Cessna 120: Mel’s Little Marvel

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“Four careful women owners since new!”

by Keith Wilson

April 2011

Introduction

Like many readers, I learned to fly in a Cessna 150, an aircraft that did the job it was designed for. Back in the early 1980s, it was probably the most popular training aircraft type in the United Kingdom. At the time, all flying was fun and I didn’t always realize just how heavy and unresponsive a 150 could be.

On the few occasions I have flown one since, I don’t remember the trips with fondness—more a case of “it does what is says on the box!” From its first flight in 1957 to the cessation of production in 1985, 29,078 examples of the Model 150 and 152 had been produced.

What about it tailwheel predecessors, the Model 120 and 140? Between 1945 and 1952, Cessna built just 5,432 examples of the Model 140/140A and 2,172 Model 120s. Despite its age, many examples of both types are regularly seen around the world; indeed, the types boast their own owners’ club—the International Cessna 120-140 Association.

A quick look at the association’s web site demonstrated the cult following the type has. I took a look at the small ads: Cessna 120s had asking prices between $19,000 and $25,000, while Cessna 140s were priced from $17,000 up to $30,000. That’s a lot of aircraft for your money.

In the UK, there are 24 Model 120s and 12 model 140s. I had not flown one and felt that now was a good time to try. I had met Bob and Melanie “Mel” Willies through the Royal Aero Club’s Handicapped Air Racing way back in the early 1990s and we had stayed in touch. I wondered what their reaction would be to my request to fly their 120.

“Come and fly it!” was Mel’s immediate response, so I did.

First Impressions

I met Mel and Bob at Sywell Aerodrome, right in the heart of the UK. Sywell is unusual among British airfields in that it has benefitted from a substantial investment recently—allowing it to become the only airfield with a brand-new 1,268-metre (4,160-foot) hard runway. In fact, it has the first new concrete runway built in the UK since 1957. Sywell also boasts three smooth grass runways and new hangarage alongside its beautiful 1930s Art Deco-styled hotel—all well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.

When I arrived on a cold, clear December morning, G-BTBW was parked on the ramp among more modern Cessna and Piper designs. It stood out from them all, resplendent in its white and red colour scheme. After a quick coffee in the airport café, Mel walked me out to her aircraft. As I walked toward ‘BW, I became aware of its relatively diminutive size—although it looked beautifully finished and well proportioned.

Mel proudly took me through the walkaround—pretty typical for your regular single-engine Cessna, although she pays close attention to the tailwheel tire pressure (42-45 psi is critical in the tailwheel on concrete). The aircraft has one fuel tank in each wing so both are drained, as is the central point underneath the engine cowling. The cowling is neatly fastened by two catches on either side, which makes the removal and subsequent oil check and inspection of the Continental C-90 easy.

The aircraft is fitted with a slightly larger spinner and the exhausts have been modified to face rearward; both changes reduce drag for air racing. Mel refit the cowling and double-checked the catches. G-BTBW underwent a bare-frame rebuild back in 2006 and the exterior paint scheme reflects that: it is immaculate.

I walked around and opened the starboard door. The interior has been refitted to the same high standards of the exterior. The entire Bentley-maroon Connelly hide and carpet interior was hand-stitched by family friend Valerie Gammons. It is very striking and still has that wonderful new car smell!

With my left foot on the small step (minimising drag again, of course), I lifted and swung my right leg into the cockpit, followed by my torso—and then once inside, my left leg followed, ensuring my shoes did not touch the leather. The interior was a little on the cosy side but was just about large enough for two regular-sized adults on good speaking terms to sit together.

The centre of the panel is dominated by the main instrument cluster containing a turn coordinator, ASI, altimeter and tachometer on the top row, artificial horizon in the centre and a direction indicator below. Engine gauges are neatly located to complete the panel. A Garmin GTX 328 mode S transponder and GNC 250 GPS/comm completes the equipment list.

When the aircraft was rebuilt, a new lightweight B&C starter was fitted, as was an electric DI, turn coordinator and artificial horizon. All these allow the exterior of the aircraft to be cleaned up (further drag reduction) while making operations in typical European conditions a little easier.

A large plunger throttle sits below the panel with the carburettor heat to its left and the small red mixture control switch to the right. A neat trim wheel is conveniently located in the centre of and just below the bench seat. Coming out of the panel are a pair of classic 1940s Cessna control yokes that appear at first sight to be slightly odd in shape—although I later find that the design is just about right.

In addition to the normal baggage space behind the seating, ‘BW has been fitted with an extra high-level shelf over and behind our shoulders—great for storing a camera, maps and books. I strap on the four-point harness and ensure that the harness ends are clear of the door before latching it closed.

Start-up and Taxi

Mel climbed on board and strapped into the right seat before she led me through the relatively simple engine start-up routine. Four good primes are required for a cold start, but the engine has already been warmed with its earlier taxi from the hangar area, so it is simply a case of master switch on, crack the throttle slightly open, and push the electric starter switch.

