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Young again

Your 1953 Cessna 170B is now a modern, backcountry beast

It all started with a phone call from AOPA colleagues Richard McSpadden and Dave Hirschman one hot, spring day: “Do you know of an A&P that could do a prebuy on a Cessna 170 near Auburn, Alabama?” asked McSpadden.

Photography by Chris Rose.
Zoomed image
Photography by Chris Rose.
“This might be our next sweepstakes airplane, and we know you have plenty of contacts down there.”

Over the past year and a half, I have had the pleasure (and sometimes slight headache) of managing the transformation of the 2023 AOPA Sweepstakes aircraft from a stock 1953 Cessna 170B to a 195-horsepower, backcountry-equipped adventure machine and showing it off to pilots around the country. The Cessna 170 is the oldest sweepstakes airplane that AOPA has refurbished, and I am by far the youngest sweepstakes manager. As a result, the 170 showcases the skill and teamwork of long-time aviation professionals and aviation’s next generation across the southeast.

Never too young

Since my husband and I were in the middle of a move from our San Antonio home to Georgia, I called upon one of the best A&Ps I could think of at home—25-year-old Christian Campbell, a mechanic for a major airline and an active general aviation pilot. The airplane passed the prebuy inspection with flying colors and Campbell and his girlfriend, 20-year-old flight instructor and airline pilot Madison Murray, flew it home to Atlanta Regional Airport-Falcon Field.  

With only a few weeks before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2022, AOPA enlisted the help of another A&P, Ryan Walters, 20. Walters worked to replace several instruments that had filled with water as the airplane sat unattended on a hot and humid ramp, as well as diagnose a high oil pressure indication. I was checked out in the airplane by Cessna 170 afficionado Parker Thaxton, 24. After building enough confidence and proficiency, I soloed the 170 off the very same grass that I learned to fly as a teenager at Peach State Aerodrome. It was a full circle moment.

Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt

  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    The original interior was functional, but far from beautiful.
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    Dave Stoots and David Lanni of Stoots Aviation installed Stene Aviation Sporsman STOL wing cuffs.
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    The Continental Prime IO-370 195-horsepower engine and Hartzell Trailblazer propeller were installed Barnstormer's Workshop in Georgia.
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    The author, Parker Thaxton, and Ryan Walters take the 170 up for a fligth after maintenance. Photography by Cayla Hunt.
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    Gardner Lowe Aviation Services in Peachtree City, Georgia, did a thorough inspection before installing a new panel and avionics.
  • Photography by Joe Dinolfo, Leigh Hubner and Cayla Hunt
    Hawk Aircrasft Services in Zephryhills, Florida, stripped the 170 and installed a new elevator and windows before applying paint.

Phone a friend

Sweepstakes projects give AOPA an opportunity to engage with members (who are automatically entered to win) and to generate excitement through regular social media updates, magazine articles, and appearances at events before giving the airplane away to one lucky winner. As fun as the flying and travelling can be, the part I enjoyed the most was being creative with how we told the 170’s story. But to tell the story in the way I envisioned it, I had to call on a friend. This is where fellow Georgian Leigh Hubner came into play. Hubner, a videographer with extensive television experience, didn’t blink twice before agreeing to shoot the sweepstakes reveal video. The video, which focused on the overall stock, stable flier that the 170 was, laid the groundwork for the dramatic backcountry modifications that we had in store.  

When the reveal video debuted just prior to AirVenture 2022, general aviation enthusiasts came out to show their support of the “backcountry beast” model we were going for. And over the next several months, AOPA staffers flew the Cessna 170 to events across the country to drum up excitement and anticipation for the restoration process.  

The real fun began in January 2023 when the team at Barnstormer’s Workshop at Peach State Aerodrome, accompanied by Dave Stoots of Stoots Aviation, began the engine upgrade process. The meek 145-horsepower engine was replaced with a fire-breathing 195-horsepower Continental Prime IO-370 as part of the Stoots Aviation supplemental type certificate. “Power is one of those things where it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” said Stoots. “When you have that extra power, it is a much safer airplane to operate.” In addition to the engine, the old, fixed pitch McCauley propeller was replaced with a new, lightweight 83-inch Hartzell Trailblazer constant-speed propeller.  

