Does a T-41B Mescalero fly like a 172? Keith Wilson takes a test flight in one to find out.
Story and photos by Keith Wilson
It is often said that if it looks like it, sounds like it, and flies like it… it must be a Cessna 172! Well, that is almost the case with the T-41B Mescalero, but there are significant differences with the military variant of Cessna’s best-selling, tried-and-trusted, single engine four-seat aircraft.
During a visit to the Cactus Air Force at Carson City, Nev., I got the rare opportunity to fly a Mescalero and examine those differences for myself.
Let me immediately nail my Cessna 172 colors to the mast: soon after obtaining my PPL in the UK, I acquired a 1968 Cessna 172H powered by the smooth, quiet—if occasionally lacking in grunt—145 hp Rolls-Royce Continental O-300. I was proud of the small Rolls-Royce stickers that adorned either side of the cowlings; it announced the quality engineering hidden under there.
Initially, I had purchased G-CCCC with a partner but soon after the purchase, I acquired his share too. It was the beginning of a wonderful 14-year journey. I learned a lot from flying that lovely lady, traveling all over Europe in the process. Every trip was an adventure and the aircraft was almost always reliable.
Evolution of the 172
There cannot be many readers who haven’t flown a Cessna 172, are there? Many flying clubs—certainly those in the United Kingdom and Europe—offer them to their club members. Most if not all of these aircraft have been around the block a few times. I often wonder just where the Cessna 172 with the highest airframe hours is located, and how many different engines may have powered it during its life.
The Cessna 172 Skyhawk was first flown in 1955. Since then more Cessna 172s have been built than any other aircraft, making it the most successful aircraft in history. Cessna delivered the first production models in 1956. As of 2015, Cessna and its production partners have built more than 43,000.
The Cessna 172 started life as a tricycle landing gear variant of the tailwheel Cessna 170. In January 1955, Cessna flew a variant of the Cessna 170 powered by a Continental O-300-A with larger elevators and a more angular tailfin.
Although the variant it tested was subsequently certified, Cessna decided to modify the aircraft still further by fitting a tricycle landing gear; this version made its first flight on June 12, 1955.
The 172 became an overnight sales success, and in 1956—its first full year of production—more than 1,400 were built.
Aside from the differing undercarriage configurations, early 172s were similar in appearance to the 170s, although the 172 had a straight tailfin while the 170 had a rounded fin and rudder.
Later 172 versions incorporated a revised landing gear and a swept-back tailfin, both of which are still in use today. The final aesthetic development (dating from the mid-1960s) was a lowered rear deck allowing an aft window. Cessna creatively advertised this added rear visibility as “Omni-Vision.”
Basically, Cessna has not changed the airframe configuration for half a century, except for updates in avionics and engines, including the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit first offered in 2005.
Production of the 172 halted in 1986 and remained shut down for 11 years as legal liability rulings in the United States pushed Cessna’s insurance costs too high, resulting in dramatically increased prices for new aircraft.
By 1996, product liability claims against aircraft manufacturers had been moderated following some sensible changes in U.S. laws and the 172R was introduced. This model was powered by a derated Lycoming IO-360-L2A producing a maximum of 160 hp at just 2,400 rpm. It was the first Cessna 172 to have a factory-fitted fuel-injected engine. The Cessna 172S was introduced in 1998 and powered by a Lycoming IO-360-L2A producing 180 hp. As of 2009, only the S model remains in production.
A staple of the armed forces
Way back in July 1964, a military version of the Cessna 172 was procured by the U.S. Air Force for initial flight screening of potential pilots. Two-hundred and four aircraft were purchased “off the shelf” as the T-41A Mescalero.
A subsequent version based on the 210 hp Continental IO-360—which was identified by Cessna as the Model R172—was procured by the U.S. Army as the T-41B (255 ordered); by the U.S. Air Force as the T-41C (52 ordered); and as the T-41D (238 ordered) under the Military Assistance Program.
Along with Reims-built aircraft, Cessna 172s have been delivered to the armed forces of 30 countries including Angola, Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Ireland, South Korea, Liberia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey.
The subject of this flight test, N9274Z, was manufactured in 1967 as a T-41B as 67-15218, where it was utilized for basic evaluation of U.S. Army flight students as well as a liaison and general hack.
After retirement, it was purchased by the Cactus Air Force (CAF) in 2002 in a U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) surplus sale. The aircraft was totally rebuilt by the CAF to airworthy condition and painted to represent the colors that it flew in during its 30-year U.S. Army career.
Accompanying me on this trip is Steve Mays, one of the Cactus Air Force’s small band of pilots. Leaving the comfort of air-conditioning, we walked out into the Nevada heat and toward the aircraft on the ramp. With its brown, white and dayglo-orange colors it certainly stands out from the other Cessna aircraft.
The aircraft looks purposeful, and the military color scheme certainly assists with that illusion. However, aside from the striking colors, it is the large, constant speed propeller that catches my eye. Now that’s different!
