Aircraft History

During WWII, tens of thousands of Americans were either taught to fly by the U.S. military or were exposed to the routine use of air transport to cover long distances quickly. Aircraft manufacturers naturally assumed this fertile crop of newly released soldiers, armed with the recently enacted G.I. Bill of Rights, would generate a sales boom of staggering proportions.

It did. While it was of far shorter duration than even the most pessimistic forecasts, huge numbers of new airplanes were manufactured. Piper was building Cubs and, soon, Cruisers and Pacers pretty much as fast as it could.

With a few exceptions—Beech’s Bonanza or the Ercoupe, for example—most offerings were tailwheel machines. The first of the post-war Cessnas to be built in volume was the diminutive Cessna 140, followed a month later by a stripped-down model called the 120. At the time, the Cessna 120/140s were perfectly serviceable and practical two-place airplanes. They were reasonably priced to buy and economical to own. Although they all initially had fabric wings, they were made mostly of metal, avoiding the periodic need for recovering.

The good news is the qualities making them popular in the late 1940s are still present. Today, what little they give up to Piper’s Cubs in panache, they more than make up for in reduced acquisition costs and arguably more-forgiving handling qualities.

Cessna 120/140 Model History

The Cessna 120’s model history is rather short, since it was produced only for four years, from June 1946 through May 1949. Since Cessna had the training market firmly in its sights, the 120 initially sold for a mere $2695.

Cessna 120s and Cessna 140s had two wing struts; single strut did not come along until the 140A. Cessna 120s also had no flaps, and no rear window, this one has had a rear window added. Restored vintage panel, left middle. Vintage panel with modern instruments installed.

That amount is equivalent to just under $31,000 in current dollars. Try to find a new, FAA-certificated, mostly-metal trainer for that kind of money today.

Cessna made the 120 about as simple as airplanes get, with side-by-side seating, yokes rather than sticks, no flaps and no rear window. Because it was cheaper than building cantilever wings, Cessna—which had never put a wing strut on an airplane since it started production in 1927—hung struts on the 120/140 series, forever changing the public’s perception of the product line. Standard equipment did not include an electrical system, although a generator was available as an option. The International Cessna 120/140 Association tells us that none left the factory with one, however, most 120s have an electrical system these days.

To go even more upscale, Cessna followed the automotive industry of the time and offered a “luxury” version, dubbed the Cessna 140. It came with flaps, an electrical system, fancier seats and a pair of rear windows on either side of the fuselage (but not the wraparound, Omni-view configuration that later became standard in Cessna’s single-engine line).

That was the company’s entry-level, post-war lineup. These airplanes sold well and although there was demand, there was also competition. For example, Piper was building acres of Cubs. Other companies—Taylorcraft, Aeronca, Globe, ERCO and Luscombe—also offered two-place airplanes and, although Cessna was shoving some 30 airplanes out the door daily in August 1946 and eventually made some 7000 120s and 140s, by the end of 1946 the bloom was off the rose. Sales dropped annually. In 1949, the company realized it needed to revamp the platform to stay competitive.

In that model year, Cessna built its last 120 and brought out the Cessna 140A. The revised model came with a redesigned, all-metal, tapered wing with a single strut, presaging what was to come from Cessna’s singles. The strut replaced the two-piece struts of its predecessors, with a single attach point at the fuselage and two attach points under the wings.

Also, the 140A offered a choice of engines: Available was an optional 90-HP Continental four-banger in place of the 85-HP engine common throughout the 120/140 series. At a glance, the easiest way to recognize the 140A is by the single strut. Despite its changes, the 140A didn’t sell as well as the 120/140. Only about 500 left the factory before the line was shut down in 1951, after which Cessna turned to other models, including the 195.

But Cessna wasn’t through with light singles, regardless of whether the 140A’s demise resulted from competition or a tired market. In 1959, Cessna hung a nosegear on the basic 120/140 airframe, creating the most successful trainer of all time: the Cessna 150. Thousands were built and many a pilot owes his or her basic skills to the 150 and its successor, the 152. In turn, the 150 owes its existence to the 120/140 line.

Cessna 120/140 Construction and Systems

As noted and in contrast to Piper’s Cub, the Cessna 120/140 is an all-metal design, at least for the fuselage. The skins are riveted over ribs in conventional monocoque construction. Even for the 1940s, this was nothing special; all-metal Luscombes were on the market before the War. But it also was durable and easy to fix, especially by the hordes of aircraft mechanics trained by the military during WWII. Early 120s had fabric-covered wings, a “feature” carried over to the 140, as well. When Cessna upgraded the line to the 140A, the wings were all metal. The additional, aft-cabin windows and single strut were retained. Many of the older airplanes originally delivered with fabric wings have been converted to metal.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with fabric wings, they do require care and maintenance. If the airplane will be a ramp dweller, we think the Cessna 140A—or at least an airplane with the all-metal-wing conversion—is the better choice. Oddly, buyers may also find a few 140s sporting 120 wings, i.e., a 140 without flaps. On finding one, we’d be very interested in learning more about the airframe’s damage history.

