After months of research, a postgraduate student at the ArtCenter College of Design envisions the Cessna 172’s instrument panel and interior for the future.
We are pleased to present Baoqi Xiao’s concept for a redesign of the Cessna 172.
Keep in mind that this is not a Cessna or Textron Aviation project. The design has not been subjected to the rigors of the engineering process or had to undergo the FAA approval process, so the designer was able to start with a clean sheet and dream big. After all, innovation starts with someone asking “What if...?” —Ed.
As an open-minded design student, I am eager to have the opportunity to design all kinds of different objects that move across land, sail at sea and fly in the sky. Having focused on superyacht design for almost three years, I decided to explore new design territory by redesigning the Cessna 172 Skyhawk’s interior. (A superyacht, also called a mega yacht, is a privately-owned yacht more than 79 feet in length that carries a professional crew. —Ed.)
This project opportunity made me quite excited: I’m an airplane lover and have dreamed of becoming an airline pilot since I was a middle-school kid. From the Cessna 172 to a Boeing 747-400, I’ve learned to fly them all in a computer-based simulator. Even though I’m not planning to become an airline pilot, it is still fun to learn all those complicated procedures and fly jumbo jets in a virtual world.
Although it’s been 12 years since the first time I touched a flight simulator, I still remember the day I was sitting in front of the computer, looking at tutorials online and learning basic flying skills on the Cessna 172. The 172 is an aircraft that brings all kinds of people into the world of flight, and is such an important and popular airplane for beginners.
With all kinds of new technology changes coming into aircraft cockpits, how will flying an aircraft be different in the future? How will the Cessna 172 continuously adapt to the future of flying and to the future of flight training? It is time to think about the future of the Cessna 172.
A brief history of the 172
The Cessna 172 is the most successful aircraft in history in terms of the length of its production period and the number of aircraft produced. Cessna has been focusing on producing this aircraft since the early 20th century.
Nowadays, the entry-level airplane market is becoming more and more competitive. Other manufacturers such as Cirrus, Piper and Diamond are increasing the quality of their entry-level aircraft at reasonable prices.
Even though the majority of Cessna 172 sales are to the entry-level market such as flight schools, and there are still a large number of these aircraft in service, the unique, legendary 172 might be starting to lose its luster. In order to remain a leader in the competitive entry-level market, I believe the Cessna 172’s design needs to be updated.
The research process
During the early stage of this project, I prepared by doing considerable research on 172s. The process started by gaining an understanding of the Cessna brand and Textron Aviation’s current Cessna product lineup.
I also identified the unique features of the 172 and performed a competitor comparison. I went to online forums to look at how pilots talked about the 172 aircraft. Researching the aircraft’s cockpit design trends was also on my must-do list.
After my initial research, I was able to identify areas for more in-depth, in-person primary research. These focal points included the current instrument panel design, design of the seat, the luggage area and flight item storage around the cockpit.
The primary research phase is really about getting out of the design studio and observing—in my case, getting hands-on time with real Cessna airplanes. Since I also wanted to see a pilot flying the airplane, I needed to find a way to take a flight in the Cessna 172.
In order to directly experience flight on the Cessna 172, I went to Pacific Air Flight School in Los Angeles for a one-hour demo flight.
According to the flight school, I would have the opportunity to do the taxi, ground runup, takeoff and maybe even a landing. The one-hour demo flight covers every flight procedure, from preflight checks to tiedown at the end of the flight. I would fly to Catalina Island, then return to Long Beach.
For me, the previous experience I had with a flight simulator really helped a lot. Prior to the demo flight, I read the 172’s flight manual and studied the standard flight procedures. During the flight, I had a pretty easy time following my flight instructor’s directions.
The first big moment came when I pulled the yoke back slightly as our airspeed approached 60 knots on the takeoff roll. The 172 gently lifted off from the runway. Though this was the first time I’d flown the Cessna 172, I could totally feel that this is was an easy-flying airplane. It’s very stable. When I needed to keep the 172 flying at a specific cruising altitude and on a specific heading, I didn’t need to apply much pressure on the yoke.
I actually got a pretty good feel for controlling the airplane during maneuvers. Based on my flight performance, my instructor Langston agreed to let me perform a visual approach and landing at the end of the flight.
I was told to fly part of the traffic pattern visually. The first step was to visually line up with Interstate 405, which is parallel to the landing runway. After I did so, I was told to start turning and lining up with the runway.
During these final turns, I identified a weakness of this high-wing airplane: the wing creates a big blind spot and blocks the pilot’s visual contact with the runway.
Another inconvenience is the flap handle. It is too small and was too far away to reach when I was busy watching airspeed, altitude and trying to line up with the runway.
This airplane can fly very slowly during final approach. It was easy to keep on the landing glidepath.
After the flight, I also got the chance to interview the flight instructor about the airplane and get his insights about flight training.
Old versus new
My primary research objectives were to both understand the current airplane and to identify the design changes of the past few decades. These observations are important for analysis of the rationale behind the design changes. Therefore, the second phase of my primary research was to find an older Cessna airplane to look at, take a bunch of photos and compare them with the modern Cessna 172 SP which I’d just flown.
It took a while for me to find a 1960s-era 172. I found one at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. Their 58-year-old Cessna is still in good shape and serves as a commuter to bring museum staff back and forth between airshow locations and the museum. I identified several key design issues with the older aircraft.
