The Most Important Airplane—Cessna 140

Photo by Budd Davisson

I started life as a newspaper sports writer and I’m sure that experience colors my lifelong view of what’s important. It’s simple. The best score wins.

So in the endless discussion of what airplane in history is the most important, that’s easy. It’s the Cessna 140 because it has the highest score.

Sometime in 1945, or maybe even earlier, the engineers at Cessna created an all-new airplane that didn’t rely on previous Cessna designs, except in the most general way—the wing was on the top. This new airplane, the 140, was very advanced for its day. The airframe was made entirely from metal, it had a monocoque fuselage with the skin carrying most of the load, wing flaps, the most powerful available engine in its category and an electrical system.

Compared to the T-Crafts, Pipers, Funks and other long list of two-seat airplanes emerging after the end of the war, the Cessna 140 was by far the most advanced. And it was a hit. Cessna built somewhere around 7,500 of the little taildraggers between the summer of 1945 and 1951.

 I owned a 140 that was built in August of 1945, but I don’t remember the serial number. A search of the FAA data base shows its N-number is no longer assigned so I don’t know what happened to the airplane after I sold it more than 35 years ago.

The 140 also set Cessna on a path to become the most successful marketer in all of general aviation, or maybe all of aviation. The people at Cessna were the first to understand that customers want choices, even if the big majority makes the same choice. So Cessna built the 120, a stripped down version of the 140 that lacked flaps, an electrical system, side windows and other features as standard. The 140 outsold the 120 many times over, and many 120 customers selected options that made the airplane almost indistinguishable from a 140, but that was their choice. And pilots loved having a choice.

The 140 would be one of the most successful airplanes of all time based on its own production and sales, but the 140 was just the beginning. With a stretch here, a little more wing area there, and two more cylinders on the engine, Cessna morphed the 140 into the four-seat 170 in 1948.

The 170 was a huge success with more than 5,000 built even though the unsustainable post-war boom that had propelled sales of the 140 was stone cold by 1948. The original 170, like the 140, had a fabric covered wing with a wishbone strut. By the time the 170B was delivered in 1952 the wing was skinned in metal, it was tapered, and the strut was a single element.

The 170B set the stage for the all-time winner when Cessna turned around the main landing gear legs, added a nosewheel and introduced the 172 in 1955. The 172 Skyhawk continues in production today, and when you try to add up the production totals for the various versions the number is somewhere north of 40,000.

In 1958 Cessna went back to the 140 again and this time kept the same basic airframe, did the nosewheel conversion, and invented the 150 aimed squarely at the flight training market. The 150 series was simply another out of the park swing with more than 22,000 built when production ended in 1985.

It would not be a stretch to say the 140 also grandfathered the 180 and 185 taildraggers, and the immensely successful 182 Skylane. Add up production numbers for those families of Cessna singles and you get at least another 30,000 plus airplanes. And the Skylane is still in production, the first Cessna from the factory with diesel power.

The 206 family traces its roots directly to the 180/185/182 series so it can claim direct descendancy from the 140. That’s more than another 7,000 more great grandchildren for the 140, and the 206 remains in production today.

The retractable gear 210 began life as a slightly stretched and higher powered 182 so its 140 heritage is there initially. However, it would be misleading to say that the cantilevered wing 210s that were built in such big numbers in the 1970s are direct descendants of the 140.

Cessna also made another detour away from the 140 baseline when it created the 177 Cardinal with its cantilevered wing, sort of squashed down cabin and stabilator tail. With around 4,000 Cardinals built the airplane would have been a success for just about any company but Cessna, but it didn’t measure up to the airplanes the 140 fathered.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but more than 100,000 airplanes can trace their lineage directly to the Cessna 140 first delivered 67 years ago. As far as I’m concerned any discussion of what is the most important airplane of all time can only be about who finished second. Cessna, the 140, and the airplanes it fostered will never be matched.

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30 Responses to The Most Important Airplane—Cessna 140

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    To borrow a quote from the Monkey trials, “There was a lot of ‘begatting’ going on at Cessna.”

  2. Cary Alburn says:

    So why are you driving a Beech? :)


  3. gregg reynolds says:

    Cessna engineers looked (very closely) to the Luscombe 8 when working up the C-140. The “No wood, No nails, No glue” Luscombe pioneered the all-metal mass-produced personal plane and some 6,000 were sold.

    • Emmett Kraus says:

      The story I got from the engineers who were there is that some of the Cessna engineers had ideas for “innovative” new designs to introduce after WWII. Dwayne Wallace listened, but being in a hurry he instead bought a Luscombe 8 and had it disassembled and lifted to the engineering loft at Cessna’s Pawnee plant. He told the engineers to keep what was good about the overall configuration and redesign/simplify it for Cessna’s aluminum forming machinery. A few changes were made (slightly larger overall, spring steel gear, hardware, and other details), but little else. Photos of the 120/140 show undeniable similarities to the Luscombe.