After a month in the shop, Thaxton took the airplane up for its first flight with the new engine, propeller, Stene STOL wing cuffs, 26-inch Alaskan Bushwheel tires, and more. With Stoots in the right seat to monitor the Garmin GI 275 engine indication system, they took off and a small crowd stared in amazement as the 170 leapt off the ground in a way we had never seen before.  

“We climbed up to 3,000 feet and I got to see what it’ll really do,” said Thaxton after hopping out of the airplane. “There’s a big difference between [my family’s] 145-horsepower O-300 and the Continental Prime IO-370….It’s like comparing a VW Bug to a drag car. It’s a completely different airplane.” 

Whether it was a short takeoff and landing competition, flying against other taildraggers, or a simple low-and-slow sunset cruise, the 170 had earned its way into the hearts and minds of pilots across the country.

Cessna 170

  • Cessna 170
    Twenty-six-inch Alaskan Bushwheel tires ensure that the 170 is ready for any backcountry adventure. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Cessna 170
    Sky Comforts in Zephyrhills, Florida, created a picturesque backcountry scene over the hat rack. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Cessna 170
    Atlee Dodge's step and handle make refueling a breeze. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Cessna 170
    Michael Garber's custom backcountry paint scheme features AOPA's vintage wings. Photography by Chris Rose.

Paint and panel process

AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman flew down to Georgia to pick up the 170 to show off the new engine/propeller combination at AOPA headquarters in Maryland. It was here at headquarters where I flew the aircraft for the first time with the upgraded engine. Blame it on nerves, but I called upon Hirschman to accompany me on this first flight of sorts. After getting to know the airplane again, in 25-knot winds, I had the confidence I needed to feel one with the airplane yet again.  

With less than a month remaining until Sun ’n Fun, the pressure was building to select a paintƒ scheme. After several meetings with Michael Garber of Garber Designs and Craig Barnett of Scheme Designers, we decided to have Garber design the scheme and Barnett provide the paint specification document and paint mask to the paint shop. After a short brainstorming session with Garber, we came up with a scheme that honors the classic lines of the Cessna 170 while embodying the “backcountry beast” theme. With those standards in place, Garber designed a unique turquoise mountain scheme complemented by vintage AOPA wings. At Sun ’n Fun, we committed to our paint and interior shops: Hawk Aircraft Services and Sky Comforts in Zephyrhills, Florida, as both shops came highly recommended by Barnett.  

After Sun ’n Fun, I flew the airplane home to Georgia where I left it with Karl Gardner of Gardner Lowe Aviation Services for a brand-new panel. Thanks to several contributors including Aspen, Garmin, and PS Engineering, the Cessna 170’s panel was transformed from a clunky, ill-arranged thing of the past to an IFR-equipped modern marvel.  

“I’m excited that we can take an older airframe…and make it more functional for everyday use,” said Gardner. “But I’m also really excited that we are going to be able to make a safer airplane for somebody that’s going to win it, and they’ll be able to use it for years to come.” 

A couple of weeks after the panel was completed, Jack Reynolds and I embarked on a two-day flight from Atlanta Regional Airport-Falcon Field to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. With a brand-new engine and panel, I was feeling more pressure than ever to safely deliver the airplane to the AOPA booth at AirVenture. Reynolds’ extra set of eyes and A&P skillset gave me the confidence boost I needed to fly the aircraft from Georgia to Wisconsin, as well as into a hornet’s nest of general aviation aircraft at AirVenture. After an interesting trip, the Cessna 170 was on display all week long where AOPA members and nonmembers alike showed up to check up on the restoration and see how they might be able to win.  

