January 6, 1999


Through the years, I've had the pleasure of knowing several people who were invariably and consistently serene. When they were annoyed at something, they said little, and addressed the annoyance in its own due time. All my life I have been hard of learning, and their wisdom has eluded me. I have a galaxy of pet peeves, and often one of them is at the periphery of my attention.

The things that the manufacturers did in appointing their aircraft in the seventies and eighties are an almost continual frustration for me as an instructor. It is as though Piper and Cessna had a contest to see who could build the tallest and most imposing instrument panel. When they had the panels built as high as possible, they then added "eyebrows" at their top.

The essence of learning to fly is learning to hold the nose still. Once that is achieved, the beginning student then learns where to put it for various climb, cruise, and descent configurations. If the nose remains pointing to a distant object, the plane is flying straight, and if it responds crisply and accurately to the aileron and rudder inputs, the turn entries are correct. The placement of the nose is primary to visual flight, and the instruments should serve only to "calibrate" what the pilot sees.

It is very frustrating to make beginning students understand the key visual aspects of aircraft control when they are looking straight at six square feet of instruments and must crane their necks to see straight ahead through the windshield. Anybody shorter than six feet must sit on booster cushions to see outside properly.

Yes, I know that I am out of step with the times. Manufacturers made the panels taller so that there would be more room for the extra goodies that the industry loves to sell and customers love to buy. The earlier Cessna 172s were uncorrupted by the tall panels, and I have seen many students resist this vintage because they look dinky inside. Pity, as it has fewer instruments and lots of windshield. Sometimes I wonder if I am rendering serious flight instruction or just taking people on a gaily festooned carnival ride.

These airplanes also have two landing lights mounted in the wing instead of the more contemporary mount in the center of the nose. The center mount unit has one big... sometimes 20 ampere... bulb mounted in the cowling, where it is subjected to strong engine vibrations. The two bulbs in the old system last longer and cost less than one big bulb, and each acts as the other's backup. The Cessna center- mount landing light is an almost criminal indulgence of an ignorant consumer preference.

From the heights of the instrument panel crown, past the landing light, we come to the speed fairings around the wheels. I don't know how many times I have cursed them as a mechanic. They are in the way when people move into and out of the airplane, but worse yet, some designs make it a half hour job to even check the air pressure in the tires. These fairings add weight to the plane, seldom make a significant difference at 100 MPH, and are a maintenance liability, yet people want them because they look stylish.

My own plane has wheel fairings, and they hang on the back wall of the shop where they will stay out of trouble. Pardon me if I display a prejudice, but I think that my plane is very pleasant looking, and the wheel fairings make it look absolutely gorgeous. With the fairings hanging on the wall, I can inspect and maintain the tires and brakes better, and it is much easier to make a visual check of the fuel quantity. I can stand on each main wheel to place a dipstick into the fuel tank, but I couldn't stand on the fairings if they were installed.

I'll put the fairings back on the plane when I decide to sell it. In the meantime, I will enjoy the practical functionality of bare wheels... in a plane that has few instruments, a big windshield, and a landing light in each wing.

Plane Talk Archives

To contact Bob Tilden, send an e-mail.