First of 45,000

2020 marked the 65th anniversary of the first flight of the Cessna 172. As the world’s most produced aircraft, with over 45,000 built, the first example to roll off the production line is still flying today…

In May 1955, Cessna Aircraft Corporation contemplated the declining sales of their C-170B four-place taildragger and decided that perhaps it was time for something a bit more modern. They pulled one off the production line, installed a tricycle landing gear, subjected it to several months of brutal testing (2,500 landings in 160 flying hours), and after mulling over the results decided that there might be a market for this thing. In 1956 they put the Cessna 172 into production and since then more than 44,000 Cessna 172s have been built and sold. 

Every one of those aircraft has a serial number. Dennis Ozment’s C-172 N5000A has a serial number, too, but it’s one of the most significant in almost 120 years of private aircraft. Zero Alpha’s serial number is ONE – the very first 172 Cessna sold to a customer. 

Now fully restored to original condition, it’s not a hangar queen. Dennis flies it every chance he gets – a privilege he earned through six years of weekend work. 

After medical school and a stint in the army, where he learned to fly helicopters, Dennis returned to Quincy, Illinois and set up shop as a rheumatologist, specialising in the treatment of arthritis and related problems. Once his practice was up and running, he bought a Cessna 150 and earned his civilian fixed-wing licence. He then sold the 150 and went looking for a project.

“When I was a kid I helped my dad rescue my grandfather’s John Deere tractor,” Dennis says. 

“Grandad had abandoned it out in a cotton field and dad and I pulled it out of the weeds and worked together to get it running. Later we worked on restoring a 1955 Chevrolet. I found I just like bringing old machinery back to life. I see the things that don’t fit – usually stuff that’s been added or subtracted over the years – and I really like the small, intricate systems that were used before the era of throw-away electronics. So I was looking for an aircraft to restore, but not restore too much. My practice was not going to allow me the time it would take to rescue some half-rotted barn find.”

One year later, and still searching, Dennis spotted an ad for a Cessna 172 sitting on a Texan airport. It claimed to be the very first Cessna 172, but the blue and white part job set off Dennis’ alarm bells.

Dennis remembers, “That paint was all wrong, but I called anyway, and Joe Nelson, the owner, set me straight. The aeroplane had been repainted, but it really was the first 172. I was interested enough to take a jet to Texas.” Once there he met his father and together they went over the aeroplane with Joe.

Despite having been in a T-hangar, almost forgotten, for about 20 years, it was in decent shape. Joe had spent a lot of time and energy returning it to airworthy condition, concentrating on the things that it needed so it could fly safely, rather than cosmetics. It was what Dennis had been looking for: a flyable aircraft that could be returned to its original form and had the bonus of historical significance. After talking it over with his dad and thinking about it for a while, he called Joe and made the deal.

The flight home from the Dallas area to Quincy ended up being a test of pilot and machine.

“I planned an early morning departure. It was late autumn and the days were getting shorter, plus it’s a six or seven hour trip, counting in a couple of stops. But before I went we were going to change the oil. Well, Joe is a very methodical and detail-oriented guy, and he wanted to make sure I understood everything necessary to do the oil change properly. I ended up having breakfast and lunch with him and didn’t get off until 2pm. I made the last hours of the flight at night, with thunderstorms flashing out to the west and heading my way. I got to Quincy about 9pm, dead tired. My dad was not happy with me that night!”

Dennis flew the 172 for about a year, including a trip to Oshkosh in 2011. “Not too many people even noticed the aeroplane or the sign that went with it,” he says.

He returned home and started the restoration he’d always intended. In any restoration, the restorer has to make a decision – just how perfect do I want it? The first 98 per cent is expensive enough, both in time and money, and the last two per cent gets incredibly labour intensive and costs serious money. Dennis decided that he wanted an original aircraft, not a perfect one. He might take it up a notch by polishing the bare aluminium that was part of the original colour scheme, but he drew the line at completely reskinning the aircraft. For the next six years he spent his weekdays with his patients and his weekends with 5000A. With help from his mechanic Rodney Halfpap, the aeroplane was taken completely apart.

Somehow the airframe had suffered very little corrosion, and even better, the blue paint had been sprayed over a barely prepared airframe. When the paint was stripped, they found the alclad coating on the aluminium was intact, the rivet heads undamaged, and paint lines from the original scheme still visible.