The engine crackles into life at a steady idle and I check as the oil pressure rises. “If it doesn’t rise within 30 seconds, shut it down,” is the instruction from the right. We sit patiently until the oil temperature indicator moves off the bottom of the gauge.

When it does, I gently ease on a little power with the stick held back and check the brakes. They are very effective—something I’ll need to watch later on landing. This aircraft has toe brakes fitted on both sides, making it an excellent tailwheel trainer. I taxi to the holding point, S-turning all the way. Visibility is fine to the left of the cowling but S-turning confirms the way ahead is clear.

Once at the holding point, I check the mags and carburetor heat at 1,500 rpm—all appear fine. Pre-takeoff checks are pretty simple, too: the trim wheel is moved to the takeoff position but there are no flaps or electric backup fuel pump to worry about. Once cleared, I ease on power and move onto the concrete Runway 03.

Takeoff

“Apply power smoothly, use a little right rudder to counter the swing, and count to three seconds to ensure the tailwheel is locked into its detent before lifting the tail,” is the advice from Mel, at my right.

“Then gently push to raise the tail and take off from the horizontal position,” she continued.

I followed Mel’s instruction to the letter—especially the bit about a “little” rudder, as I very quickly discover just how sensitive the rudder is! That said, the 120 counters the light crosswind easily.

We break ground at just 40 mph indicated and I allow the aircraft to accelerate in ground effect up to 60 mph before gently pulling on the control yoke and climbing away. We have used around 200 metres—pretty good with two adults, full fuel and some baggage.

The controls are responsive, well harmonized and nicely balanced, although the rudder is initially a little sensitive for my big feet. I get used to it as the flight progresses although there is not a lot of adverse yaw with ‘BW.

Best rate of climb is 72 mph, which gives between 650 and 1,000 fpm depending on the load. Best angle of climb for obstacle clearance is 60 mph. I climb out at 70 mph which today provides us with an estimated 700 fpm (there is no vertical speed indicator) and I climb up to 2,000 feet before leveling off.

With the power set at 2,400 rpm, a cruise of 105 mph is indicated. At this speed, fuel consumption is around 20 litres (5.28 US gallons) per hour. Mel suggests I try 2,300 rpm for an economy cruise. This gives us around 95 mph with a fuel burn of just 13.5 litres (3.57 US gallons) per hour.

If you are not in a hurry to get there, the economy range is around five-and-a-half hours, giving you almost 500 miles in the air. At 105 mph, the duration is four hours with 30 minutes’ reserve—a distance of 420 miles. If you pay for the fuel, it’s your choice how you fly!

I reset 2,400 rpm and re-trim the aircraft. It settles down quickly and I try to fly hands-off. Perhaps a little surprisingly, the 120 remains straight and level. The few bumps we do suffer are generated by the weather conditions and the sensitive rudder allows me to keep it level with the minutest of inputs—ideal for cross-country map reading. When the aircraft was rebuilt in 2006, a lot of time and effort was put into ensuring the aircraft was correctly rigged. The hard work was clearly worth the effort.

I push the nose forward until we were traveling downhill and then let go. The nose slowly pitches up and in no time we return to straight and level flight. I pull the column back and wait. It slows a little; the nose drops and we return to level flight. Laterally stable.

Slow speed handling

Next, I explore slow flight. With the area clear below, I slowly reduce power and pull back on the column. With the nose well up, it starts to mush downward at around 40 mph, but I keep the back pressure on, and at 30 mph the nose drops without any tendency to drop a wing.

I push the column forward and increase power. Recovery is almost instantaneous and we lose less than 100 feet from the recovery, although we had lost almost 500 feet mushing downward.

I climb back up and re-try with power. The result is similar, although now the stall comes at a speed almost off the clock! This all bodes well for the landing phase.

Air Racing Turns

I have now spent a lot of time flying Mel’s pride and joy while she patiently watched me. Mel is an award-winning racer who has successfully raced this aircraft since 1996. (For more on her accomplishments, see the owner profile on page 36. —Ed.) I ask Mel to show me what it is like to fly in race conditions and hand over control.

Mel pushes the throttle wide open and descends slightly—the speed increases to more than 130 mph and the bumps are more obvious. She picks out a motorway bridge ahead and positions to make a racing left-hand turn over it.

Flying smoothly throughout and rolling around the turn at about 70 degrees of bank, Mel straightens out after the turn and the aircraft once again picks up what little speed has been lost. She picks out another landmark and she turns again, the result being the same: a smooth, tight turn directly over the turning point.

It looks easy, and Mel invites me to try for myself. It isn’t easy! My first attempt was clumsy; speed was lost and the turn uncomfortable. My second attempt is a little better... just! Clearly, the years of practice have paid off. Mel’s racing turns in the little Cessna 120 are efficient, fast and smooth.

