exception of troublesome Slick mags, that engine goes on the short list of nearly bulletproof power plants and can be expected to make the advertised TBO of 2000 hours without undue interim expense.
The Archer II remained in production until 1995, when it was supplanted by the Archer III, the new model Piper currently makes, selling for an basic equipped price of $179,900 but averaging closer to $210,000 if upgraded avionics are installed. Despite its higher price over the Skyhawk, the Archer still enjoys surprising marketshare, selling between 70 and 90 units per year. It remains Pipers best selling model, with the Malibu and Seneca swapping honors for second place.
Owners looking for raw speed obviously wont consider either of these models but both are still decent if leisurely cruisers. Clearly, the Archer excels in speed, although not by much. It can be honestly counted on turn in 115 to 120 knots on about 8.5 to 9 GPH.
When we test flew a 1977 Archer II owned by the Oxford, Connecticut Flying Club, thats close to the value we recorded, confirmed by GPS: About 114 knots at 65 percent power and 2000 feet. Bumping the power up ekes out a few more knots, but at the expense of vibration, noise and fuel consumption.
A fully-loaded Archer can be counted on to climb at 500 feet initially, but not much more. Lightly loaded on a cool day, the airplane is downright sprightly, ascending 800 to 1000 FPM initially, until settling down to 600 or 700 FPM to 5000 feet or so.
The Skyhawk, on the other hand, will do 600 FPM lightly loaded but less than that at gross on a hot day. Some owners complain of climb rates below 500 FPM during the summer. We flew with Steve Bennett, who bases his partnership 1972 Skyhawk at Fitchburg, Massachusetts. On a cool fall day, we noted an effortless 600 FPM initial climb.
Bennett reports cruise speeds just above 100 knots and thats what we recorded on reciprocal GPS groundspeed checks: 105 knots. Not bad on a still-air day or with a tailwind; discouraging when the winter westerlies blow and you want to cover 300 miles. (That could take all day.) Fuel burn averages 8 gallons an hour or even a bit less.
Still, despite its 10-knot advantage, the Archer doesnt really have impressively greater range. Lets take the aforementioned 300-mile cross country into a 25-knot winter headwind. The 172 will poke along at 85 knots, requiring 3.5 hours to complete the trip. With 42 gallons aboard, youd land with 1.7 hours of endurance remaining.
The Archer, on the other hand, tanks 48 gallons usable for a still air range of about 600 miles. Allowing for the headwind, a 300-mile trip would require 3.2 hours, leaving 2.4 hours in the tanks. Bottom line: Youd get there 20 minutes sooner in the Archer and have an extra half-hour-plus of range.
More significantly, perhaps, is the IFR-reserve issue. Two hours in an Archer is likely far more comfort-inducing than a one-hour reserve in a Skyhawk. Or looked at another way, the Archer could fly another 100 miles and still have fair reserves, perhaps eliminating a gas stop.
Although it suffers in the cruise speed department, the Cessna, by dint of low wing loading and massive flaps, is the better short or unimproved field airplane by a slight margin. According to the POH, the Cessna needs 1625 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle. Adding the usual 25 percent fudge factor, youd want 2000 feet of runway at gross weight on a standard day.
The Archer, on the other hand, needs several hundred feet more under the same conditions, even though its not carrying significantly more payload. Similarly, the Cessna will get into a strip a couple of hundred feet shorter than the Archer will and its high wings and spring steel gear give it more ground clearance if the field is unimproved. Remove the Skyhawks wheel pants and its a decent rough field airplane. The Archer less so.
Last, you can put a Cessna 172 on floats and go fishing, while the Archer is definitely a land lubber and an improved runway land lubber at that.
Both of these airplanes are four-placers but neither will carry four without some planning. Skyhawks typically have a 900-pound useful load so topped off with fuel, theyll haul about 650 pounds. Three people and plenty of baggage.
A typically-equipped Archer enjoys another 100 pounds of payload. With full fuel, most will carry the four folks, but little or no baggage. Drop the fuel to the tabs and you pick up nearly 100 pounds of baggage capacity while whittling endurance to three hours, with reserves. Not a long-haul machine, obviously, but at least you can carry the people and stuff. Its not as easy in the Hawk.
Both the Hawk and Archer have generous baggage doors and a large enough space to carry outsize equipment, within reason. The Archer is slightly more commodious but the door hinges from the top, somewhat of a nuisance. Also, unless you pay attention to the seals, the Archer door is more prone to water leakage.
Neither the Archer nor the Skyhawk will challenge a Bonanza for nice handling, although a Musketeer certainly will. Both are governed by lowest common denominator control circuitry, yielding few handling surprises but no special pleasures, either.
With its stabilator tail design, the Archer tends more to heaviness in pitch than the Skyhawk, but this often seems due to control friction where the column passes through the instrument panel. Steering in the Archer is via rudder pedals and linkage to the nosegear, with toe brakes. The Archers pedals are rubber covered and generally more substantial than the Cessna pedals.