Polished aluminum that will withstand a close up requires a lot of time and effort.

No matter the model designation, systems are stone simple. The fuel system includes a 12.5-gallon tank in each wing, connected through a left-right-off valve. Later models had a “both” position and a fuel-tank crossover line. When originally delivered, airplanes with electrical systems had generators and a few flying have them still. These days, the better set-up is an STC’d alternator conversion.

As far as engines go, the Cessna 120/140 came from the factory with only two choices. The 120/140 has the 85-HP Continental C-85-12 while the 140A got the 90-HP C-90-12F, all with metal propellers. Even a cursory glance at today’s market, however, reveals all manner of engine upgrades, including the Continental O-200 used in the Cessna 150—said to be a bolt-on conversion—and the O-235 used in the Cessna 152. At least one STC involves installing an O-200 crankshaft and cylinders to a C-85 crankcase.

While these newer engines may improve performance, the real reason for having them is serviceability. While parts remain available, the older C-85 and C-95 engines grow ever more difficult and expensive to support.

As noted, the 140s have flaps while the 120s don’t. Do you need them? Probably not. One owner wrote a few years ago to say he considered the 140 flaps to be a “joke.” In any case, these airplanes fly so slowly that the benefit of flaps is questionable. Any pilot worthy of the title should be able to put one of these into a pea patch without need for flaps.

Cessna 120/140 Cabin and Accommodations

Push your nose against the window of a Cessna 120/140 and scan the panel. Although there’s not much there, it can resemble a 747 compared to other basic airplanes from the same era. Sure, panel equipment in these airplanes tends to be Spartan at best. Still, it should come as no surprise some owners have jazzed them up with GPS and other goodies. But there is enough space for basic IFR gauges and avionics.

Life can be pretty good with the Cessna 120-140 series—fall foliage via 140, 120 on floats, and a 140 on skis.

In fact, there’s no reason these aircraft, if properly equipped, can’t be flown in a little light IFR. Most aircraft of this vintage sport exterior venturi horns for vacuum, although some have vacuum pumps, too, depending on the engine. Although some think it’s insane to fly a venturi-equipped airplane in actual IFR, we don’t see the problem. The venturi is actually more reliable than a pump, as long as you can keep it from freezing up. (Heated versions are available.)

Moving into the cabin, you’ll find primary controls consist of a pair of side-by-side yokes grouped in the center of the panel. Anyone with passing familiarity with a Cessna 150 knows how cramped the seats and interior are. The Cessna 120/140 is no better; the seats are 1940s-style bench designs and both shoulder and leg room is limited.

Taller pilots may find their knees colliding with the yokes, while short ones may need a pillow to reach the rudder pedals. The seats are fixed in place and, unlike more-modern fixed-seat types, the rudder pedals do not adjust fore and aft. As one result, we’ve seen a few of these airplanes modified with later-model Cessna 150 seats.

Visibility from the cockpit is marginal, at best. It’s not bad out the side windows, but 120s without a rear-window modification essentially blind the pilot from getting a good look at what’s behind and to the sides. The 140s, with their rear windows, are a bit better. Meanwhile, visibility out the front isn’t up to modern standards, either.

Trainers like the 152, Diamond Katana or even the Piper Tomahawk excel in this area in large part thanks to their tricycle gear. But the 120/140’s taxi stance is not so sharply pitched a pilot can’t see over the nose; the short cowling and somewhat flatter deck angle are a real plus compared to other tailwheel airplanes. You don’t need to sashay down the taxiway making S-turns to keep from creaming another airplane coming the other way. But it might not be a bad idea. One thing that aids ground handling is toe brakes, a vast improvement over the heel brakes found in the typical aircraft of this vintage.

Owners often complain about one 120/140 shortcoming: cabin noise. The cabin is small and the engine is nearby, with the exhaust dumped overboard very near the occupants’ feet. The results can be deafening—perhaps more so than in contemporary types. We’d consider an active noise-canceling headset mandatory (but we do, anyway).

Finally, it should come as no surprise that cabin heating and ventilation in the 120/140 is not up to modern standards. Owners say it is adequate, however, and many airplanes have been fitted with vents in the wing and/or blast vents in the side windows to improve airflow in hot weather. The front cabin windows are openable for ventilation during taxi.

Cessna 120/140 Performance and Handling

Even though Cessna’s 120/140 does better than other two-seat tailwheel airplanes of similar vintage, owners tell us performance can best be described as “thrifty.” A pilot can expect to see between 95 and 105 MPH true from the 85- or 90-HP engines Cessna installed while burning about five gallons an hour. That’s in keeping with a slightly faster Cessna 150 burning six GPH. Results from installing a more modern engine like an O-200 or O-235 predictably push up cruise speeds.

Regardless, this is not really a traveling machine: A cross-country of any length will take most of the day. If several states must be spanned, plan on a couple of days, or find another solution. Too, getting to and staying at altitude is another challenge. There simply aren’t many of the 85-to-100 horses left at any altitude above 10,000 feet. Climb rate in these airplanes is about what you’d expect: adequate at mid-weights but somewhat anemic at gross.