Into the Pattern

We were having far too much fun and all too soon it is time to return to the Sywell pattern. Once again, Mel imparts her wisdom and experience. “There are no flaps, so speed is important,” is the brief. “And don’t forget the carb heat. Continentals generally—but especially the C-90s—are prone to carb icing,” she says.

With the appropriate radio call, we are cleared to join the pattern. I enter downwind at 80 mph slowing to 75 mph and check the carb heat is out and the mixture to rich. (That’s about it for the downwind checks—simplicity itself.) I reduce power and speed to 70 mph on the base leg and then reduce further to 60 mph on finals—a speed that I hold all the way down finals to 03 hard and over the numbers.

Once over the runway, I slowly remove the remaining power and with my hands and feet working overtime, try to keep the aircraft straight and level over the centerline. It lands on all three... but bounces back up gently. I could sort it from here, but instead I choose to open the throttle fully and climb away again.

My second attempt is to land on 03 grass. On finals, I keep the speed at a steady 60 mph until over the numbers. Visibility over the nose is surprisingly good but the view does disappear a little once you start to pick the nose up. My hands and feet are very busy and the aircraft patiently waits, until at 40 mph it settles on all three and I gently pull the yoke back to keep it there.

Rudder inputs are still required to keep it straight down the long grass runway but I don’t use the brakes; the aircraft slows very nicely without them. If this was a short-field landing, they would be available to stop the aircraft quickly.

Once clear of the runway, I taxi back toward the parking area and position the aircraft back into its spot. I allow the aircraft to idle for a couple of minutes before pulling the mixture switch fully out. It gradually slows and eventually stops as everything goes quiet. Then I have six switches to turn off: the three electric instruments, two mag switches and, finally, the master switch before releasing the harness and climbing out.

Conclusions

Comparisons with similar types of the era lead one to the Luscombe. Mel Willies has owned and flown both. What is her opinion? “You could certainly learn to fly in a Cessna 120, but the Luscombe is much sharper—better suited to people with some tailwheel experience,” is her response.

G-BTBW is an above-average example of the venerable Cessna 120. As a tailwheel trainer, the Model 120 has few—if any—vices. The controls are balanced and well harmonized and its takeoff and landing speeds low.

It is not fast, but it does have good legs. And it teaches you what your feet are for. Today, it would make an excellent tailwheel training aircraft. In fact, in the 1940s and ‘50s it did just that—until replaced by the tricycle Cessna 150.

The Cessna 120 is much lighter than recent Cessna designs and very much lighter than the Model 150s that replaced it. Unlike those heavy and unresponsive Cessna 150s we ploughed around the pattern, the Model 120 is light and responsive. Just what Cessna did wrong when they upgraded the tailwheel 120/140 family to the nosewheel 150 I do not know, but after flying an impeccable 120, it seems to have been a retrograde step.

Keith Wilson has been an aerospace journalist since 1982. He specializes in striking air-to-air images and is the lead photographer for Pilot magazine, published in the United Kingdom. Over the years he has undertaken a variety of military assignments and also serves as an aviation consultant. To date, he has photographed 1,000 different aircraft air-to-air. Wilson has held a Private Pilots Licence for 30 years and is a PFA-approved pilot who has made a number of “first flights” on homebuilt aircraft. Send questions or comments to .

Owner Profile: Melanie Willies

Mel learned to fly in Cessna 150s at Luton in 1985—in the days when London Luton Airport still had a grass runway. After completing her private pilot training and tailwheel conversion, Mel started flying a friend’s Piper Cub. Shortly afterward, Mel’s husband Bob purchased a 1948 Luscombe 8F and Mel took to it immediately. (The term “conversion” as it applies to pilots is the British equivalent of an endorsement in the United States. —Ed.)

Bob had been handicap air racing for a number of years; indeed, he won the coveted British Air Racing Championship in 1995. Mel was not prepared to sit on the ground and watch; instead, she preferred to get airborne and compete.

Her first air race was the prestigious Schneider Trophy meeting on the Isle of Wight in 1991 and she finished halfway down a large field. Bob Willies was racing a Wittman Tailwind in the same event. In the coming years, Mel’s air racing progress was impressive.

At the time, the Willies family’s aviation stable included a Cessna 337, a Wittman Tailwind, two Luscombe 8Fs and a Lake LA-4—all based in a nice hangar on a private farm strip in Bedfordshire. Unfortunately, the farm was acquired by a new owner who preferred Arabian stallions to aircraft and the airstrip was soon closed. The Luscombes and Tailwind were sold and the remainder of the collection was moved to Sywell.