One of the things we most like about Pipers in general-all the way up to the Saratoga-is Pipers refusal to yield to the lure of electric flaps. Manual flaps are faster, more positive and less maintenance prone than the electric flaps Cessna uses. However, the Cessnas flaps are enormous and thanks to their generous extension, approaching the runway at a near standstill is both practical and safe. Try the same in the Archer and youre likely to turn the approach into a sinkfest. Control circuitry in the Skyhawk is similar to the Archer and generally seems less prone to control friction. Although not a great handling airplane, the Skyhawk is, nonetheless, pleasant and easy to fly, which accounts for its success as a trainer. Pitch forces are light and roll and pitch are about what youd expect from an airplane of this size, with none of the Pipers stiffness.
Stalls and slow flight in both airplanes are non-events, although the Skyhawk sometimes has to be coaxed into the break. The Cessna tends to pitch up at flap deployment and this can be a gotcha on a full-flap go around, causing a trim-tab stall at low altitude. The Archer requires only minor retrimming, by comparison and behaves well on a full-flap go around.
Evaluating visibility from the cockpit opens the inevitable high-wing, low-wing debate but we think the Cessna has it all over the Archer for watching the scenery. The Hawks windshield wraps well into wing roots, providing more than enough visibility upwards. And with no wing to block the view, watching the world unfold directly under the wheel is a pleasure, albeit a leisurely one.
Comfort is a mixed bag. The Cessnas seats are more upright, with limited adjustability and, in our view, a somewhat flimsy feel. The seatbelts catch the occupants across the thighs rather than the lap, which hardly inspires a feeling of security. Although the Archer feels more secure, with age, the Piper seat filling sags to the point that you feel like youre sitting in a bean bag chair and an uncomfortable one at that. The gas springs in Piper seat height adjustors seem chronic failure points.
The Pipers ventilation is both more effective and less draft-prone during the winter. It has an overhead vent system, plus closable vents above the floor. In the flying clubs Archer, we noted some air leakage around the doorseal and the trim console. Fortunately, the heater is effective and drives off the chill.
Skyhawks, on the other hand, are notoriously drafty, especially at the wing root vents. Taping these off in the winter is a must. Door seals and windshields also leak both air and water and need attention if you want a tight ship. The Cessnas heater is adequate but doesnt put out BTUs to spare, especially in extreme cold or in a drafty cabin. In summer, both cabins will get toasty. Taxiing with a door open in the Archer is a must; in the Cessna, the windows open, ventilating the cabin.
Our review of the records for both these airplanes reveals that as low-end IFR-capable cruisers are concerned, theyre about as cheap as it gets. Steve Bennetts seven-year record on the 172L reveal an all up operating cost of $47 an hour, to include every nickel spent related to aircraft ownership, including insurance, with averages $850 a year. Factor out the insurance, and direct costs are $39 an hour.
Oxford Flying Clubs Archer rents to club members for $60 an hour wet, with actual direct operating costs of about $48 an hour, exclusive of insurance. (Club insurance is so expensive that an across-the-board comparison for private ownership is impossible. Plan on $900 to $1200 a year, variable with hull value.)
With some 7200 hours total time, the flying club Archer is on the extreme side of high time so we expected to see a high incidence of repair for the past three years, especially in wear-related airframe parts.
In reality, the repair incidence was quite low. A couple of alternators had been replaced, as had the spinner and bulkhead due to cracking, the flap system had been rebuilt with new bushings and an instrument or two had been replaced. In short, despite its age and time, theres no evidence that the Archer was nickel-diming the club.
Bennetts 172 posted similar results, although flown a fraction of the 500 hours a year the club Archer sees. The repair logs showed a similar pattern, with two instrument replacements-tachometer and turn and bank-and minor stuff such as a CHT probe, starter contactor and an alternator. The partnerships most significant costs came from replacing two soft cylinders. Annuals averaged about $500, exclusive of any required repairs.
The conclusion we draw from the foregoing is that neither of these airplanes are likely to require a surprise massive inflow of cash in the way that a retractable or complex turbocharged aircraft might. Apart from an engine tanking, theres simply not much expensive stuff to go awry.
With a budget restricted to the $50,000 to $60,000 range, either of these models is a good choice. Against the Archer, the Cessna Cardinal is worth considering at the same price but the 182 Skylane represents a significant jump in purchase price and operating cost. Against the Skyhawk on the downmarket side, the Piper Warrior is a possibility and theres always the Beech Sport, Sundowner and Musketeer.
We think a used Skyhawk stands out as one of the more affordable and practical airplanes for a sole owner or partnership. It can serve as a terrific primary or instrument trainer for pilots or partners who fly medium-length cross countries in mild IFR weather. Operating costs are practically pocket change.
The Archer is the better choice if budget allows and the planned trips are longer. In our view, its an excellent airplane for families with kids younger than 10 years or so. Given the appreciation curve, keep it for a few years and upgrade later, recovering your purchase price and then some.
Also With This Article
Click here to view the Archer/Skyhawk resale value chart.
Click here to view the purchase class comparisons.
Click here to view the features guide.
Click here to view “Other Possibilities.”
Click here to view “The Accident Record.”