Mays walks me around the aircraft starting at the first pilot’s door. It’s pretty much a standard Cessna 172 with a few exceptions. The first difference I see is the emergency door jettison system similar to that on the Aerobat, with the words “Pull Emergency Door Release” clearly visible. Pulling on the handle will pull the door hinge pins, and if required, an occupant can pull the handle and push the door out.
An interesting note in the pilot handbook states, “Exit from the airplane should be accomplished immediately after the doors are jettisoned as the doors could possibly damage the empennage control surfaces causing unpredictable maneuvers and therefore making it difficult to bail out.” I wasn’t expecting that, but as a military aircraft, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Another difference on the T-41B is the reservoir tank in the fuel system. This permits the use of the three-position selector valve labeled “Left,” “Both On” and “Right.”
The aircraft also has a two-position auxiliary fuel pump switch. “Low” operates the pump at low speed and is used during priming and starting the engine, while “High” is used for engine operations if the engine-driven pump should fail and for vapor purging during hot engine starts.
I was surprised to learn that the T-41B has the same capacity fuel tanks in the wing as a standard 172. With the increased full burn of the IO-360, range is reduced to around 500 miles—but the T-41B was used in the training role by both the U.S. Air Force and Army and rarely flew too far away from its home base.
The final difference I noted is the 600x6 tire on the nosewheel which is unique to the T-41B model; the T-41A features the standard Cessna 172 nosewheel.
Cockpit configuration and startup
We climb aboard, me in the left seat and Mays in the right. The panel layout is slightly different from what I had been expecting: much of the old military equipment has been removed and replaced with relatively modern kit, particularly in the central radio stack.
When delivered to the U.S. Army in 1967, this aircraft was fitted with a C-1611C Interphone, an AN/ARC-54 Nav/Com radio, an RT-515R-1 Nav/Com radio and an AN/ARN-63 ADF along with a variety of course and bearing indicators. These were all installed on the far right side of the cockpit; all have since been removed in an upgrade, leaving a large empty space.
The panel features the familiar 1960s-style electric flap actuation switch and indicator with up to 40 degrees of flap available. The throttle area is definitely different as in addition to the anticipated throttle and mixture control, it features the variable-pitch prop controller. Engine start would have been typical for an injected IO-360, however, the aircraft had recently returned from the air-to-air photo shoot. This fact, combined with an OAT around 85 degrees F, means I have to try the hot-start routine.
The procedure involves moving the throttle halfway, setting the mixture to idle cutoff and turning off the auxiliary fuel pump. Once the engine starts to fire, the pilot can move the mixture to full rich and the throttle to idle.
The engine proves a little stubborn, and I am instructed by Mays to turn the auxiliary fuel pump on. Eventually, the engine roars to life.
As I move off and taxi toward Runway 27, I notice something very different, even over the Bose noise-canceling headsets: the engine has a distinct rumble. It’s a nice, solid-sounding rumble that provides a comforting impression of power up front.
At the holding point, I complete the regular 172 pre-takeoff checks and add cycling the variable-pitch prop. We are about to take off at around 4,750 feet above sea level with an OAT of around 85 degrees F—density altitude is close to 7,500 feet. Mays tells me to pull the mixture back a little before takeoff to compensate.
I ask Mays about using flaps for takeoff and he suggests I go without. “Yes, they can be used—but with almost 5,000 feet of concrete ahead, they are not really necessary,” he adds.
I line up on Runway 27 and—slowly but steadily—add the power. Acceleration is a little brisker than I had expected, as is the noise level as the rpm moves up to 2,800. A little right rudder keeps her on the centerline and I gently add back pressure to get the nosewheel off the ground.
As we reach 70 mph, I gently but positively pull on the control column and she unsticks. I push the nose forward and she continues to accelerate up to 90 mph and I soon establish her in a climb. Afterward, Mays tells me she will lift off as low as 65 mph but 70 mph is more comfortable, especially loaded.
He adds that the use of 20 degrees of flap will reduce the distance over an obstacle by around five percent. Liftoff with 20 degrees should occur at 60 mph, but you need to get the nose down quickly and allow the aircraft to accelerate to a safe climb speed.
Once established in the climb at 95 mph and 500 feet above the field, I reduce the power to 25 inches (at the top of the green arc) and the rpm to 2,600; both actions are designed to minimize engine wear. The mixture is adjusted to around 13 gph and we steadily climb at around 700 fpm—pretty good, considering the density altitude.
Initially I level off at 7,000 feet, and then start to adjust the power settings in accordance with the placard located in the center of the instrument panel: power to 21 inches, rpm to 2,400 and the mixture to a little under 11 gph.
She trims hands and feet-off at just under 120 mph (TAS is nearer 140 mph); comfortable, but hardly exciting. Interestingly, the redline on the ASI is calibrated at 182 mph—way above a standard 172, but I would guess a distinctly nose-down attitude would be required to achieve anywhere near it!
