In the early 1960s Cessna decided to expand their already wide line of light aircraft by entering the agricultural aircraft market. They surveyed pilots and operators of other brands of agricultural aircraft to see what features and capabilities these operators were looking for. The resulting aircraft was a conventional single-seat, piston-engined, strut-braced low-wing agricultural airplane.
The Cessna 188 borrowed heavily from the Cessna 180, the initial version using the same tail cone and fin structure as well as the same Continental O-470-R 230 hp (170 kW) powerplant. The 188ís airframe is predominantly built from 2024-T3 aluminum, with the chemical hopper constructed from fibreglass. The fuselage is of semi-monocoque construction and is pressurized on later models (using the dynamic pressure resulting from the aircraft's forward speed) to reduce induction of chemicals into the airframe.
The Cessna 188 was first flown on 19 February 1965. The aircraft was certified and entered production in February 1966, with 241 aircraft delivered the first year.
The initial design of the Cessna 188 was so successful that over its 17-year production run the basic airframe remained unchanged. Only the engines and the agricultural products dispensing systems were upgraded, other than some minor changes to the ventilation systems.
The main use for the Cessna 188 series was for agricultural purposes, but many examples were later acquired for use as glider and sailplane tugs.
A total of 3976 Cessna 188s of all four variants were built during its production run, made up of 53 AGpickups, 1589 AGwagons, 1949 AGtrucks and 385 AGhuskies.