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Tales of the Cessna 180

One of my earliest experiences with small aircraft was with my Grandfather who was the proud owner of a certain Cessna 180 based out of Eagle Lake, Ontario. My Grandpa had owned several types of small aircraft over the years including a PA22 Tri-Pacer, Stinson 108, Cessna 140 and Cessna 172 but his all-time favorite was the C180 Mike Delta Charlie (CF-MDC). My first airplane ride was in that aircraft when I was two years old and I was asleep by the time we returned. My interest in always following my Grandpa around was a natural pathway for my interest in aviation at a young age. My Grandparents had carefully chosen their retirement home on a waterfront property with a gravel airstrip nearby with room for a hangar as well. My frequent visits to the lake over the years often included checking on the 180 as it was parked at the airstrip or simply seeing it buoyed out front of the house on its familiar Edo floats. This aircraft spent equal time on land and water in an effort to be available for year round use.

I do not easily recall too many memories from when I was younger but I do remember the distinct smell of the cabin and I can visualize Grandpa tuning the old King radios and operating the Johnson bar flap handle for landing. I can picture the windshield V-brace and the old ADF dome sitting atop the fuselage. Both are visible in the attached photo. I was aware enough as a young kid that these flying opportunities were something special and were not something that every kid had the chance to experience.

My biggest adventure in this aircraft came in 1975 when Grandpa had just retired from Air Canada after 29 years of flying various models including Lockheed Electra, Canadair North Star, Vickers Viscount and Vanguard until eventually finishing with the Douglas DC-8. He would often return from his overseas destinations with token gifts from Frankfurt or London. So at 9 years old, I joined both Grandparents on a lake hopping trip across Canada. At only nine years old, I doubt that I was able to fully appreciate the reality of how I was spending my summer vacation. We stopped at small, practically unheard-of places along the way visiting old airline friends and a few new friends as well. We landed in places like Jellico and St. Ignace, Ontario and Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba. There were some rough waters along the way but Grandpa was rarely flustered and always knew what to do when seeking out a safe spot to look after the aircraft and his passengers for the night. He was a seasoned bush pilot prior to his career with the airline and it still showed. He had been used to navigating unsettled areas of the Yukon in the late 1930’s using the common navigational equipment for those times. My 180 flying adventure ended at Cooking Lake, Alberta just outside of Edmonton. I continued west by train with my Grandma while Grandpa headed north to catch up with more family members since he were originally from that area.

Production of the Cessna 180 began in 1953 as the demand grew for an aircraft that would be comfortable for long trips yet rugged enough to handle bush flying missions. It was a step up from the beloved C-170 and a bit easier to manage than the soon to be discontinued C-195. The early 180 models were fitted with the 225 hp Continental but soon upgraded to 230 hp which remained the standard until the C185 series took off. The 230 hp Continental O-470 consumed about 12 gph of 80/87 octane fuel. Do you recall the days when avgas was dyed red and often pumped out of strategically located forty-five gallon drums for remote operations? It wasn’t until 1977 that Cessna adopted the high-compression O-470U engine for the 180 which burned the green dyed 100/130 avgas. Do you remember green avgas?

The Cessna 180 series was also appropriately referred to as the Skywagon for its natural ability to haul around passengers or cargo on wheels, skis or floats. This Cessna did not resemble its sister ship, the 182 which was a tricycle gear configuration, with swept tail, omnivision cabin and sleek wheel pants. The 180 appeal was much more basic and utilitarian. Operators were never shy to boast about the overall performance and useful load data. The 180 workhorse was often pushed to the limits during remote operations, which is certainly a testament to the aircraft design but not necessarily the topic of discussion from more responsible airmen. By the mid-sixties, the Cessna 180 had evolved into the 185 which boasted more muscle up front and an even more desirable payload.

Although the 180/185 series of aircraft were the tough guys of the Cessna fleet, there were still a few areas of concern to watch for when performing scheduled maintenance. Aircraft that had been subject to rough field operation were occasionally victims of landing gear box damage and required examination of this area for cracks and deformation. Some of the float operated versions exhibited structural damage in the form of wrinkling just aft of the rear float attachment. This was even noticeable from the outside of the aircraft. Early models of the C180 were also vulnerable to rudder torque tube corrosion and cracks until the necessary product improvement was made available for retrofit. The stabilizer hinge bracket was another area to look for cracks resulting again from rough field operation.

Most 180 operators favored the Scott 3200 series steerable tailwheel assembly provided that it was maintained in optimum working condition. Regular maintenance was necessary to correct any sloppiness in the castor assembly or in the stinger mount bushings. Understanding how the tailwheel steering assembly functions in service is the key to maintaining it properly. The conventional landing gear configuration is essential to field operations so it is important to check the gear mounting attachments and treat any corrosion in that area or on the steel leaf springs themselves. This area demands a keen eye for spotting anything unusual that could otherwise lead to an untimely gear failure. Any form of main gear failure on this aircraft would surely make this aircraft vulnerable to a propeller strike which subsequently results in engine removal and bulk inspection. Main gear alignment requires rolling the aircraft onto a set of grease plates as the first step in making any shim alterations. The service manual outlines the procedure for checking alignment and for making the necessary adjustments. Some of the very remote bush operators would opt for larger balloon-style tires and STOL kits on certain models. The later 185 models could also be fitted with a belly pod for added convenient storage.

Float servicing and maintenance is an ongoing concern yet a critical chore if you wanted to ensure the ongoing integrity of the float gear. Regular servicing of float gear includes pumping out any water accumulated in each float compartment before flight. This was to ensure the safety of the aircraft as well as to provide notes on possible leak areas for the maintenance crew to repair. My interest in float planes was later realized as I entered my aircraft maintenance apprenticeship early in 1987. I was fortunate to work at a float plane base and had my hands on many sets of floats during that time including my very first day. I was introduced to a DHC-2 beaver rebuild project and began hammering rivets with Canadian aviation pioneer, Harry Stirk who founded Orillia Aviation on Lake St. John, Ontario. In this popular float plane environment I was soon introduced to many Cessna 180 and 185 models as well as Cessna 172 and 206 types and Piper Super-Cubs.

My early experiences in maintaining several float equipped 180 series aircraft also prepared me for working out on the Canadian prairies several years later. We were operating a Cessna 180 to be put on floats after extensive repairs were carried out to make them water tight and airworthy. Once fully operational at Pine Lake, Alberta, we were then required to perform scheduled inspections at the lake with the aircraft beached into a shallow cove. There’s probably still a wrench or two buried in the mud under the water where the aircraft once sat. Memories like that helped to define the selected high points of my career as an AME and I would not trade those experiences for anything.

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