Keeping these items in mind, my next step was to talk to an owner to make sure everything I’d observed and noted was accurate and useful for generating a new design concept.
Interview with an owner
I was introduced to Sal Staiano through Cessna Flyer magazine. Sal is an experienced private pilot who owns a 1958 Cessna. He has hundreds of hours of flight time in Cessna airplanes and also has his multi-engine rating.
Sal and I talked for about two hours. I received several insights that were valuable for designing a new Cessna 172 cockpit.
We spoke about trends in cockpit design and Sal’s opinion is that the newer models of airplanes rely too much on digitalized instruments and automated function. Even though these automations are marketed to improve flight safety, Sal’s philosophy is that the most effective way to improve safety is for pilots to simply improve their flying skills.
In my opinion, Sal makes some valuable points. With all these advanced functions, the airplane is definitely becoming easier and easier to fly, but technology can sometimes get in the way of just flying the airplane.
Assuming one of Cessna’s goals with the current 172 is to make the ultimate training aircraft for student pilots, the cockpit design for these airplanes should not be overly advanced and/or complicated. It should focus on giving pilots the chance to practice their skills in an effective way without too much distracting technology. In other words, the 172 should be an airplane that helps the pilot become a better pilot. Simplification may also help make the airplane more affordable as well.
Speaking of technology, it’s important to consider the place of digital flight instruments and iPad navigation in a modern cockpit. Nowadays, many pilots use an iPad for flight planning and in-flight position reference. An iPad is unable to legally serve as a primary navigation source because it is not certified by the FAA.
One of the biggest challenges with permanently-installed digital avionics is keeping the databases updated. The updates can be difficult to achieve, with sometimes many complicated steps, and it costs money, too. Pilots who are already flying with portable avionic devices know the pleasure of being able to quickly download an entire region’s worth of charts with just a simple tap. In the future, bringing an FAA-certified portable into the cockpit is a possible way to improve precision.
Instrument placement is another important factor in crafting a good cockpit. Cessna’s newer airplanes have made huge improvements in instrument placement when compared with the 1950s- and 1960s-era airplanes. The early 172’s “shotgun” instrument placement has progressed into a standard six-pack arrangement of primary instruments.
The six-pack is well-organized and placed on the pilot’s side. The attitude indicator is in the top center of the six-pack with the other five instruments surrounding it for quick reference. This arrangement makes it easy for pilots to develop their instrument scan and cross-check skills for IFR flying.
Some newer 172s are equipped with the G1000 digital avionics suite instead of the standard six-pack. The PFD of the G1000 glass cockpit is designed around the same principle of ease of reference. The attitude indicator has been enlarged and placed in the middle, with the horizon line spread through the whole display. Altitude, vertical speed, airspeed and heading data are placed around the side of the display. This upgrade increases scanning efficiency in the limited amount of space on the instrument panel. The G1000 glass cockpit also makes the entire cockpit look much cleaner—and the pilot can reach important information faster during multitasking.
In keeping with the philosophy of helping pilots improve flying skills through a simple cockpit, the future Cessna airplane should have a logical and user-friendly arrangement of not only the essential flight instruments, but also the principal flight controls, trim wheel, flap switch, etc.
Among the many insights I gained from my research, one stood out as most important for the future Cessna 172: the focus on making the pilot a better pilot. My guiding principle for the next-generation Cessna 172 would be best summed up as “a well-designed basic airplane optimized for beginner pilots.”
To achieve this goal, it was necessary to classify and rearrange the information display into different levels. The information should be classified with consideration to how often it is used, how quickly it needs be accessed, and in what stage of the flight the pilot needs to access it.
With this concept in mind, I intend to locate principal flight information on a single primary flight display (PFD). This info includes airspeed, heading, vertical speed, altitude and airplane status. The PFD—along with fine-tuning controls, such as elevator trim, rudder trim, aileron trim and flap lever—must be in an eye-catching and easy-to-reach location.
On my design proposal, these items are in the middle of the instrument panel, as shown in the drawing above/left. When practicing basic maneuvers, the pilot can just focus on this part of the cockpit.
The second level of information and control should be arranged on the two FAA-certified portable devices. These two devices serve as individual control centers for both front-seat pilots, or for the pilot and non-pilot passenger. The wireless portable devices for secondary flight controls would feature a combination of touch screen and analog controls. Second-level information (e.g., lighting, navigation, autopilot, etc.) could be reached directly by analog switches and knobs on the device.
The third-level information would be reached through the touch screen and menus. Things like charts, flight route setup, GPS and checklist(s) could be accessed through a touch screen menu.
One benefit of utilizing wireless portable devices is the convenience of planning and data updating. The pilot would be able to take these devices with them when they leave the aircraft. They can do flight planning directly on the device and update the database in one continuous workflow.
This project is still in the early stages. I drafted the basic concept based on the research I’ve done in the past few months. In order to continue to refine the concept, I need to further investigate FAA regulations and, more importantly, the technical challenges involved in making a Cessna 172 instrument panel. I think an internship at Textron Aviation would be a perfect opportunity to learn all these things.
Baoqi Xiao graduates in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in transportation design from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. This will be his second bachelor’s degree; his first was attained in China, where he majored in industrial design. Send questions or comments to .