I explore the handling and this T-41B presents to me like a standard 172 in roll, but more like a 182 in pitch—the bigger engine and variable-pitch prop does have an impact on more than just the speed. In turns, the aircraft is heavier than a 172 but very positive, providing a solid feel throughout. Once I get used to the additional loads, it is very pleasant to fly.
I take the aircraft up to 8,000 feet and set it up for a clean, power-off stall where it replicates the 172’s anticipated docility. The buffet is felt at around 55 mph and the nose drops at 52 mph. With flaps, the effect is much the same while the nose drop occurs at around 48 mph. However, when I add power to the exercise, the nose drop is much quicker. I wasn’t expecting that!
It doesn’t show any tendency to drop a wing in either direction at whatever configuration I try and displays excellent manners throughout the (albeit brief) slow-speed examination. The tried and trusted stall recovery technique of pushing the nose forward and adding power instantly places the aircraft back into flying mode.
Returning to Carson City, we descend to 1,000 feet above the airfield and join the pattern.
The aircraft slows relatively easily but in order to ensure we are below the flap limiting speed of 100 mph, I pull the nose up and the speed bleeds off quickly. I go straight to 20 degrees and trim accordingly.
The view over the nose is classic 172. Turning base, and satisfied that I will make the runway, I drop all 40 degrees of flap and re-trim. The retarding impact of 40 degrees of flap can immediately be felt, and I add a trickle of power to ensure I don’t get behind the aircraft. Once again, it provides a great view of a steep, final approach. I cross the numbers at around 55 mph and touch down on the mains with the nose held off. As the speed further decreases the nosewheel gently lowers onto the runway.
With a long runway at Carson Airport (KCXP) there is no need to brake. I keep it straight and leave at the second exit before taxiing back to the CAF ramp. All the way to the ramp, the engine rumble continues to impress me.
My own Cessna 172—G-CCCC—also had 40 degree flaps, but I was advised only to use them when I was sure I could land, as a go-around was not an option. I asked Mays about the T-41B and he told me about some trials they conducted with the aircraft in the 40-degree flap configuration soon after CAF got the aircraft back into the air.
Such is the power from the big engine and variable prop combination that a go-around is possible in this configuration, although it is advisable to get the nose down and then pick up speed while lowering the flaps to 20 degrees before climbing away.
Once on the ramp, the shutdown is easy. Throttle to idle, mixture to lean; and when the engine stops, turn off the magnetos and master switches. It all goes very quiet.
Later, when I get my nose into the detailed U.S. Army Operator’s Manual from October 1974, I realize that many of the original military communications antennae have also been removed from the aircraft and replaced with a pair of civilian VOR antennae.
The Cactus Air Force
The Cactus Air Force is a privately owned and operated military aircraft and vehicle museum located in Carson City, Nev. Its mission is to keep military history alive, visible and accessible to provide the general public with an opportunity to see exhibits up close.
The museum is dedicated to preserving the United States’ rich aviation and military vehicle history, with a clear focus on World War II through Vietnam War aircraft and equipment. In 2012 the Cactus Air Force received approval from the Carson Airport Authority to build a military aircraft and vehicle museum at the Carson Airport, though the exact site has not yet been determined. Maintenance and restoration for the CAF fleet takes place at KCXP in a 100x150-foot hangar previously owned by American Warbirds, Inc.
Aside from the T-41B, CAF has an interesting inventory which includes a Douglas A-26 Invader, a North American/Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, a Bell AH-1G Huey Cobra, a Grumman TBF Avenger, a North American T-28A Trojan, a Cessna L-19A Birddog, a Cessna O-2 Skymaster, a Beechcraft T-34A Mentor and a North American T-6 Texan.
At the time of my visit most of the above were in flying condition. In addition to a large number of airframes held in storage, the museum has an F-86E Sabre, a T-33 and a HU-16 Albatross all undergoing rebuild to a flyable status.
The T-41B is of historical significance to the Cactus Air Force. In addition to being a good static display item with its own story to tell, it provides the CAF with a great hack, and is especially supportive when the CAF moves its fleet of aircraft around the various shows across the United States.
I thoroughly enjoyed flying it and am sure it is an excellent cross-country support machine.
Keith Wilson has been an aerospace journalist since 1982. He specializes in striking air-to-air images and is the lead photographer for Pilot magazine, published in the United Kingdom. Over the years he has undertaken a variety of military assignments and also serves as an aviation consultant. To date, he has photographed almost 2,000 different aircraft air-to-air. Wilson has held a PPL for 35 years and is an LAA-approved pilot who has made a number of “first flights” on homebuilt aircraft. Send questions or comments to .
1According to a May 2015 article by Paul Bertorelli published on Avweb.com, Textron Aviation remains committed to garnering approval for a CD-155 diesel-powered 172, the Turbo Skyhawk JT-A, in the first quarter of 2016.
Cactus Air Force