This week, we’re back to single-engine aircraft to discuss the Cessna 177 Cardinal, where you can get the best of both worlds. Then we talk about extended squitter transponders for ADS-B. Plus, aircraft ownership news, Don’s tip of the week about keeping your airplane clean, and your feedback.
Welcome to The Airplane Intel Podcast, the weekly General Aviation podcast for aircraft owners, operators, pilots and mechanics. We deliver practical advice, tips and strategies to make aircraft ownership simple, safe and cost effective.
The Cardinal Rule: Cessna's Aircraft of the Future
The Cessna Cardinal is a single-engine, high-wing aircraft deliberately designed through the mid-1960s to be the successor to the venerable 172. It was sleeker, faster, and more modern than the 172, and would prove to deliver 182-like performance for 172-like costs. Unlike many other airplanes in Cessna’s line up, the Cardinal’s design really stood out from the crowd. Most notably, Cessna ditched the wing stuts for a full-cantilever wing similar to what you’d find on the later 210 models. In addition, the Cardinal featured an all-new laminar-flow wing that was set back from the cabin giving pilots and passengers unmatched visibility. A stabilator for pitch control, which combines the horizontal stabilizer and elevator control into a single unit was also installed along with a swept windscreen, a wider cabin, and two very large doors for easy ingress and egress. In other words, the Cardinal was both pleasing to the eye and fun to fly. For 172 drivers looking for a boost in performance and complexity without breaking the bank, the Cardinal would surely fit the bill.
Well... Not so fast. We’ve all heard the phrase you only get one first impression. Unfortunately the Cardinal’s first impression was not a good one. In fact, early Cardinals fell far short of many prospective owners’ expectations, particularly in two major categories: performance and stability. More on that later.
The Cardinal was produced between 1968 thru 1978 with a total of 4,295 aircraft delivered. Like most airplanes, many improvements were made through the years. The first in the Cardinal line was the straight 177. Before it was marketed as the 177, Cessna planned to designate the Cardinal as the 172J because production of the 172, now in its twelfth year, was planned to cease once the Cardinal project got off the ground. However Cessna’s marketing department insisted on keeping the 172 in production, so the 177 designator was born.
Production of the first Cardinals began in late 1967 and ended in 1968. The 177 featured a 150 horsepower Lycoming O-320 four-cylinder engine with a gross weight of 2,350 pounds. Unfortunately, Cessna ran into two problems right out of the gate. First was performance. The 150 horsepower engine gave the Cardinal a power-to-weight ratio of 0.63 pounds per horsepower – that’s less than the 152. The second problem was the set-back wing designed for improved visibility brought the airplane’s center of gravity a little too far forward, which made the airplane very unstable at slower airspeeds. In fact, the problem was so bad, Cessna was bombarded with complaints from owners and operators after many Cardinals suffered severe tail strikes and nose-first landings.
Cessna was quick to respond to the problem by launching a special program at no cost to owners. The program, affectionately called The Cardinal Rule, included service letter SE68-14, which incorporate inspection and modification instructions. First, slots were installed behind the leading edge of the stabiliator to delay stabilator stall at slower speeds. Second, the installation of an eleven-pound counterweight improved controllability over the original seven-pound weight. While this solved the stability problem, it did not address performance issues. 1,164 Cardinals were produced the first year, but word of the Cardinal’s lethargic performance traveled quickly, and sales dropped dramatically. According to AvWeb, fewer than 250 aircraft were produced each year following its introduction.
Cessna responded again by launching the Cardinal 177A in 1969. The “A” model featured a more powerful Lycoming O-360 180-horsepower engine, which also increased cruise speeds by about 10 knots. This variant also saw a 150-pound increase in gross weight to accommodate the larger engine and deficiencies in useful load. More control modifications were made to improve stability at low speeds including improved control linkages between the stick and the stabiltor to dampen pitch control. Finally, the firewall and nose gear were beefed up to combat nose-first landings.