      Don Luscombe’s design team should get the credit for this configuration. Dwayne Wallace gets the credit for seeing its potential, having a company with deeper pockets, and building the most capable sales network.

      As mentioned below, the Luscombe 8 performed better than a Cessna 140 with the same engine. The Luscombe was a bit smaller and had more wing span, giving it less drag and better climb capability. An odd historical reality for most GA aircraft is that the top performers were rarely the best sellers. Sometimes the best sellers were the dog of the group.

  4. John says:

    Gregg is correct; the 140 is at least half brother to the Luscombe 8.

    Also, Cessna acquired N numbers in blocks and issued them sequentially, so, if you know the original N number you can probably figure out the serial number, which would then allow you to look the plane up by serial number, even if the N number has been changed.

  5. Dennis English says:

    I agree with you regarding the C-140 Mac, although I do not have a taildragger endorsement. I do have a lot of time in C-210, C-172, C-150-2, C-177B, & C-177RG. The Cardinals are great airplanes. Cessna apparently didn’t do much Beta testing of the Cardinal when they introduced it with the 150 hp engine and the stabilator, or they would have discovered the stabilator stall before introduction. I love the 177B and the RG.

  6. BJ High says:

    As a traveling Rep. for Cessna in the ’70s I flew all of the single engine airplanes that
    Cessna made. While the Cardinal and the Skymaster did not sell well, they had a
    “love ‘em or hate ‘em relationship with the public. I own C-140, SN51146404,
    N4082N. I feel the family traits and I love it.

  7. Lyle Catt says:

    A great story and history of the Cessna 140. I soloed in a 140 after 3hrs and 30 min of flight instruction in 1952. Loved the way it flew and it was fun to spin.

  8. Pete DeGraff says:

    Mac always has a compelling argument, and this one no less than any other.
    But, being a man much older, no one will ever convince me that the J-3 wasn’t the grand daddy of the industry.

  9. george says:

    got my 1946 C-140 in 1988 shortly after getting my pvt. ticket… as stated, BEST of all the similar planes of that era,.. still today very affordable to own & operate.. I’ve flown mine over 5,000 hrs so far strictly for pleasure..

  10. Paul Nelson says:

    I owned a ’46 140 for 38 years. Loved every minute. ‘Nuff said.

  11. Andy Hoffman says:

    I think there is an argument for the Luscombe over a 140.

  12. j. bruce crim says:

    Thanks for your 140 article as it brings back fond memories. Over 40 years ago our flying club owned the 140 and 170. I recall making short field grass strip landings at the Springfield, Missouri Downtown Airport. The approach was right over a cemetary with tall trees. The 140 had a real sturdy landing gear for newbies like me especially after the swoshing sound I heard on the approach one day was the gear brushing the tree tops.
    Great article.

  13. Bob Tinnell says:

    I did most of my basic flight training in a 140 and used it for my private flight check ride in 1949. Wonderful little plane that was ahead of its time in the early post-WW II market. Wanted to buy one later but decided that raising a family on teaching salary was not compatable with airplane ownership. I waited for over 50 years to build my RV-6A which I also love as well as the several hundred hours of J-3 time accumulated. But the 140 was an excellent compromise between cost, operating expense, speed, upkeep and performance in its day-and may still be one to consider. It was also a pretty nice looking little devil out on the ramp. Glad I had the experience.

  14. David says:

    Grew up in Wichita in the mid 50s as a Cessna kid. Dad was taking 140/120s and 195′s as trades on the “new 172 Land-o-Matic” airplanes.

    Bought my 140 sight unseen, four years ago…me at 58 years old, no pilots certificate. Dad’s first comment when he saw my plane was “why didn’t you buy something with a nose wheel…those things are hard to fly!” (Hard to change your sales pitch…even at 88 years of age, I guess.) He’s since gotten used to the idea, although he tactfully avoids the idea of a ride…does not want to press his luck after the B-26 trips over the Rhine.

  15. Scott S says:

    I bought my 140 when I was in my early 20′s -and I still own it and love it at 45.
    In 1993 at a 120/140 Association convention in Owensboro, KY, a number of us had the great pleasure of hearing Don Simon speak. Don was one of the original engineers involved in the 140 project at Cessna -along with most of the lineage to follow, and he told us that before Cessna put the design on paper, they bought two Luscombes. They took one apart in the company library -drilling out every rivet and studying it. The other was eventually resold. I confirmed this as I told Don I had a chance meeting with the then current owner of that second Luscombe at the 1991 Copperstate Fly-In in Prescott, AZ. As we stood in the Arizona sun by our little planes, he proudly showed me the history of ownership from his aircraft records. The first owner was Cessna Aircraft Company.

