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Cessna Cardinal: an owner's perspective

by Keith Peterson

The Cardinal RG is a single engine retractable gear aircraft with four seats, a range of about 800 miles (with reserves) per 60 gallon tank of gas and a cruise speed of about 170 MPH (143 knots). It can get four people from Chicago to Denver or Florida in one sitting of about 5 1/2 hours, shorter than the door-to-door airline time.

The following document was created for people who are into airplanes, have flown them for a while and are ready to buy a more serious, non-training-type airplane like the Cardinal RG.

Webmaster's note: This page was actually the first thing ever posted on the web about the Cardinal RG. Over time the entire CFO web page grew out of this effort, and from time to time I've put links from this page into the new areas of the CFO page that cover that item. Just click to go there, but come back and finish the rest of the story!

I've owned a Cessna C-177RG, a Cardinal RG, since 1986. Before that I had a 152 for 2 years and 500 hours. I've been flying since '84, and average 250 hours a year in my Cardinal.I do my own engine, airframe and avionics maintenance as much as possible, with inspections and legal signoffs.

The Cardinal history is fairly well known. Started in '68 to replace the 172, the first Cardinal was pre-doomed by an executive decision to use a 150 horse engine. To drive this point home they ordered some 5,000 engines (as I recall hearing). Thus the '68, with design goals of larger cabin, laminar wing, easy access and other weight-adding items, came in under powered. And it flew just differently enough to get a bad reputation.

After "The Cardinal Rule", a program to retro-fit all '68's with improved stabilators, things improved but the airplane really didn't come into it's own until it became the 177B with the 180 horse engine and CV prop. Read the Fixed Gear history on this page.

In '71 the RG was born. The retraction system was improved in '74, Both models got new panels in '76 and several other improvements hit the '76 model, including an improved retract system. '76 or newer is the one to get. The RG always had the 200 horse injected IO-360 Lycoming. The first models had individual mags, I think the -1C1 engine, the later ones are the -A1B6D engine, the same engine as pre-201 Mooneys.

The last model was the '78, which had the first 28 volt system. To quote Aviation Consumer, "In it's last year it was outsold by the 172 Super Hawk, an airplane which was smaller, slower, noiser and inferior in almost every way." Only 100 '78 RG's were built.The RG history is on this page.

I've heard that it was a thin margin airplane, expensive to build and without much room for profit. Some 4500 straight leg and 1366 RG's were produced in the US. It is one of the few Cessnas with no flat fuselage panels: it's one continuous curve from nose to tail.

I've found the Cardinal, both RG and 'down and welded' gear, to be very nice flying aircraft, much lighter and better harmony on the controls that any other Cessna (at least the 152, 172, 175, 182 or 210 :-) ). It gets stiffer as you speed up, thus it's light in the pattern but stable at cruise.

The correct response to a balloon is to freeze the elevator. The wing will gently settle back into the flare with no action required. If you get too high, a little power will avoid an early stall.

Most 177 drivers do a crowhop in one of their first crosswind landings where they have too much speed. When they 'fly it onto the ground' as they used to in a 172 they get the hop. But after I did two that way in my first 30 hours I've never done another in 1200 hours. I just learned to fly the wing until it ran out of lift.

This does not keep me out of short fields, but it does make me attend to airspeed on final a little more carefully. Luckily the powerful flying stab is very stable in pitch airspeed, and a well set trim can handle 95% of maintaining +/- 2 knots on final. 62 knots gets you into 2000 foot sod strips very nicely, you can turn off at the half-way point most of the time.

I get book performance out of my '76 RG, something not to be counted on in the '68 model. 143 knots at 68% can be expected at a reasonable altitude (say 7,500).

It's also good on grass and has the horsepower to get back out of fairly short fields. Not quite 182 style, but acceptable. I don't go into that 2000 foot strip loaded on a hot day, but I do go into grass strips that short.

My first 177 experience was in a '75 straight leg. We followed a 172 out. I was flying. The owner said "Wait a bit.." I was impatient, let's go! "A little longer...". Finally we went. 3 minutes later we steamed past the 172 with a good closure rate and suddenly I realized why we had waited so long. Fun.

Like all aircraft there are areas to watch. I covered most of them in a message to a prospective owner that's included below. In general I find the Cardinal to be very easy to maintain and very low in either AD's or problem areas.

One advantage is that you don't need to move the seats to get in and out. Saves on track wear. Also there is a great deal of room in back, enough that even a 6'4"er like me can be comfortable. Not that I ride in back too often....

I overhauled my own engine in '92. It had 1709 hours when an old prop strike stress (Previous owner) caused a crankcase crack. The overhaul ran me about $11,000 with new-spec plus quality. I have another standard text on what I learned there....

Here's the answers to some specific questions I've been asked and a few I haven't:

1: Load. I figure I have 970 pounds or so, with my lighter than standard avionics. In practice I find that I can take two couples and 140 lbs of gear if the wives are appropriately light. My family, with our two small kids, is truly a stuff it and fly affair.