Despite improvements, Cardinal sales continued to fall. Ironically, 172 sales rebounded to industry-leading levels. Determined to follow through on the Cardinal’s original objective, more changes and improvements were made.
The earlier Cardinals featured a very unique wing—the NACA-6400 airfoil, typically found on higher performance airplanes such as the Learjet and Aerostar. While good on paper, in practice the wing produces a lot of drag at slow speeds thereby exaggerating the Cardinal’s stability issues. In 1970, the 177B was launched. This aircraft featured a NACA-2400 wing, which resembles the wing of the Skyhawk rather than the Learjet. The new wing gave the Cardinal a much better drag ratio at low speeds thereby increasing stability. The “B” model also saw the addition of a constant-speed propeller for much better takeoff and climb performance. Gross weight for the 177B was 2,500 pounds.
After two long years, the Cardinal was finally delivering on its original promise. While it never did replace the 172, the Cardinal did become a logical step-up airplane with good performance and handling characteristics. From 1971 on, only minor changes were made, including several upgrade options such as cowling improvements, which gave a 4-5 knot increase in cruise speed, a 28-volt electrical system, and optional 61-gallon fuel tank. From 1976 on, the instrument panel was upgraded from a split panel design, which robbed pilots of panel space, to a more modern full-width panel.
In 1977, the Cardinal Hawk XP was introduced, which was really just a fancy marketing ploy. In fact, the Hawk XP saw about the same performance as the 177B, but burned more fuel, was noisier, and made the cabin more cramped. Finally, in 1978, the Cardinal Classic was launched. The Classic was the premium version of the 177, featuring leather upholstery and a table for rear passengers.
Of the 2,752 fixed-gear Cardinals built, approximately 1,553 aircraft remain on the FAA registry and are still flying today.
Of course who can forget about the retractable-gear version of the Cardinal, the 177RG. Built in 1971 as a direct competitor to the Piper Arrow, the 177RG boasted a 22-knot increase in speed over the 177B along with a 300-pound increase in gross weight. The airplane featured a Lycoming IO-360 engine capable of 200-horsepower. Cessna had plans to offer a turbocharged and higher-horsepower version of the Cardinal, but Cessna decided in favor of the 182RG. The retractable-gear Cardinal was produced concurrently with its fixed-gear counterpart until all Cardinal production ceased in 1978. Of the 1,543 Cardinal RGs produced, approximately 865 remain on the FAA registry.
Now that you have an idea of the Cardinal’s history, let’s talk numbers. For simplicity sake, we’ll stick to the 177B. As you’ll recall, the 177B was equipped with a constant-speed propeller and O-360 engine. The TBO on this engine is 2,000 and costs anywhere between $24,000 and $32,000 to overhaul. That gives you an hourly engine reserve of about $14 per hour. The aircraft has a service ceiling of 14,600 feet, but average cruise altitudes are probably somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. At 6,000, expect to see about 123 knots at 75% power burning about 10 gallons per hour. At the same power setting, you can expect a range of about 650 nautical miles or just over five hours with the optional 60 gallon tank, or 500 nautical miles with the standard 49-gallon tank. At 8,000 feet, you’ll see about 130 knots burning 10.3 gallons per hour for an endurance of just over 4 hours with reserves
Now what about maintenance? Like all airplanes, they’re maintenance status and fitness is on-condition. Obviously if you’re looking at earlier Cardinals, you’ll want to make sure some of the modifications offered by Service Letter SE68-14 were performed. Retractable-gear airplanes are going to cost you more per hour to operate and cost you more in insurance and completing your annual. Additionally, the gear system on the RG is notorious for being complex and unreliable if not properly maintained. Getting parts may also be an issue. There’s also a special airworthiness information bulletin (SAIB) for all Cardinal models to inspect for cracks and corrosion on the wing’s lower main spar cap. Like its cantilever big-brother 210, the Cardinal is susceptible to cracks and fatigue where the wings meet the fuselage. There are also the usual ADs to comply with including crankshaft, seat rails, and flap actuators.