Cessna: The Postwar Years – Part Two

Cessna: The Postwar Years – Part Two

Cessna: The Postwar Years – Part Two

The two-place Model 120/140 were modern, all-metal designs that established Wichita’s Cessna Aircraft Company as a leader in the highly competitive personal, training and business aviation markets.

After five years of massive bloodshed, incalculable destruction and indescribable human suffering, World War II had ended in victory for the allied nations. During that terrible time the aircraft had come of age as a lethal weapon and contributed heavily to bringing the Axis powers to their knees.

In the wake of that hard-won triumph, many officials within America’s light aircraft industry hoped that thousands of bomber, fighter and transport pilots would be eager to swap their Boeing B-17, North American Mustang and Grumman Hellcat for Beechcraft, Cessna, Piper, Aeronca and Taylorcraft airplanes (to name only a few). To assist return-ing service personnel in winning their civilian wings, Congress enacted legislation, known as the GI bill, to provide financial assistance to men and women seeking a pilot’s license.

Almost overnight the GI bill would spawn hundreds of new flight schools that would, in turn, need thousands of new airplanes. For America’s general aviation industry in 1945, such possibilities boggled the mind and conjured up fanciful visions of overflowing corporate coffers awash in cash. There was, however, one serious problem: the law of supply and demand. When the United States government finally began releasing stocks of strategic materials to the nation’s industries, Wichita’s airframe manufacturers found themselves pitted against other companies in a bidding war for their share of the steel, aluminum alloy, wood, rubber and chemicals that were available.

The result caught small airframe manufacturers unprepared to deal with suppliers who, well aware that when wartime contracts evaporated so would their profits, demanded that huge quantities be ordered or they would get none at all. For example, piston engine suppliers wanted each lightplane manufacturer to buy hundreds of engines, as did companies selling propellers, tires, wheels, brakes, fabric and instruments. To buy in such large quantities posed a serious and potentially devastating threat: If demand failed to materialize, small manufacturers could be facing financial ruin.

Dwane Wallace (left) and his famous uncle Clyde V. Cessna were photographed in the early 1950s shortly before Mr. Cessna’s death. In 1933 Dwane and his brother Dwight resurrected their uncle’s defunct company and set it on a path to success. (Textron Aviation)

Fortunately, the aviation optimists of 1945 proved to be correct – the light airplane industry had more business than it could cope with and anticipated a bright future. A multitude of flight schools were operating from coast-to-coast, many operated by former pilots of the United States Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Factories were operating at full capacity and could not meet demand. It is interesting to note that in 1946 there were more than 30 different types of light aircraft available (including helicopters) for the private owners to consider when buying a flying machine. At least 17 manufacturers were competing for sales, and it was actually easier to buy an airplane than it was to buy an automobile!

By contrast with today’s production levels, it seems almost incredible that during the months of August and September 1946, airframe manufacturers reported delivering more than 4,000 aircraft per month, not including hundreds of large, transport category airliners rolling off assembly lines at the Boeing and Douglas factories. Postwar flying fever in America was so pervasive that one aviation leader predicted that flying “… is the most flexible means of transportation the world has ever seen. You can travel by boat only where there is water, by automobile only where the highway leads, by train only where the tracks are. The air is everywhere.”

Into this economic boom stepped the Cessna Aircraft Company. As with other aviation executives after the war, Dwane Wallace and his management team were quick to realize that demand for training aircraft would likely skyrocket to unimaginable levels. The chief challenge facing Cessna, however, was to design and build an entry-level airplane that was more attractive, modern and appealing than the competition but at an affordable price. It did not take the engineering department long to come up with an airplane that fit those requirements – the Model 140.

Designed around the small, reliable and economical Continental four-cylinder, opposed engine rated at 85 horsepower, the prototype Model 140 was a blend of the old and the new. Although it featured an all-metal fuselage but retained a fabric-covered wing of semi-cantilever construction to save weight, the wing was built around aluminum main spars and stamped aluminum ribs that significantly reduced manufacturing costs and helped reduce the selling price. The side-by-side seating arrangement was cozy yet made comfortable enough for two average-size occupants, and visibility outside was good thanks to large windows in the doors and the windshield. The airplane sat on a spring steel main landing gear and a steerable tailwheel supported the aft fuselage and empennage.