Andrew Brinkley stepped in and offered to lend Mel his Cessna 120, G-BTBW, for the coming season. After converting to type, she gradually improved her performances—and Mel eventually won the Grosvenor Air Race at Shobdon in 1996, beating Bob in the Wittman Tailwind! (Her husband finished in second place.)

In April 1997, Bob purchased G-BTBW as a birthday present for Mel, and in the same year she triumphed in the King’s Cup Air Race at Leicester. She flew a faultless race and completed the 120-mile course in just over 1 hour and 10 minutes—beating the second-place aircraft by a mere six seconds.

It was a family affair as their two children were on the airfield to see their mother cross the line first. Mel recalls, “The thrill of diving to 75 feet through the finish was heightened as I realised that I wasn’t going to be overtaken, and I knew our children would be jumping up and down on the ground.”

Mel became only the third woman ever in its 75-year history to win the prestigious King’s Cup, and received a congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth II. She was presented with the trophy by HRH Prince Andrew at an official award ceremony at St. James’s Palace later in the year.

Mel has continued to race in the Royal Aero Club’s Air Racing calendar and has been rewarded with numerous top-three places. She is very fond of her Cessna 120 and enjoys every moment they spend in the air together.

Cessna 120 G-BTBW

After a wartime period in which it produced around 5,400 T-50 Bobcats and 750 Waco CG-4A troop-carrying gliders, Cessna Aircraft had a manufacturing facility geared to large-scale production. It used the all-metal monocoque production techniques learned during the war combined with the mass-production capabilities to produce affordable modern light aircraft.

The Cessna 140 was a high-wing, side-by-side two-seater which first flew on June 28, 1945. It was equipped with metal and fabric wings with flaps and V-bracing struts and used an 85 hp Continental flat-four C85-12 piston engine.

The economy Cessna 120 was not fitted with flaps and had no rear cabin windows. The Cessna 120 was certificated on March 21, 1946. The fabric-covered wings of the Cessna 140 were replaced on the 140A by all-metal wings and the engine was enlarged to 90 hp.

In total, Cessna built 5,432 Cessna 140s and 2,172 Cessna 120s between 1946 and 1952. The Model 120/140 was replaced in 1959 by the tricycle Cessna 150.

G-BTBW was built in 1947 with construction number 14220 and was initially registered as N9002V. During its time in the United States, it is known to have had at least three careful lady owners. Its final American resting place was at the Brown’s facility in Winter Haven, Fla. and it was here that Andrew Brinkley acquired it in the 1980s.

Brinkley had purchased another Cessna 120, a 140, and a Piper Cub at Winter Haven and, after dismantling them, fitted them into a 40-foot container for shipping to the UK. There was some space left in the container and when Brinkley was offered N9002V for just a few thousand dollars, he purchased it to fill the space.

Some time in its life, the aircraft had been fitted with a larger 95 hp Continental C-90-12 engine. The aircraft arrived in the UK but was placed into storage. After a number of years the aircraft was reassembled and registered G-BTBW in January 1991; initially it was used by Brinkley as a company “hack.” (A “hack” is a carriage or automobile for hire. —Ed.)

When Mel sold her Luscombe 8F in 1991, Brinkley kindly lent her G-BTBW to continue her air racing. Mel raced well in ‘BW and eventually had the success she deserved when winning the Grosvenor Trophy at Shobdon in 1996. Mel had become fond of the little Cessna 120 and in April 1997, her husband Bob purchased the aircraft as her 40th birthday present.

In September 1997, Mel won the prestigious King’s Cup Air Race at Leicester—finishing the 120-mile course in a very creditable average speed of 119.5 mph—and is only the third woman to achieve the title in the event’s 85-plus-year history. The race is seen as the most coveted air racing trophy presented by The Royal Aero Club and is the climax to the 16-race season which takes competitors all across Britain. Other creditable winners of the King’s Cup include Geoffrey de Havilland, Alex Henshaw and Sir Alan Cobham.

Mel continued to race the aircraft with numerous top-three finishes in the next eight years but during a race at Sywell in 2005, ‘BW suffered an engine failure. After declaring a Mayday, Mel carried out a textbook dead-stick landing back onto the airfield without damage to the aircraft. By now, daughter Holly was also learning to fly in ‘BW, so a difficult decision had to be made: sell it, or zero-time the engine.

The decision was to rebuild and Bob decided that the aircraft also warranted a ground-up, bare-metal restoration. It took 14 months to complete the project, and in the spring of 2007 Mel and Bob flew the aircraft to the idyllic grass airfield at Compton Abbas in Dorset for Sunday lunch.

Unfortunately, while they were having lunch, another aircraft taxied by and put its wing right through the 120’s prop. The aircraft was returned to Andrew Brinkley’s facility, and the engine was stripped out and completely rebuilt—again!

Two months later, ‘BW was back in the air and so far, has been there ever since. Total time on the airframe is a mere 3,105 hours and it flies better now than when it was new.