Airplane styling

Yes, yes; I know. 'Johnny L.A. is starting yet another airplane thread. :rolleyes: ’

Since I can’t afford an airplane, I like to look at them. You all know that most of my fixed-wing experience is in a 1970 Cessna 172K, an interesting model for several reasons. The main competitor to the Skyhawk was the Piper PA-28 Cherokee. Let me try to describe where I’m coming from in this thread.

Prior to WWI, most General Aviation (GA) airplanes (‘little airplanes’) were constructed of steel tubing covered with fabric, and the wings were often made of fabric-covered wood. Postwar, more airplanes were made of sheet aluminum. Cessna had their conventional gear (‘taildragger’) 120 and 140 models, introduced in 1946 and with metal-skinned wings in 1949. Piper was still making their J-3 Cub and other conventionally-geared, tube-and-fabric airplanes. Aeronca did the same. The Cessnas seemed pretty modern at the time.

In the mid-'50s Cessna developed the tricycle-gear (nosewheel) Model 150 (1958-1977; Model 152, 1977-1985). Trikes are easier to land and to maneuver on the ground, and were more modern in appearance. The Model 170 was produced from 1948 to 1956. This airplane looked a lot like the 140, but larger. It had four seats and a more powerful engine. It still had the conventional gear and rounded tail. In 1956 Cessna brought out the 172. The 172 was (and is) essentially a 170 with tricycle landing gear and a square tail. The 172A (1960), 172B (1961), and 172C (1962) had a stylish swept tail that gave the Skyhawk styling appropriate for the Space Age.

In 1960 Piper introduced the PA-28 Cherokee. This was quite a departure from the PA-22 Tri-Pacer, which was basically a PA-20 Pacer fitted with a nose wheel, and looked like a flying milk stool. The Cherokee was (and is) an all-metal, low-wing airplane. In my opinion, Cessna developed existing designs and Piper came up with something new. Both the 172 and PA-28 are still in production. The Cessna gained its ‘Omni-View’ rear window with the 172D in 1963, and took on its current configuration (wide-stance main gear with tubular legs, elongated extension to the vertical stabiliser) in the 172L in 1971. (The 172M, 1972 - 1976, introduced the ‘camber lift’ wing with a drooped leading edge on the wings.) The Cherokee gained extra windows on the side, but otherwise still looks the same to me. Oh, and in 1974 Piper switched from the ‘Hershey bar’ wing to one that resembles the Cessna’s planform. (Full disclosure: I’ve only flown a PA-28-235 once.)

Airplane makers are a conservative bunch. It’s very expensive to certify a new design, and older companies find it more cost-effective to refine older designs than to start with a clean sheet of paper. Both the Skyhawk and the Cherokee are mature designs that are pretty much fixed.

So there’s some background. Now about the styling…

In looking at old airplanes, ISTM that Piper was quicker to supply updated panel layouts. Nowadays, there is a standard arrangement of instruments. ‘Back in the day’, instruments were put where they fit. Looking at panels from the mid-to-late '60s, the Piper’s panel looks better to me. OTOH, the 172F got electric flaps in 1965, while the Cherokees have stuck with the Johnson bar on the floor to operate the flaps.

Half a century on, the Cherokee no longer looks more ‘modern’ than the Skyhawk to me. As I mentioned, a low-wing, all-metal trike was quite different from the high-wing, tube-and-fabric taildraggers. I’m guessing that the low wing made the Cherokee look more modern than the Skyhawk, which retained the high wing. Today, the styling looks similar; the choice being whether you like the wing above you, or the wing below you.

So how do you keep a 50-year-old design fresh? Bold New Graphics, of course! Check out this 1970 Cessna 172K. It has two-tone paint, with some pinstripes you can’t see in this photo. A newer 172S looks like a flying Winnebago. I mean seriously, doesn’t that design look like it belongs on an RV? This photo, shown in a January, 2012 Flying article looks better. It’s a little ‘retro’.

Anyway, just something I wanted to get out.

They should put Flying Tiger teeth on one!

It always looked to me that a high wing light plane would be easy to fly and land than a low wing. I can’t really say why, since I really only have experience in riding in light planes. Any thoughts on that?

Grumman AA1


In my limited experience with low-wing aircraft (Grumman AA5 Traveller, Piper PA-28-235 Dakota), low wings can provide a softer landing due to ground effect. Of course, you can make soft landings in high-wings too. Personally, I like the barn doors Cessna calls ‘flaps’, which make for nice, slow, short landings.

When I think, Airplane, this is what that should look like

Cessna 195

Spartan Executive

Lockheed Constellation

All good choices. If we’re going retro, let me add

Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing

Northrop Gamma

Good choices for classic styling. What I was going after though, was (primarily) the styling of two of the most popular airplanes built. (This was prompted by the godawful RV styling of Cessna’s pain schemes of recent years.)

For contemporary planes, you know who was great? American/Grumman. The AA1 and AA5 were sweet-looking little airplanes. Of course, they were designed a decade after the other two.

Intentional or not, this is apt.


I wish Cessna would make airplanes that people can buy. :frowning:

I’ll take one of these, please.

Well, there’s not really all the much you can do. There seems to be an unwritten rule that you can’t just paint a plane one color. For a while, planes had something like pinstriping, or a starburst pattern on the (upper) wing. The older Cessna’s you linked to had a blockier motif, but still followed the lines of the airframe. (The FAA decreased the size of the registration numbers for a while, but I think they’re back to that large size again.) Cessna wanted a new look, so what could they do? I think the only thing left was to go kinda abstract.

It’s hardly confined to civil aviation. I’ve seen airline logos come in and out of fashion over the decades. Used to be just a line here and there and the company name in an elegant, serifed font. In the '70s they went modern; block letters, a wide stripe along the windows, and a colored tail. Now they’re painting the name as large as they can on the forward fuselage. In a few years they’ll be doing something else.

I guess when they build styles that go over well, they stick with them.

The Cessna Mixmaster Pushme-Pullyu was one that I recall being ridiculed a lot. I think that model was only in production for a short time in the 1960’s or so. (Okay, Wikipedia says 1961 through 1982.)

Here’s how they’re painting the noses of some airliners now.

I’d be happy if I could just have a real nice sailplane!

Here are some 172 pics, either with original paint schemes or very close to original.

1970 (shown before]

To me, it looks like prior to the 1990s Cessna put more thought into the paint schemes. Like them or not, effort was made to design a scheme that complimented the aircraft. The current thought seems to be ‘Let’s just paint it white and put some motorhome graphics on it.’ There’s no effort to compliment the lines of the airplane. Just throw some squiggly lines on.

Of course the new Skyhawks’ schemes are not as egregious as the Corvalis. :eek:

Cessna just don’t care anymore.