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.