Cessna’s 120: A delightful bird

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — I spied her across the hangar 12 months ago. It’s amazing how small a 1947 Cessna 120 looks tucked in a corner of a 30,000 square foot hangar. I had to fly her…but how? Oh wait, she’s owned by the Hoff family, owners of the AeroMark FBO at IDA.

Mark and Onita Hoff bought the plane new in 1947 for $2,650. It has remained in the family ever since. In fact, three generations of Hoffs learned to fly in the little side-by-side, two-seat taildragger. If Bob Hoff, Mark and Onita’s son, has his way, 16-year-old granddaughter Savannah will be the fourth generation.

IMG_2854I emailed Thomas Hoff, Bob’s son and AeroMark operator, a few weeks before the Idaho Aviation Expo and asked if I could fly the plane for a pilot report. (Owning an aviation magazine does have its perks.) After checking with Bob and James (Bob’s other son), I got the green light and a schedule was set.

James, who I flew with, runs the family farm and homestead, called the Rainbow Ranch, just east of town. The ranch has a 2,400-foot grass strip cut into the edge of one of the fields. It can be described, from this outsider, as an aviation “Field of Dreams.”

I recently got current in a Piper J-3 Cub and had never flown a 120, so I was really looking forward to this.

“She’s got just over 1,800 hours total time, and no damage history,” said Bob as we gathered on the ramp. That’s saying something in often windy east Idaho.

IMG_2769I marveled at how high the base of the door sat. It looked like it would be tough to climb into. It was easier than I thought, and easier than the front seat of a J-3. We’d adjusted the bench seat before getting in. James is taller, but I’m wider (so I’ve got that going for me). That said, the plane was quite comfortable and not overly cramped.

This model has a starter for the recently overhauled C-85. Prime it three times, pump the throttle twice, hit the starter button and when the prop turns twice, turn on the mags. She was purring nicely.

James handled the tower communications as I taxied out. With a 20-knot — thankfully down the runway — wind, the 120 taxied easily, and straight. It was interesting to taxi a taildragger without having to s-turn.

James noted the engine, which was overhauled by Performance Air in Caldwell, Idaho, was “cranking out 117 hp. “She really climbs.”

With a 4,900-foot field elevation at IDA, those extra ponies mean a lot, and the 20-knot headwind didn’t hurt.

Less rudder pedal work that the J-3 on the takeoff roll and we were soon airborne.

We headed southeast for Rainbow Ranch. It is only a few miles away and we were soon there.

“Look for 60 from base to final, otherwise she’ll float,” warned James, who should be an instructor.

In hindsight, I should’ve insisted we fly around for a few minutes to get a better feel for slow flight. Not this day.

As we gently rolled out on final, I looked up to see the windsock dancing around happily at 70°-90° across the runway. Gulp.

At this point, Bob Hoff’s voice entered my head…”No damage history.”

Gulp.

I was a tad fast, and thankfully James was quick to help with the pedals.

We made it down. It wasn’t pretty, but the tail stayed aft as we rolled out.

“Let’s try that again,” said James.

We taxied back, poured the coals to it and took off.

I was high and fast again. James helped me get her down but — how should I say this — If the C-120 has a required landing gear flexibility test, it passed, with flying colors. I’m certain the farmland of east Idaho will never be the same.

IMG_3668“Okay, show me how’s it done,” I said as I looked at James. “OK” was the simple reply over the intercom.

He looked up and saw his wife Darla holding back the dog. He signaled to her that he hadn’t made the last landing. In my best internal Yoda: “Humbled am I.”

James used ground effect on takeoff. Noted by me.

He kept it low and slow. Noted by me.

The base to final was MUCH lower and slower than mine. Noted by me.

James carried power over the fence and landed elegantly. NOTED BY ME.

James was too generous when he said, “I think I got a break on the wind during my approach.”

I wasn’t so sure.

“Let’s take a break,” James offered. He taxied up in front of the hangar and we looked around for a bit.