  16. Terry says:

    Here’s how I found my first C140 – it also was assigned a new N#.
    First, I took the N number before and after mine, and ran them through the FAA. That gave me the serial # before and after the original N number’s serial number, and thus the serial number of the original plane I owned.
    I took what was the original serial # and ran it through the FAA database and up came the new N number. In my case, the old number was N89703 and someone later on got N812KW, which it now bears.

    Just in case you might want to find yours, Mr. McCellan.

  17. Bob Severns says:

    I’ve owned a Cessna 120 since 25 February, 1970. Its serial number is 11843. That serial number appears in the Cessna 120-140 parts manual. It was the first production airplane to have the changes that started with the 1947 model.

    I soloed in a Cessna 120 in October 1957, a few days after my 16th birthday, and have loved these airplanes ever since. I still fly my Cessna on a regular basis. It has been a great airplane for my wants and needs. Over the years I’ve put something over 4000 hours on it. I’ve had it above 14,000′, and above 12,000′ on several occasions. You might guess, I fly in the western states. Might just be my opinion, but I think Cessna screwed up and got it right. I fly a RV-6 these days too, but still enjoy the Cessna as much as ever.

  18. The first (and only) airplane I have ever owned is a 1949 Cessna 140A. I bought it to finish my ticket in 2010, took my check-ride in it and have put over 150 hours on it in the first two years of ownership.

    If it had feelings, it would thank you for the complement of being so “important” with a dash of humility.

    Daniel Findling

    • Bob Severns says:

      In April 2010, I finally got to fly a Cessna 140A for the first time. I liked the aileron response better than my Cessna 120′s. I’ve been flying these airplanes for over 55 years. I found the 140A’s flaps effective for steepening the landing approach, but of course not as much as the more modern Cessnas. If I didn’t have my 120, I would like to own a 140A. Nice airplanes

  19. Larry N. says:

    If you’d said *One* of the most important, I’d agree with you. But the J-3, the Jenny and the original Wright Flyer must also be considered, each having a major impact on aviation. And outside of General Aviation, there are many types that might legitimately make the claim for their fields, from the DC-3 and 707 to the B-17 and many others.

    But the C-140 is certainly up there, and both it and its descendants are both nice to fly and ubiquitous.

  20. Grant Smith says:

    As someone who grew up in Detroit I find it interesting to note that the greatest airplane of all time, and all of the follow on aircraft it inspired, accounts for 100,000 units. This is less, by a factor of ten, than the one year production run for a single model of the many automobiles manufactured by any of several auto manufacturers. Aviation definately has room to grow if we can discover another “greatest airplane” and start to manufacture it.

  21. love cessna 150 172 182 aircraft

  22. Claude Stokes says:

    I owned 2 Cessna 140. a Rag wing and and all metal conversion
    my 400 hours in them was the most fun
    I ever had in any airplane

  23. Steve B says:

    I have only owned the two planes mentioned, a Cessna 140, and a 177B Cardinal. After 600+ hours in the 140, then selling the 140 to move into the extremely comfortable, efficient, superb visibility of a 177B Cardinal was awesome. As cute an spunky as the 140 was, The Cardinal was a huge leap in comfort for Cessna. It is my keeper aircraft for life.

  24. Jim Guiganrd says:

    I bought a 120 back in 1982 and was in the process of getting my tailwheel checkout in it when I lost my job and had to give it up. Only put around 5 hours in it, but that was enough to make a lasting impression on me – it was a very nice flying airplane.

  25. James Chidester says:

    The story of the Cessna 140 – Luscombe 8 relationship says that Cessna bought a Luscombe, removed the wings and put the plane in the same room as the engineers designing the Cessna 140. Any one who has examines the two airframe can see the relationship. That said, the Cessna 140 was certainly an improvement over the Luscombe in everything but performance, and Cessna’s deeper pockets and better marketing allowed them to develop the 140 line to better meet customers needs and made the Cessna 140 a long time best seller, while the Luscombe fell by the wayside. I earned my PPL in a Luscombe 8E that my brothers and I still own. While I love our family Luscombe, it has Cessna 150 seats and Cessna 172 window latches! A few years ago, an aquaintence of our family bought a 100 hp Cessna 150. He bragged aqbout how much faster it was than our Luscombe 8E with only 85 hp. My brother challenged to a race to an airport about 150 miles away. with the loser buying the berry pies for the winner. The Cessna left first, but when he landed, my brother was eating his second slice of pie!

  26. Michalina says:

    I don’t ordinarily comment but I gotta say thanks for the post on this perfect one : D.

  27. Andy Cotten says:

    Tell us the N-number of the Cessna 140 you owned. I might be able to tell you what the serial number was.

  28. Hi to every body, it’s my first pay a quick visit of this blog; this blog contains remarkable and actually good data designed for readers.|

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