Max gross, by the way, is 1450 pounds for the 120/140 and 1500 pounds for the 140A, with a typical useful load of 600 to 650 pounds. Obviously, a load-hauling, utility airplane the Cessna 120/140 isn’t. Perhaps not so obvious, however, is the two airplanes are too heavy to be considered a so-called “legacy” light sport aircraft, or LSA. Since 1320 pounds is the max gross weight for an LSA (1430 for a seaplane), the 120/140 miss the cutoff maximum weight by a fair margin (along with contemporaries from Aeronca, Luscombe and Taylorcraft, to name three).

For its size, the airplane has large elevator and tail surfaces, which probably account for its good crosswind characteristics on both grass and paved runways. As post-war tailwheel airplanes go, despite the RLOC accident record outlined on the sidebar on the previous page, the 120/140 handles quite well. Ailerons are brisk and crisp—if not aerobatic in roll rate—and pitch is a bit lighter than expected from the typical Cessna.

Overall handling is quite forgiving, with few bad habits in the air. Wing dihedral gives it stability the J-3 Cub lacks, and the 120/140 does not have the massive adverse aileron yaw of the Cub or Champ.

As tailwheels go, it is not as forgiving on the ground as a J-3 Cub, but contemporaries from Luscombe and the like generally are considered “touchier.” Of course, all tailwheel airplanes are ditch lovers compared to tricycle gear airplanes, which explains why the 150 became so popular.

Landing a Cessna 120/140 is not especially difficult. The fact that it has better visibility over the nose than most airplanes of its ilk helps. So, too, does the side-by-side seating, which obviates some limitations, like the need to solo it from the rear seat. Being relatively light, it does have a tendency toward ballooning on landing if the mains are forced on at too high a speed. But the airplane will happily do three-pointers or wheelies all day if the pilot’s skills are up to par.

Because it doesn’t have the option of placing much weight rearward, the airplane has a tendency to nose over. Owners say it’s likely that any 120/140 on the market has a noseover or two in its history. That’s no big deal if any needed repairs are done correctly. But nosing over is a big enough “deal” in this type that many have been equipped with “wheel extenders”—spacer blocks on the main gear legs that move the wheels a few inches forward. This reduces the tendency to nose the airplane over and if you’re looking at an example that doesn’t have the extenders, we think it’s worth considering them.

Cessna 120/140 Maintenance and ADs

Owners buy vintage airplanes for many reasons and one of them is low cost of operation. While that’s not true of every post-war spam can out there, it’s certainly true of the 120/140. Despite post-war competition, it occupies that sweet-spot niche of having been produced in large enough numbers to provide a good parts reservoir while not being so rare it has classic collector value.

The stock engines can be kept perking along with effort and/or upgraded with newer versions, the latter being our preference. Try to find an airplane with an engine conversion already done.

Other than engine overhaul, the major cost for a 120 is re-covering the wings, if they’re still fabric. Depending on the fabric and whether the airplane is hangared, recover intervals range between seven and 20 years. Metal wings are, of course, heavier than the fabric versions by about 30 to 40 pounds. But most owners consider the penalty worth it in reduced maintenance costs and, in any case, these airplanes aren’t bought for the massive load hauling capability.

As do all airplanes, the 120/140 models have some weak spots. Here are some things to look for:

Wheel and three-point landings can be done equally well.

  • Look for damage in the lower door posts, near the strut attach point. This critical structural member may be damaged by rough field operation, ground loops or corrosion.
  • Corrosion in the carry-through spar can be a problem. The cabin skylight leaks water into this structure, and years of moisture will take a toll.
  • Cracks in the tail structure and rear fuselage. Those familiar with the 120/140 tell us the airplane’s tail is the weakest part of the design. It’s especially vulnerable around the tailwheel attach point. This is repairable, but make it a condition of the sale during pre-buy.
  • Landing-gear boxes take a beating on all Cessnas and the 120/140 is no exception. The gear box—the support structure for attaching the landing gear to the fuselage—may have taken abuse from pilots over the years, thanks to hard landings and maybe even a ground loop or two. The box can be inspected from the outside by removing an inspection plate in the cabin floor.
  • Broken tailsprings are fairly common. Check to ensure that the steel leaf-type tailwheel spring is still springy but not saggy. A broken spring will cause complete loss of control on landing and could do major damage to the airplane, particularly the elevators. Even if the springs look good at the time of purchase, they should be inspected regularly.

The list of ADs that apply to the Cessna 120/140 is quite long—more by dint of age than in any serious shortcomings in the aircraft. Some of the ADs are absolutely ancient, dating back to the late 1940s, when the airplane was new. Many are shotgun-type ADs that apply to the engine and may or may not require compliance in the model 120/140 at hand. One of the most recent applies to the Lycoming O-235 engine, calling for inspection of the crankshaft.

This article first appeared on the March 2013 issue of Aviation Customer.