Cessna 120/140

With stone-simple systems and benign handling, the Cessna 120/140 is a good choice for affordable flying.

C140 Lede

The first of Cessna models to be built in volume was the diminutive Cessna 140, followed a month later by a stripped-down version 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. There was a reason for that.

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. So equipped, the Cessna 120/140 was easy to own. Although they all initially had fabric wings, they were made mostly of metal, avoiding the periodic need for re-covering.

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.

Model History

The 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.

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.

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To go even more upscale, Cessna followed the automotive industry of the time and offered a “luxury” version, dubbed the 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 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.

Construction, Systems

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As noted and in contrast to Piper’s Cub, the 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 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.

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 setup is an STC’d alternator conversion.

140 fueling

As far as engines go, the 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.

Cabin, Accommodations

Texas visit 784

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.

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 are 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.

Performance, Handling

Cessna120-140

Even though the 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 5 gallons an hour. That’s in keeping with a slightly faster Cessna 150 burning 6 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 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).

Cessna 120 floats

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 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.

Cessna 140 skis

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.

Maintenance, 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, re-cover 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.

 Cessna 140 Oshkosh at EAA barn

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

• Look for damage in the lower door posts, near the strut attach point. This critical structural member may be damaged by rough field operation, groundloops 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 prebuy.

• 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 groundloop 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.

Mods, Type Clubs

The list of mods and STCs for these airplanes is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The International Cessna 120-140 group maintains an exhaustive list on its website, including contact information. The fact that the airplane has been the subject of so many mods speaks well of both its basic design and that it remains flying in large enough numbers to make such mods economically worthwhile.

Some of the more interesting mods include the aforementioned engine upgrades, including the Lycoming O-235, metal and fiberglass coverings for the wings, alternator kits to replace the older generators, improved brakes and instruments, autogas STCs and even approval to install an engine-driven vacuum pump in lieu of a venturi.

As for groups, the International Cessna 120-140 Association maintains a terrific website and support network. It can help with buying advice, parts and other support. Find them online at www.cessna120-140.org.

Another group is the Cessna Pilots Association (CPA), which bills itself as the largest type club in the world. Either organization should serve the new 120/140 owner well. Find the CPA at www.cessna.org

Cessna 120/140 Accidents: RLOC

C140 Lede

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Our review of the 100 most recent accidents involving the Cessna 120/140 series uncovered a situation in which the airplanes may have too much of a good thing—effective brakes that are easy to use. That, combined with a landing gear geometry that could be a little better, led to an unusual problem. While the airplanes evidenced decent ground handling—for a tailwheel machine—in the form of only 35 runway loss of control accidents, we counted 43 accidents that resulted in the airplane flipping completely over.

In most cases the pilots simply got on the brakes too hard during rollout or on an aborted takeoff, although two pilots were simply taxiing downwind and combined mispositioning the elevators with assertive brake use. A couple of pilots were penalized with a close-up view of the runway during a noseover for the offense of landing on a soft surface or hitting a big puddle on rollout. We witnessed a student pilot flip a 140 on rollout after a downwind landing while on a solo cross country—the Unicom operator had reported the wind direction precisely backward. The student was coming to the end of the marked grass runway and got on the brakes too hard.

A few pilots reported brake failures or lockups, but not many. In our opinion, the brakes on the Cessna 120/140 series are so effective and the main gear located far enough aft that braking should always be done with great care.

We also strongly recommend retrofitting shoulder harnesses for occupant protection because of the high risk of an overturn accident.

The 35 percent RLOC accident rate is about in the middle for tailwheel airplanes. While there was not enough information provided in the accident reports, we noted that where the type of landing—wheel versus three-point—was reported in a crosswind landing loss of control accident, it was a wheel landing. With the low wing loading of the Cessna 120/140 series, extra energy/speed on touchdown is not a pilot’s friend.

There were only seven engine power loss accidents—a low number, in our opinion. Three involved improper maintenance; the cause of the remainder could not be determined. Carb icing led to another five forced landings, not surprising for airplanes powered by small Continental engines.

Neither the 120 or 140 is blessed with excessive power, but most pilots seem to make appropriate allowances. There were four aborted takeoff accidents when the airplane wouldn’t climb and then couldn’t get stopped. We had no sympathy for the pilot who took off downwind from the midpoint of a runway and couldn’t understand why he couldn’t clear the obstacles off the end.