I met Lila, their dog, and Darla. In the hangar were two Stearmans, a Husky, a 180, a Beech Staggerwing (90% complete with 90% left), and a few other fun toys. We chatted about farming, flying and family. Seemed about right.

After our break, we walked back to the 120 with the idea of trying the pattern once more, followed by some slow flight and steeps turns before heading back to Idaho Falls Airport.

On takeoff, I kept her in ground effect and she picked up airspeed a little quicker.

I kept her lower, slower and a bit further out on downwind.

If you like “behind the power curve” flying, then you would’ve enjoyed this circuit.

We rolled out on final…”Get the wing down into the wind,” I heard in the headset.

Power off…

Pop.

She rolled straight.

“Nicely done. That’s how you do it.”

Redemption was mine — and it felt good.

We launched once again and augured overhead.

About 1,500 AGL I pulled the power and carb heat and slowed her down to 60.

Docile, in slow motion. I should’ve done this before my first landing. A few S-turns, at slow speeds, convinced me she’s comfortable at the low end of the airspeed arc.

A couple of steep turns later we headed back to IDA.

I set up the pattern too wide for my liking, with an airliner waiting to takeoff.

We were high, so the power came off, and I made a constant downwind-base-final turn.

“We have plenty of runway,” commented James. “Good thing, cause I’m gonna need it,” I replied. We were really high.

Amazingly, with the power back and with a 15-kt headwind, she came down comfortably.

Plop. Plop. And out she rolled. Just like she’s supposed to.

As we taxied in, I noticed Bob found his way to the ramp.

“What’d you think?” Bob asked.

“That’s a delightful little bird.”

Bob grinned.

IMG_3967I admitted the gear stress-test landing to Bob. He grinned. Personally, I’m thrilled we returned a one-owner, no damage airplane in one piece.

As I look through General Aviation News, Trade-A-Plane and AviationClassifieds.com I note a handful of Cessna 120s for sale in the $18,000-$22,000 range.

For those who lament the high cost of flying, and desire to just fly, the Cessna 120 is worth a look.

Oh, and if your travel takes you anywhere near Southeast Idaho, I’d certainly recommend Idaho Falls and AeroMark. Big plane capable, small plane welcome.

For more information: AeroMark.com

Comments

  1. The WONDERFUL ’48 Ces 120 was the 1st of 3 planes, & I still TREASURE memories of it. Freshly licensed at age 17 in 1950 the ’48 is the ideal 120 (2,500 hours; but current owner has logs to prove far fewer hours; no big surprise), but have all beat, including the 140A that we bought for my wife to learn in. All weather long range New ’64 Ces 172 was wonderful for 41 years. Sole manipulator including T.O. & Landing in a King Air (3 hours), air only T-33 jet (2:30), Lake Amphibian & Sailplane for 2 more ratings, & Pitts, & many more (45 total) were all a blast, but none topped the 120 at age 17.

  2. Another good general interest article Ben. The notation about no damage history was good as there are two ways to view damage to an aircraft. If no damage, it’s great but, everyone should realize that a properly repaired light non-pressurized airplanes can fly forever,new composites excepted. My Aeronca was delivered new in 1946 to a flight school, about a month later it had a wing torn off. Later both wings and a gear leg were replaced. The airplane is only 25 lbs heavier than when it left the factory, most of that weight is a pair of aux. fuel tanks added when it was engaged in power-line patrol work. My point is despite the “damage history” she is still flying great 67 years later. When shopping for that airplane don’t knock it for having been knocked around, make sure of PROPER repairs and then get out and fly.

    • Ray Winslow says:

      Greg…………..For all of us that love these old planes of our youth, we need to get the EAA to add these old, now low preformance airplanes, to Light Sport by exception. That will help preserve them into the future at a greater rate.
      I too have a 1946 airplane that I wanted when I was a kid, so now retired I have it!
      A lot more pilot reports will come.

      • Ray, a lot of them should be included in S.P. but I doubt it will ever happen. All models of the ercoupe were certified as “incapable of spinning” but with out the deep pockets of ICON the weight restriction will not be lifted for them.

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