Paint and Panel Process

  • Paint and Panel Process
    The modern panel features Garmin Aviation’s GI 275 engine monitor, GNC 355 GPS/com, GNC 255 nav/com, GTX345 ADS-B in/out transponder, GSB-15 power ports, as well as Aspen’s Evolution E5 dual electronic flight instrument, PS Engineering’s PMA8000G audio panel, and uAvionix’s AV-30 EFIS. graphy by Chris Rose.
  • Paint and Panel Process
    The cowling features a unique Cessna 170 logo created by the AOPA team. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Paint and Panel Process
    AOPA’s vintage wings make a statement on top of the left wing. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Paint and Panel Process
    B.A.S. Inc. donated new seatbelts and a tail pull handle for easy maneuvering. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Paint and Panel Process
    Bushliner Aircraft and Lost River Paracord’s custom paracord handles makes getting in and out easy and practical.

Coming to the end

Immediately after AirVenture, Reynolds and I once again embarked on a cross-country adventure in the 170 for the final part of the restoration: paint and interior. Although it wasn’t a long flight from Peach State Aerodrome to Zephyrhills, Florida, I had just enough time to start feeling sentimental about the restoration that was nearing completion.  

But the moment I realized our time with the 170 was truly ending was a month later when Barnett and I visited Hawk Aircraft Services to check on the paint and interior progress. Seeing the aircraft sitting with a creamy base coat and paint mask hit me harder than I was expecting. Although I was a little sad, it was also fun picking out thread patterns, colors, and brainstorming with true creative professionals like Barnett.

Exactly a month later, the 170 rolled out of the Hawk hangar sporting the paint scheme and interior I had been dreaming of—the only difference was that it looked far better. “It’s been a complex project,” said Hawk Aircraft Services owner Joe Dinolfo. “At first I had my apprehension but now that it’s done, it worked out really well. We’ve never really done anything quite like this. We just wanted to make it a nice project for everyone.”

With over 50 hours on the new engine, the 170 has proven itself in any and every realm we placed it in. Whether it was a short takeoff and landing competition, flying against other taildraggers, or a simple low-and-slow sunset cruise, the 170 had earned its way into the hearts and minds of pilots across the country.  

Selfishly, I will miss flying this hands-off, incredibly capable machine. But the aspect that I will miss the most is sharing the aircraft with aviation’s next generation. After all, the transformation of the 170 wouldn’t have been the same without their skills and passion.

Although our time with the 2023 Sweepstakes Cessna 170B is ending, we look forward to surprising one lucky pilot with a real backcountry beast.

Coming to an end

  • Coming to an end
    The author and Jack Reynolds flew the 170 from Georgia to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Photography by Cayla Hunt.
  • Coming to an end
    Aero-Lites provided new LED lights. Photography by Chris Rose.
  • Coming to an end
    Aero-Lites provided new LED lights. Photography by Chris Rose.


Continental Aerospace Technologies
IO-370 Prime engine
Aero Clean Technologies
Paint stripper
LED lighting
Aerospace Industries
Interior side pockets
Aerox Aviation
oxygen system
Airframes Alaska
Alaskan Bushwheel tires
Aspen Avionics
Electronic flight display
AssuredPartners Aerospace
Aviation insurance
AWI Aerospace
Welding Exhaust system
Barnstormer’s Workshop
Engine and propeller installation
B.A.S Inc.
Retractable pull handle and seabelts

Paracord handles and guidance
F. Atlee Dodge
V-brace and step handle
Garber Design Studios
Paint scheme
Gardner Lowe Aviation Services
Avionics and panel install
Engine indication system
Transponder, nav/com
Great Lakes Aero
Hartzell Propeller Inc.
Constant speed propeller
Hawk Aircraft Services
Paint job
LakeVue Aeronautics LLC
Folding jump seats
Replacement elevator
Micro Aerodynamics
Vortex generators
Midwest Panel Builders
GI 275 EIS quick kit wiring harness
Weight and balance
Digital logbooks
PS Engineering Incorporated
Audio panel
Rope Chocks
Aircraft chocks
Rosen Sunvisor Systems
Sun visors
Scheme Designers
Paint specification and guidance
Aircraft paint
Sky Comforts
New interior
SiriusXM Aviation
SiriusXM weather and entertainment
Stene Aviation
STOL wing cuff
Stoots Aviation
Engine and propeller STC
Electronic flight display
Cayla McLeod
Cayla McLeod Hunt
Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.

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