All long-legged airplanes allow the tradeoff of weight or range. I would not want to be able to fill everything and be under gross, since it would mean that I could/should have bigger fuel tanks. I find the 177RG to be a nice balance. Although when I bring heavier people and extra skis planning to fill to the tabs (48 out of 60 available), I have trouble leaving air in my tanks and tend to fill it anyway.

When slightly over gross it shows in cruise climb and higher oil temp. It's not a takeoff problem in the winter or on normal airports, but a hot day with short grass and trees will make you want to stay on the safe side. The CG is quite forgiving as long as you keep 2 in front when fully loaded. I got a little rearward one time and it got less stable in bank. (not pitch, strangly.) Remember to recalculate your W&B when your passenger decides not to go. An empty right front seat moves the CG a fair margin.

There is a lot of room in a Cardinal. Take out the back seat and you can fit camping gear for 3 weeks, including bikes, coolers, cots, tables and camp stoves. Really amazing. We can get two folding bikes, kid-seats and a cooler behind the back seat for a full-family day trip, or take four with all their ski gear with no problem (other than the back seat passengers being unable to see each other for the skis up the middle.)

2: The doors are tricky, not because of construction but because they are big. Mine seal well (I got lucky), and people who have spent the time to work on theirs also seal well, but if you get unlucky and don't get it right it can have some whistles. They have a locking pin in the upper corner that is an improvement over other Cessnas.

The door handles are a little fragile, it's a common failure point, and there is a special (but easy) way to lubricate the latch mechanism that helps it retract properly and avoids bashing the side of the airplane with the lock pins.

Most Cardinals have a water leak that shows itself by dripping on your leg when flying in rain. Virtually all Cardinal owners keep a hand-towel under the seat for those situations. People who have resealed the windshield and other top-of-wing seals say it can be fixed without too much trouble, but most of us find that it's not bad enough to chase. You know, when it leaks it's always raining, and you're in the air besides...

I have had some leaks into the baggage area in flight. I worked on the door seal a little (The seam is at the top..) and it seems to be fixed, but that's one worth a little more effort. Some people report improvement in this from resealing the rear window.

One other item I've chased is air leaks. There are several sources, and plugging them helps in cold weather. I can keep everyone comfortable down to about 10 degrees (surface temp). Below that we pile on the coats.

If you're looking at a late 77 or 1978 Cardinal, you may notice a wrinkle or two on the top wing skins where they skins fit together. We are told that in the later years they started to use old parts that had been set off the line in earlier years. Those aircraft tend to have some skin 'tucks' where they made things fit. Perhaps only a perfectionist would notice, and it isn't a serious issue, but you may notice it as I do. Such details are worth a look, but once you find the right combination of condition, radios and price these details will not seem so significant. In general I'd call the construction better than the smaller Cessnas and as good as any aircraft of the era.

I have not seen any parts problems. Some have gone out of stock but been picked up by other manufactures. For instance after a significant effort I found the last headliner in captivity. Two months later Kedzie came out with their replacement at 1/2 the cost. The Cardinal Flyers is one source of info exchange on that. One fellow didn't like the price of the main gear actuator Heim End so he bought 50 from the manufacturer and sold them around the club. I've never heard of any problems getting parts in real life, although some magazine reviews express alarm on that subject. And like all airplanes, parts are not cheap.

ARC radios are not bad in themselves, but you may have a series of small problems that appear trivial but start to add up to real money. If you fly IFR you will eventually replace them just for the security, although if you are good at cleaning contacts you might find them to be fine. I'd try to avoid them. Many (most?) Cardinals are real IFR machines and have already dealt with this by installing improved radios of one type or another.

In my case the airplane I bought was 100% King Digital. At the time I added up the OHC value of the radios and came within a few hundred dollars of what they were asking for the whole plane! It's certainly best to buy the package pre-built.

Just to give you an idea of what can be done, I have King KY-97 comms, KNS-80 and KN-53 RNAV and nav, the digital ADF and Xponder, IIMorrow 618, Argus 3000 driven by a Motorola GPS, HSI, Insight GEM and Strikefinder, Davtronics voltage/temp and clocks, a S-Tec 60-2 3-axis autopilot with altitude hold and digital preselect, electric trim, Shadin miniflow-L fuel flow computer, Stereo intercom with a 10 disk CD changer and a UHF FM Ham radio hardwired in. It all fits the '76 panel and runs fine under the 50 amp 12 volt system.

In my experience I get real book performance. That means 143 to 147 knots depending on altitude. This often works out to 135 knots or less indicated, but the true starts to get going at higher altitudes. My favorite ride is at 14,500 where your power is around 50%, fuel burn is perhaps 7.5 GPH, indicated is perhaps 120 and true is 138. Add a roaring tailwind and you can really cover some ground with little fuel.