Three airplanes suffered corrosion-caused fractures and separation of an axle. There were only four stall accidents, all on takeoff or go-around—a relatively low number for modestly powered airplanes.

Six pilots crashed due to combining low flying with what appeared to be disengaging their brains. Two airplanes and their crews were lost to midair collisions and two airplanes were wrecked as their pilots successfully evaded deer on the runway but couldn’t keep the airplane under control.

Owner Comments

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I bought a Cessna 120 just after I graduated high school and earned my commercial and CFI ratings in the 120. I’m now a captain on the 737.

In the Cessna 120, I learned to enjoy doing spins. I flew to many Iowa flight breakfast gatherings, to the Playboy Club resort and to the big Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in.

I’ve operated the 120 in and out of grass strips and hard-surface runways around the Midwest, plus a number of Central Iowa alfalfa fields.

Learning wheel landings provided many laughs for my instructors, but overall, the Cessna 120 instilled a lot of confidence and enjoyment in my flying.

Wendell Moeller
via email

We became joint owners of a 1946 140 and found it inexpensive to own, maintain and operate. Fuel burn runs 4-4.5 GPH at 105 MPH (not knots).

Ours came with a metalized wing, which we dislike because it reduces useful load by 50 pounds. The original Goodyear brakes were maintenance intensive and moderately effective, but good on grass strips.

The original straight stack exhaust, no muffler, on the airplane was just plain loud. The Eisemann magnetos gave a strong spark but were heavy for such a light aircraft. The airplane came to us with the horizontal stabilizer mod, which reinforced the horizontal stabilizer spar.

The Cessna 140 is a lot of fun to fly because you have to fly it; it doesn’t fly itself. As a tailwheel machine, takeoffs and landings require full pilot attention. It requires prompt and timely use of the rudder—wooden feet need not apply.

Tom Tann
Michel Litalien
via email

I purchased my 1947 Cessna 140 to commute from my home in Algonquin, Illinois, to the Chicago Executive Airport. To drive to work is 50-60 minutes in Chicago traffic. My door-to-door commute using the 140 is 30 minutes, including a 12-minute flight.

Unfortunately, we hurried through the prebuy and found out at my first annual, which cost $4000, that previous mechanics were pretty much “pencil whipping” the annuals. I found corroded wing bolts, corrosion under the propeller and numerous items that should have been caught.

My 140 has an O-200 engine, Cleveland brakes, VGs, metalized wings and a Scott tailwheel. In my commute, I rarely get above 1800 feet, fly at about 100 knots and burn about 5.7 GPH. With the commute putting about 0.3 hours each way on the tach, I burn 3.4 GPH.

The aircraft has a fairly low wing loading, so it doesn’t handle the bumps very well. If it gets too bumpy, I just slow down a bit and it seems to ride a little better. The rudder is large and sensitive. This is an advantage in crosswind landings, but takes a little practice and a light touch to keep from yawing around in flight. Adverse yaw is pretty strong.

The aircraft is inexpensive to operate, and its benefits far outweigh the cost for me. Normal annual inspection, oil changes, fuel burn at 100 hours of flying a year and debt service make my cost of ownership about $70 per hour before storage. (I have a rather expensive hangar.)

The market has settled on Cessna 140s costing anywhere between $15,000 and $32,00. If you look around at other aircraft of similar class, that’s pretty cheap. I chose it over the Cessna 150 because of the tailwheel. This gives the airplane better performance and makes me a better pilot. It can make you a crosswind superstar.

Mark Zakula
Algonquin, Illinois

I’ve owned my Cessna 140 for well over 20 years and really didn’t plan on keeping it more than five years—tops. But every time I look at a replacement that goes faster, flies farther, carries more people and more stuff, I fall more deeply in love with the 140’s affordability.

Thorough annual inspections are rarely more than $2000 (and I rarely ever defer any items uncovered), although I’ve had a few pricey ones. We replaced a couple of cylinders during one event, did some exhaust work during another and most recently did a corrosion treatment, based on Aviation Consumer’s report suggesting to do so.

Someday I might step up to a Cessna 180, but for now the 140 is just reliable, affordable fun.

Bill Stephens
via email