A closer look at the Cessna 172

By Leland Kim - bio | email

HAWAII (KHNL) - It's Day Three, and still no signs of a single-engine Cessna plane and its crew, missing from the Big Island of Hawaii since Tuesday morning. Veteran pilot Katsuhiro Takahashi and his two passengers - visitors from Japan - took off from Kona airport, but never came back.

Thursday, the Coast Guard, the Hawaii County Fire Department, and volunteers resumed search efforts, but so far, they've come up empty.

Takahashi, 40, is a senior pilot at Island Hoppers, and colleagues praise his credentials.

"He was the chief instructor for their flight school over there and was involved in voluntary FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) safety programs along with one of our instructors here," said Mac Smith, a pilot for 34 years and a veteran flight instructor at Flight School Hawaii. "A person who should be well qualified to handle emergency in the aircraft? I think he'd be one of them."

The U.S. Coast Guard has focused its search efforts on the southwest side of the Big Island, near the Kau Forest Reserve.

Coast Guard officials have not ruled out any specific area, so they continue to search both land and sea. They continued their search the rest of the day until conditions permitted. At least 12 aircraft participated in Thursday's search.

The plane Takahashi piloted was a single-engine Cessna 172. How reliable are those planes? And how well do they respond in emergency situations?

They're very popular in flight school because they're fairly easy to maneuver, and pretty forgiving if you make small mistakes. So flying Cessnas are typically safe if you maintain them, and take the necessary safety measures.

This single-engine Cessna 172 is flight instructor Kim Conrad's lifeline whenever she takes to the sky.

"They're very, very reliable airplanes," said Conrad. "It's a tried and true design. Cessnas have been around for years and years."

And she wants to keep flying them for years. That's why she goes through her pre-flight checks religiously, about 50 items she has to look over before every flight.

"You check the hinges. You check the fuel, make sure you have fuel," said Conrad. "And you strain the fuel to make sure it's not contaminated with dirt or water or anything like that."

But once she's done, she's confident in her abilities and her plane.

"Cessna's like the Toyota Camry of small airplanes, so they're very safe, very reliable airplanes," said Conrad. "And thousands and thousands of people have learned to fly in them."

As she takes off, Conrad constantly monitors the instrument panel, as the plane gets higher and higher.

And in the air, safety is still a top priority, checking altitude and air speed, and scanning to see what else is out there.

Conrad says it's important to stay prepared for any emergencies, things like the engine dying several thousand feet in the air.

"Just because the engine quits, it doesn't mean the wings fall off," she said. "So the airplane's still aerodynamic whether the engine is running. So it pretty much becomes a glider."

Conrad and other flight instructors say it's possible to guide a single-engine plane safely to the ground under the right circumstances.

Katsuhiro Takahashi was flying a similar type of Cessna when he disappeared on Tuesday with two passengers. Many pilots say, if anyone can bring the plane to safety, he can.

To avoid potential problems in the sky, flight instructors rely, again, on those pre-flight checks. If anything is wrong, they say, it's better to fix it on the ground instead of dealing with it in the air.