The early 172s have a very low panel which gives great visibility over the nose. New fabric trim was precisely matched to the original material used by Cessna Right Late 1950s Cessna advert for the then all-new 172 - paralift flaps and land-o-matic undercarriage…

Both the vertical fin and the fuselage showed evidence that the aeroplane had been on its back somewhere along the way. Usually, when this occurs the wings take a beating, but the wings on N5000A were in almost perfect shape. “I can’t explain it,” says Dennis. “I can’t swear that the wings are original to the aeroplane. The logs don’t mention an accident or wing replacement, but who knows?”

“When I decided to polish all the exposed aluminium, I really didn’t understand what it would take to do it right… the process averaged about 45 minutes per square foot”

The interior was refurbished as close to original as possible. “We found a company that could restore the old, cracked control yokes,” Dennis says, “And we had good luck with the seats. We took them apart carefully and in the back, we found that the original fabric was still on the rear seat. The upholsterer had simply covered it with his new fabric. The fabric was traced back to a 1955 Oldsmobile and found enough matching to redo everything.”

“One of my ebay treasures was a completely untouched, unfaded colour 172 brochure dated 1956,” Dennis says. “We gleaned a lot of information about paint colours and options from that.”

The toughest part of the restoration was self-inflicted. “When I decided to polish all the exposed aluminium, I really didn’t understand what it would take to do it right. Eventually I developed an easy seven-step process. I started sanding with 800 grit sandpaper, always sanding in one direction, never in circles. I had to go around each rivet head with my fingertips – and there are a lot of rivets in a set of Cessna wings! But a sanding machine was out of the question. You could damage a bunch of rivet heads in a few seconds and cause a problem that would take even more time to fix. Then I went to 1,000 grit, sanding at right angles to the 800. Next was 1,200 grit, which is so fine it feels almost smooth to the touch. After that I worked up through three grades of Nuvite polish. I could get through all seven steps at an average of 45 minutes per square foot…”

Lost knowledge

The Cessna company now makes most of its money from aeroplanes burning Jet A, and so, while they helped out when asked, a lot of the time the knowledge just wasn’t there. “Almost everyone involved on the original 172 has passed on,” says Dennis. “The aeroplane has outlived them. I found one elderly gentleman who had been part of the team, but he had been moved to the T-37 project fairly quickly and didn’t remember much about the 172.”

Robust airframe, four seats and that nosewheel undercarriage was the perfect recipe for flight schools and private owners…

Cessna didn’t have many original parts in stock, either, but the ones they had they didn’t sell cheap. “The oil door in the cowling was one of few things in the whole project where I just threw money at it. Nobody but Cessna had one, and it wanted $1,200 for it! I paid up, and when it came it really didn’t fit very well. It was hard, watching Rodney take a belt sander to a $1,200 part!”

Until 1968, Cessna powered the 172 with the six-cylinder Continental O-300 rated at 145hp. The aeroplane certainly wasn’t over-powered with that engine, but early 172s hadn’t suffered the weight gains that came later, so performance was acceptable. Pilots certainly enjoyed the smooth running of the small six-cylinder mill. The engine in 5000A is the same one it left the factory with, or at least some of it is. It’s sort of like your ‘grandfather’s axe’ scenario – it’s got a different shaft, different blade and a new wedge, but it’s still your grandfather’s axe. Dennis says the logs show three or four overhauls (depending on how you read the logbooks) over the aeroplane’s lifetime, but the case still bears the serial number it had when it was pushed through Cessna’s hangar door 65 years ago.

As they went through the airframe they found the control cables in good shape. The original propeller was overhauled at Memphis Propeller and looks brand new – or better. Dennis did change the brakes, replacing the old Goodyear units with modern Clevelands. “Later, I put the Goodyear ones back on because they were more authentic, although they’re not as good,” he says. He and Rodney did make one scary discovery back in the aft fuselage. The elevator torque tube firing was corroded and cracked. “If anybody’s restoring an old 172, that’s where I would have them look first.”

When a new cowling oil door was needed, the only source was Cessna stock, at great expense

The test flying went well, with very few squawks. “In the early 172s, the panel and cowling aren’t nearly as high as the modern ones,” Dennis explains. “The view over the nose is much better. I really notice that when I’m giving rides to kids. They can see what’s in front of the aeroplane, just like the pilot can. It makes the experience completely different than looking through the side window. It makes my experience better, too. I tell people I feel like Snoopy sitting on top of his doghouse when I fly this aeroplane. I can see in all directions.”

