One of the first decisions the aspiring pilot has to make is which aircraft to fly while training and it’s often a matter of Piper vs Cessna. Both aircraft are frequently found in the local flight school fleet. Thousands of examples of both remain in use all over the world.
The available aircraft will depend on those at the flying clubs and flight training schools within a reasonable driving distance of the student’s home. There may be other choices but since these aircraft are still very common I thought it would be interesting to make the comparison.
The Piper PA-28 (28th Piper design) is family of aircraft that began with the Cherokee. Then came the Warrior, Arrow, Tomahawk, Archer, and Cadet. The range includes those with the S for seaplane denominator and the R for retractable undercarriage.
In this comparison I’m thinking of those with fixed gear only like the Piper Warrior and Piper Archer III. Modern variants of the Archer remain in production.
Piper PA-28 Cherokee
The Piper PA-28 Cherokee is a light aircraft that was first introduced in the 1960s. In its heyday it was popular among private pilots and flight training schools and many examples remain in use.
The Cherokee has a traditional cantilever low-wing design and is constructed of aluminum alloy. It is powered by a Lycoming piston engine and has room for four people in its cabin. The Cherokee is easy to fly and is known for its stability and short-field performance. It is an economical choice for flying schools and private pilots, and its popularity has resulted in over 32,000 aircraft being built to date.
The Cessna 172 also has some variants and we could include the Cessna 152/150 in this comparison. At one time Cessna aircraft are one of the commonest types to be found at flight schools all over the world but different airplanes have entered the market over the years. We now have the reality of electrically powered flying machines.
Both are single-engine light aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage. For some private pilots who rent aircraft by the hour the choice is a matter of personal preference only but if you’re a private pilot with your own plane you might be able to explain in more detail why you prefer one over the other.
The Cessna 172 is a four-seat, single-engine airplane that first flew in 1955 and is still being produced today. More than 43,000 aircraft have been built, making it one of the most popular planes ever made. The172 is used for a variety of purposes, including personal flight, flight training, and light cargo transport.
The aircraft is relatively simple to fly and maintain, which has contributed to its popularity. It also has a good safety record, with only a handful of fatal accidents over the past few decades. The Cessna 172 is an iconic aircraft that has played a significant role in aviation history.
Some of the points one could make about the PA-28 would also apply to other low wing aircraft like the Grumman AA5 -A Cheetah, the aircraft that I first became accustomed with when I started flying.
I have flown in the Cessna aircraft mentioned here and a few of the Piper aircraft, including the Piper Tomahawk on one occasion. I recall thinking that there was more leg room and with the seat fully back I couldn’t reach the rudder pedals even though I’m quite tall.
Speaking of the Cheetah, it has a sliding bubble canopy which provides easy acess to the cockpit and the back seat. This contrasts greatly with the single door on the Piper.
The most obvious difference between the two aircraft is that the Piper aircraft are low wing and the Cessna aircraft are high wing, but what difference does that make? Let’s take a look.
Low Wing vs High Wing
Some people prefer low wing aircraft because they feel more like the aircraft they’ve always imagined they would fly. Low wing airplanes provide better visibility of the sky above. Depending on the cockpit canopy type this can be exceptional, particularly with the bubble-like canopies of some aircraft.
High wing aircraft provide better ground visibility. In a high wing Cessna 172 you can see much more of the ground and for some students (and qualified PPL holders) this is preferable since it makes identifying navigational landmarks so much easier. It also presents more photo opportunities for passengers and makes sightseeing easier. A high wing aircraft is preferable for conducting surveys, aerial photography, and civil air patrols like Sky Watch.
The high wing Cessna aircraft provide shade from the sun when in the air and protection against the rain when entering or exiting the aircraft. With the wing above, you have enough time to put up an umbrella before walking across the apron. The wing can also act as additional protection if you’re camping with your aircraft at a fly-in, for example.
Fuel Drains & Refueling
Aircraft with low wings like all the Piper aircraft mentioned above are easier to refuel, but you have to bend down to access the drain points to check the fuel for water contamination.
With high wing airplanes the opposite is true. It’s easier to drain the tanks but you need a stepladder to refuel the tanks from above.
With the fuel tanks in the higher wing of the Cessna the fuel is gravity fed to the engine. The Piper aircraft require an electrically powered fuel pump to maintain flow to the engine. Some see this as a disadvantage as it’s one more thing that could fail.
Either way, the private pilot needs to pay close attention to fuel management and has to remember to switch tanks at the appropriate time. Forgetting to do so has been the cause of engine failure on a few occasions.
Preflight inspection of the undercarriage is easier on a high wing than a low wing plane. It’s also possible to check the status of the tires on the main wheels prior to landing.
However, removing the filler cap on the fuel tank for a visible check of the fuel level and then ensuring that it is tighly fastened is easier on the low wing plane. With a Cessna you need to get the stepladder out again.
One Door or Two?
The PA-28 has only one door on the starboard side. The Cessnas have two doors, one on each side, making them much easier to get in and out of. That could be a significant factor if your passengers require assistance entering and exiting the aircraft.
I assume there must be structural reason why a PA-28 doesn’t have two doors. It must have been the matter of some debate when it was first announced that it would only have one door.
A high wing aircraft has more ground clearance so as the pilot taxis to or from the holding point it’s easier to see ground obstacles. This is particularly useful on grass airfields that may not have a clearly defined taxiway.
The Cessna 172 tends to be more stable in the air due to the pendulum effect of the design but is more sensitive to crosswinds when landing.
A low wing airplane can take advantage of the ground effect as it settles down to land and tends to cope better with crosswinds due to the lower centre of gravity and the fact that the gear is spread wider apart than aircraft with high wings.
The Cessna aircraft have a wing spar from the underside of the wing to the fuselage on either side. This creates additional drag. The Piper aircraft have no such struts. Again, I’m only assuming here but I suspect that’s mitigate the effect of structural changes caused by putting two doors in the fuselage.
Generally speaking, Cessna aircraft have electric flaps while Piper aircraft have manual flaps. There are some exceptions but it’s another point to consider. So on the one hand it’s electric flaps and gravity fed fuel, or manual flaps and an electric fuel pump.
Choosing between these two airplanes is more to do with personal preference than anything else. As you can see, different airplanes are designed in ways that trade one advantage for another. There is no right or wrong answer the question, “Which is the better aircraft?” Both low wing Pipers and high wing Cessnas have their loyal fans who fly nothing else.
Try several variations of both low wing aircraft and high wing. The planes that you may find more easy to fly may surprise you.