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Above San Francisco in a 1956 Cessna

I recently spent an afternoon with a friend's Cessna 172, one of the first fifty to roll off the assembly line. That model went on to become the most successful mass-produced light aircraft in history, but despite this popularity, the 172 was no airborne Model T. That honorific belongs to the Piper J-3 Cub, a flying Tin Man which built its following on post-WWII exuberance and minimal FAA regulations. The Cessna was more than four times as expensive as a J-3: a 1956 172 cost around $9000, placing it in the genteel company of a new Cadillac.

Early advertising underpins this message, suggesting that the 172 was the domain of the suburban renaissance man, the type of middle-class Medici who was an early adopter of the Dictaphone or the Moscow Mule. The plane's most prominently marketed feature was the Land-O-Matic, a spring-loaded landing gear which allowed you to "drive into the sky--and leave your competitors behind!"

Today, this specimen punctuates an otherwise drab tarmac at Palo Alto Airport. Sure, the Cirrus SR line (which has largely supplanted the 172 as the affluent hobbyist's choice) may offer a parachute and an optional turboprop, but lacks the true essentials: chrome teardrop beacons.

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