One owner's story
Flying the Cardinal
A shopping trip
Data by N number
Cost of ownership
Birth of the Cardinal
Keep costs down
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
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
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
Also the hinges wear if not carefully maintained. I have put bushings
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
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.
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