Cessna’s Starter Planes: the 120 and 140

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The Cessna 120 and 140 were “starter” planes in more ways than one. They were affordable, and they were easy to fly and maintain. They were the plane in which many pilots trained and so were the perfect first-plane purchase for many people.

They also helped push Cessna into its postwar “modern age” of building all-metal, highly reliable aircraft for training and personal use.

 

A market opportunity

As World War II wound down, the U.S. government looked for ways to help the returning service men and women transition into civilian life. On June 22, 1944, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, or simply the GI Bill) was signed into law. Among other benefits, the GI Bill provided for tuition and living expenses for college and vocational education—including flight training.

Cessna management recognized the opportunity that this presented and set about creating a trainer to supply the market. A quick look at the competitor’s offerings showed many small, lightweight and popular airplanes, like the Piper Cub and the Aeronca 7AC Champion and 11AC Chief. Cessna decided that to compete they’d need a modern design with an affordable price tag. What they came up with was, as Daryl Murphy said, “spectacular in its simplicity.”

Cessna engineers chose the reliable and economical 85 hp Continental C-85-12 and C-85-12F for the powerplant and designed an all-metal fuselage with side-by-side seating. Fabric-covered wings which incorporated aluminum spars and stamped aluminum ribs were used to save weight and production costs.

The prototype flew in June of 1945, six weeks before the end of the war, and received its Type Certificate on March 21, 1946.

Fitted with a one-piece chrome vanadium spring steel landing gear patented by S.J. Wittman, the 140 also featured a complete electrical system, manually operated flaps and deluxe upholstery. It debuted at just $2,995. It was an immediate hit and soon 22 units per day were rolling out the door.

Good reviews, great sales

An early review by Leighton Collins in Air Facts (April 1, 1946) gave the 140 a thumbs-up: “The stability situation, then, would seem to be that it is about evenly apportioned around the three axes and is just a little more than neutral. That makes for a ship which doesn’t overwork you in rough air, one which is responsive, and one which is nice on instruments.”

Cessna offered a stripped-down version named the 120 priced at $2,495. The 120 came without the flaps, starter, generator, rear quarter window, soundproofing, deluxe interior or electrical system of the 140. Its spartan interior and rugged build made the 120 perfect for the flight training market and it proved to be a popular trainer.

In contrast to Cessna’s modern-looking 120 and 140, in 1947 Piper introduced the two-seat PA-11 Cub Special for $2,445. And while the Cub was always (and continues to be) a very popular plane, the 65 hp PA-11 looked very much like its predecessors. In other words, or rather in the slang of the time, it was a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

Peak production of the 120/140 series reached 30 a day, and Cessna’s employment jumped to 1,800 to keep up with the demand for the sleek little planes.

In 1949 Cessna introduced the 140A with an all-aluminum, tapered NACA 2412 wing and single lift strut. It was certified on April 8, 1949 with a 90 hp Continental C-90-12F engine, but was also offered with an 85 hp Continental C-85-12, -12F or -14F engine.

120 3 way

Thousands built—and still flying

By the time production ceased in 1951, 4,905 of the Model 140 had been produced along with 401 of the 90 hp 140A and 124 of the 85 hp 140A. Production of the 120 stopped in 1949, but not before 2,171 had been built.

The 120 and 140 Cessnas continue to be valued today for their beautiful streamlined designs and forgiving flight characteristics. Parts are available for these aircraft through Univair, Wag Aero, Knots 2U and Aircraft Spruce, among others. The International 120-140 Association offers model-specific support. The FAA Registry as of Dec. 22, 2013 indicated 777 Model 120s and 2,105 Model 140s are still registered.

The 120 and 140 models helped launched Cessna into its postwar dominance of General Aviation by doing what every successful Cessna model that followed them would do: provide an easy to fly, easy to maintain aircraft at the right price.

Jennifer Dellenbusch is president of the Cessna Flyer Association. Send questions or comments to .

 

RESOURCES

Model support

International 120-140 Association

cessna120-140.org

Parts

Aircraft Spruce and Specialty Co.

aircraftspruce.com

Knots 2U, Ltd.

knots2u.com

Univair Aircraft Corp.

univair.com

Wag-Aero

wagaero.com

140 fall colors