The prototype, registered NX41682, first flew June 28, 1945, followed by an intensive flight test program. Two additional pre-production airplanes were built that incorporated changes dictated by operational experience with the first ship. These included a slight redesign of the fuselage to accommodate a new tail cone, the addition of aft cabin windows and an entirely new engine cowling.

When introduced early in 1946, the Model 140 was priced at $3,385 for a standard airplane and included an electrical system, manually operated wing flaps, deluxe upholstery and the rear cabin windows. The airplane received its Approved Type Certificate (ATC) March 21, 1946, and soon dozens of airplanes were making their way down the production lines. By August, workers at Cessna were completing 22 of the airplanes per day, and initial sales were excellent. The Model 140 was a major success for the company, and by comparison made the Piper, Taylorcraft and Aeronca ships appear quite antiquated.1 Production peaked at 30 airplanes per day in September and the workforce had increased to more than 1,800 men and women working hard to build the handsome little monoplane.

Priced at only $3,385, the Model 140 was a lot of airplane for the money.
(Robert J. Pickett Collection, Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

By 1949 the Model 140 had become the Model 140A with an all-metal wing and a single lift strut for each panel replacing the original two-strut configuration. The change enhanced the airplane’s overall appearance and increased not only its sales appeal but its price to $3,495 for the 85-horsepower version and $3,695 if the optional 90-horsepower Continental C-90-12 engine was selected. After delivering more than 4,900 units, Cessna terminated production of the Model 140, followed by the Model 140A of which 425 had been built.

The company also offered a utilitarian version of the Model 140 known as the Model 120. Aimed at competing against the popular Piper PA-11, PA-12 and the ultra-pedestrian PA-15 Vagabond that sold for a mere $1,990, the low-cost Cessna had a base price of $2,485. It featured no wing flaps, the aft quarter windows were deleted and an electrical system was optional. Otherwise, construction of the two-place Cessna was identical to its Model 140 sibling. Certification was granted under the Model 140’s ATC. Flight schools bought the Model 120 as did fixed-base operators (FBOs), and many of the airplanes built lived a hard life teaching fledglings how to fly. After delivering 2,171 units, Cessna terminated Model 120 production in 1949.

Unfortunately for Cessna and its competitors in the entry-level segment of the marketplace, the early postwar sales boom that began in 1945 went bust in 1947. After 18 months of record sales and deliveries, naysayers were predicting dire times ahead for the lightplane industry. By 1946 the prophets of doom were prophesying an economic downturn of biblical proportions: “Woe to those who overproduce, woe to those who build airplanes with reckless abandon, for there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth across the land when the day of famine arrives.”

The model 140 prototype reveals the new Cessna’s simplistic design that favored functionality and economy of operation over performance. The tail stand was installed to facilitate adjusting the magnetic compass. (Textron Aviation)

That day arrived in March 1947. Seemingly overnight and without any recognizable warning, the market collapsed in a replay of the drastic crash on Wall Street in October 1929. What had happened that would cause such a major calamity? There are a number of reasons, one common thread was the fact that manufacturers had lost touch with what the postwar buyer wanted in a personal aircraft. In short, the chieftains in Wichita, Lock Haven and Alliance, Ohio, had failed to realize that steel tube and fabric airplanes designed in 1940 could not compete effectively for sales in 1947. Another reason was the flood of as many as 35,000 war-surplus aircraft of all types offered by the U.S. government at bargain prices.

In short, the market had become saturated with too many airplanes that found too few buyers. By early 1947 Piper, for example, was building fewer than half a dozen airplanes per week and soon found itself in serious financial distress. Cessna, however, possessed an ever-expanding product line of modern monoplanes that withstood the storm, as did Beech Aircraft Corporation. Wichita remained the “Air Capital of the World” and was positioned to enter the fabulous 1950s with a gusto that would thrust it to the forefront of general aviation.


The Cessna Model 140 was similar to the highly successful Luscombe Model 8 that was designed in the late 1930s. Don Luscombe was one of the first light airplane designers and manufacturers to produce an all-metal, two-place, side-by-side airplane powered by a four-cylinder, opposed piston engine.

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