In other words, believe the book. However, it can be tricky to figure out what power you are really producing. I used to think it would fly 150 knots at times, but since I got my fuel flow I now realize that I was pulling more power in cold air.

By the way, this is almost exactly the same speed as the last pre-201 Mooney. The 201 is just the modern clean-up from there, which always made me wonder what would happen if you cleaned up the Cardinal. Some folks have done that and report impressive results.

The thing that keeps Mooneys from being comparable, at least for me, is the interior room. I'm 6'4" and I just don't fit in any but the later Mooneys. And they have the same performance: we dial up the same numbers on tach and manifold and fly formation for hours: identical drag and, of course, the same engine.

I have certainly been pleased with the Cardinal. I have friends with Mooneys, 182s, Commanches, 172s, 150s, 210s and Bonanzas that I fly with frequently. It fits in the middle very nicely: I can beat the 210 and Bonanza on short hops if I get efficient in the pattern, and don't run far behind on longer trips. I can hop from Chicago to Denver or down to Florida non-stop with good wind. Very solid IFR, yet responsive and fun to fly. Light controls yet not twitchy. You can get in without moving the seat on those infamous Cessna rails. And maintenance has proved to be very acceptable. I just did an annual for $450, and have never spent more than $600 on one (but I do stay up on maintenance.)

Some things to consider:

Consider whether you might prefer to buy a '76 or later model year. Earlier ones have the narrow panel and later ones are subject to filiform corrosion (although this is fading as most Cardinals have by now been repainted.) If you get a clean or repainted one, no problem with a '77 or '78. The 28 volt '78s are nicer but generally more expensive: probably too much to pay for a faster gear speed and more expensive electronic parts, but some people prefer them. You'll also find that the gear system got simpler in 1976, thus less parts to maintain (although the older ones still work fine.)

Look at the flaps before test flying. I've seen a lot of Cardinals with flaps that do not go all the way in. People adjust them until they are flat with the wing and forget that the first 5% is just back, not down. The result is more wing area and a loss of 10 knots or more of airspeed. The trailing edge should be flush and the little nylon bumpers should be under the wing overlap. This adjustment alone accounts for most if not all 'Cardinals are slow' complaints; perhaps 10% of the ones I look at are not rigged correctly.

Look at the door hinges. The doors are large and have no struts to open against, so with a following wind they can get away. When they do it is not good for the bulkhead they are attached to: look for a patch on the outside by the hinge, and worry if you find one. Open both doors, step back 40 feet off the wingtip, ask yourself what holds the airplane together and you will see that that patch is in a bad spot.

Also the hinges wear if not carefully maintained. I have put bushings in mine, but most have a pronounced wriggle when held almost shut. This is fixable with some work but worth knowing about at the start.

Look for nests in the tailcone if it's parked outside. Just lift the stabiliator and listen for crunching. Birds love those holes... get a cover when you buy the airplane if you park outside.

While you have ahold of the stabilator, wriggle it up and down. Those bearings get loose and wear... they aren't expensive but I would worry about flying with a loose stabilator. I helped a friend buy one recently that had been put together wrong and would not hold trim speed. Worth a check...

There is a service bulletin related to the stabilator counterweight bracket. The old ones had a tendency to crack over time. It may depend on whether the bolt that holds the bracket to the actuator arm had to pull the brackets together. If so, the extra stress works on the aluminum over time an eventually a crack forms. Worth asking if it's been done. They spend a few hours putting in steel brackets to fix or avoid this issue.

If you are ready to buy a Cardinal, you will often benefit greatly from a pre-purchase inspection completed by someone who really knows Cardinals, the more experienced the better. While most mechanics could inspect a 172 or 182 for you, there are few enough Cardinals in the world that most mechanics do not have any experience with them at all. And they were quite different from the other Cessnas... the folks who build them said that Cessna finally let them build one right!

A number of other items are standard for all airplanes. Rusty brake disks, Bendix Mag AD's, the Lycoming oil pump AD (that may have been ignored). and other such items.

You may be wondering whether this minimal mechanic experience will be a problem when you own a Cardinal and want to get it repaired. It will certainly be a factor for some repairs which are unusual to the Cardinal, like replacing those stabilator brackets. But for most items which you may need on short notice a good Cessna mechanic will be fine. For those longer range items CFO is here to help you and your mechanic learn or find an expert to help you.

Perhaps due to these kinds of differences there is a slight reputation about Cardinals being 'unusual.' In spite of the concerns of people who don't know, the Cardinal is not unusual so much as it is just different from the 172. Most Cessna mechanics are 172 experts and expect things to be different on a Mooney or Piper, but when this thing that's almost a 172 is a little different then it can be a surprise.

Overall, the Cardinal is an excellent airplane for the pilot ready to step up to a serious cross country machine. But it is simple enough to own and maintain on a relatively reasonable budget.

Keith Peterson

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