When the finished aeroplane arrived at EAA AirVenture 2017, gleaming in its polished alclad, cardinal red and arctic white paint scheme, the reception was completely different than back in 2011. Suddenly it wasn’t just another Cessna. People recognised it for what it was and flocked to it every day of the show. The EAA judges noticed it too and Dennis flew home with the Gold Lindy in the Vintage category resting on the back seat.

“My goal was to give people the look and feel of the world in 1956. I love looking at the really spectacular restorations of the Staggerwings, Howards and Spartans, but few people will ever have a chance to fly one of those. Almost everyone has flown, or has a chance to fly, a 172 It really did do what Cessna’s brochure said – it gave wings to the world.”

Polished metal finish painstakingly restored with seven stages of hand sanding

Two other famous Cessna 172s

On December 4, 1958 Robert Timm and John Wayne Cook took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas. It was well into 1959 by the time they landed. They kept their modified 172 in the air for 1,558 hours and 19 minutes – almost 65 days on an engine that had 4,590 hours when they started. They refuelled their 142-gallon belly tank from a truck doing 80mph down a straight stretch of road (lots of those in Nevada) 128 times, including at least once at night. Expenses were covered by the Hacienda Hotel (whose name covered most of the aft fuselage) and raised money for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. 

Three decades later Robert Timm’s son Steve found the aeroplane on a Canadian farm. In 1988 he brought it back to Las Vegas and in 1992 the Howard W Cannon Aviation museum acquired it for permanent display.

In early May 1987, Matias Rust departed his home strip near Hamburg in D-EDJB, a rented 172. He embarked on a two-week tour, landing in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. lt was a pretty adventurous itinerary, especially considering he had all of 50 hours in his logbook when he left home. It got even more adventurous when, on leaving Helsinki, Finland, he turned east and headed into the Soviet Union. He was detected by the Soviet military, and even intercepted once, but confusion prevented any fatal action. He landed on the Bolshoi Bridge in downtown Moscow. 

He’d hoped to promote peaceful understanding between East and West but instead Rust spent 11 months in a Soviet prison before being released and returned to Germany. D-ECJB eventually ended up at the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin.

A high-timer flies on

In 1965, when Wally Olson ordered a C-172 for his flight school, he was very specific with what he wanted. No frills, no options – and no extra expenses. Those optional drains for the wing tanks? No, thanks. Nav radio? I’ll find my way home without it. Landing light? What? It comes with one? Well, I guess so… The aircraft went to Wally’s Evergreen Airport in Vancouver, Washington. There it joined a couple of Taylorcrafts, a Champ and a Waco UPF-7 on the flight line. 

It flew power line patrol and endured years of abuse while it taught countless student pilots the basics. Wally rented it for about half what other flight schools in the area were charging for C-172s, so it flew a lot. I scraped enough change out of the couch cushions for an hour of circuits and was bawled out for using up the landing light, being told, while trudging around the circuit, ‘You’ll burn it out’ – the one time I ever heard Wally use a radio.

In 2006 Wally’s family closed his airport (where it felt, with the exception of the nosewheel Cessna, like it was still 1936 or so) and N5930R went across the river to Scappoose, Oregon with one of Wally’s former students, Jeff Paulson. Jeff used it in the course of his aircraft maintenance and restoration business for several years, then sold it to a local flying group where at long last, it’s having a complete refurbishment and will be flying again soon, adding more time to the 20,800 hours already in its logs.


Max speed (Vne) 151kt
Max cruise speed 122kt
Stall speed 50kt
Rate of climb 645fpm
Service ceiling 13,000ft
Max range 420nm with reserve

Weights & loadings

Seats Four
Max take-off 2,200lb (998kg)
Empty 1,260lb
Payload 940lb
Fuel capacity 39 gal
Baggage capacity 120lb


Wingspan 36ft (11m)
Wing area 174 sq ft (16.2sq m)
Length 27ft 2in (8.28m)
Height 8ft 11in (2.72m)


Airframe Riveted aluminium monocoque
Engine Continental O-300A
Max power 145hp
Propeller Metal, fixed-pitch McCauley
Undercarriage Nosewheel


Cessna Aircraft Company, Wichita, Kansas. USA


Introductory price from Cessna was $8,995
Straight-tail 172 production ran to 4,195 examples over five years Early 172s can be found for sale from around £25k, though they won’t be as perfect or unique as this one…

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