It is often said that a first-time airplane buyer should buy his or her last airplane first. The reasoning is, it makes little sense to invest in an airplane the pilot will outgrow or become bored with. A more expensive option may, in fact, prove to be a better long-term value by serving as a more permanent solution to the pilot’s needs.
Still, a budget is a budget, and while mission requirements vary considerably from one pilot to another, one common goal is to find an airplane that remains interesting and fun while minimizing the cost of ownership. In this respect, the Cessna 120 and 140 offer an intriguing blend of qualities for the new pilot and/or first-time buyer.
The 120 and 140 were some of the most successful postwar light aircraft in the US. Nearly 8,000 were built between 1946 and 1951, and more than 2,500 remain on the FAA register today.
The 120 was developed as a budget version of the 140, initially lacking flaps, rear side windows and electrical systems. Over the past 70-plus years, however, most of the 120 fleet has been modified with electrical systems and other upgrades.
Today, the presence of flaps is the primary difference between the two models, and with many 140 owners reporting little difference in performance with flaps down, the 120’s lack of flaps should not be considered a significant disadvantage.
The most desirable variant of the family is the 140A. Introduced in 1949, it offered a metal wing with more effective flaps and a redesigned instrument panel. The 140A was also available as the Patroller model, which included Plexiglas doors, a message chute, and a whopping 42-gallon fuel capacity that provided an endurance of around seven hours.
As of early 2020, there were 14 140s and two 120s listed for sale in various places, with a median price of $25,000. The most and least expensive examples were significant outliers at $40,000 and $16,000, respectively. While all the typical factors such as airframe time, engine time since major overhaul and general condition affect these prices, two particular items affect the 120 and 140 more than many other aircraft types—fabric condition and engine type. Excluding the aforementioned 140A with its standard metal wing— and other 120s and 140s that have had their fabric wings converted to metal at some point in their lives—most 120s and 140s are equipped with fabric wings. While good, modern fabric can last for several decades when properly cared for, it’s wise to determine the age and condition of the fabric as part of a pre-purchase inspection.
With owners reporting $8,000 to $10,000 costs to replace the fabric and address minor internal repairs that are commonly found during the process, fabric replacement can approach half the total value of many airplanes on the market. Accordingly, purchasing an airplane with old, deteriorating fabric is not unlike purchasing an airplane with an engine in need of overhaul, and the selling price should be adjusted appropriately.
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