By Joshua Simmers
Photo credits Ashley Sabin
I would have never thought my wife and I could be surprised. And yet, before we decided whether or not we wanted a third child, our youngest (I repeat, youngest) was on her way. Those of you who are not pilots are missing the point: what am I going to do for a fifth seatbelt?
In Need of a Solution
Before we were married, I was a kayaker and she a hiker: we both packed light. We both loved – no, more than loved – were addicted to traveling: we’re compatible. Both of our dads and grandpas, as well as my grandmother, were pilots: we’re an aviation family. As we grew our way from the Cessna 150 to the 172 and then out of the 182RG, our young family needed an option. With daycare bills, I initially made do with an Aeronca Champion (Champ), but I was raised with aviation being a family activity and wanted that for my children. So, I used the Champ occasionally as my “motorcycle in the sky” while I searched for an option until five-point car seats quit debilitating our style.
We live in western North Dakota, so we had specific criteria for our next plane. It had to be good for unimproved strips, and it better have enough power for short strips. It needed to have a useful load: we are both shy of 6 feet tall and our children are high on the growth charts. Occasionally getting to the city is a must, but more often short, fun destinations and camping trips were the goal.
About the time we realized my wife was carrying the completion of our family of three, my dad fulfilled his dream of buying a Cessna 195. That radial engine on that long body is hardly fit for minors to look at, and it flies as cool as it looks. Naturally, we found ourselves at EAA AirVenture, as you are never too old to let your dad buy gas, and camped in the middle of dozens of Cessna 195 “Business Liners.” They had radial engines of every color, including chrome, lined up row after gleaming row.
A short distance away, I stole a forbidden glance at a North American Navion, pronounced “navy-on” and often written NAvion, and the dilemma began.
Now, you may be wondering why I did not consider six seaters. To bend the assumptions, the Cessna 180 has that little third seat bench you can put in the baggage area, but that’s a short term solution. Every other option that has a longer fuselage for a third row demands a larger powerplant or significantly sacrifices performance. In addition to looking utilitarian (i.e., just not as cool), any six seater with the performance I wanted was out of my price range and anything in my price range didn’t offer the performance I wanted. Is this not the quintessential dilemma in aviation? Some readers will wonder why I didn’t consider the Rangemaster, a descendent of the Navion. The Rangemaster simply doesn’t look as cool once the Navion has taken your fancy.
Ford vs Ferrari...
Watching the Cessna 195 keep my dad on his toes was a little intimidating to me. While I had some dual time in a Piper J3, Aeronca Champ, Cessna 180, Aviat Husky, Cessna 195, and oodles of tailwheel time in a UH-60 Blackhawk, I was lacking the confidence and familiarity to fairly consider the 195 at the time. As other writers have noted: either the Navion catches your eye or it simply doesn’t. My father is apathetic, at best, toward the Navion, but its high body and unique curved rolling canopy captured my attention. In many matters, I prefer form over function and was certainly planning on function over form for any five seater. But apparently I can have both, even if the Navion’s body may not personally attract you. See chart for a side by side comparison.
A couple of notes: compared to the 195 or most other aircraft, the Navion has a ton of modifications and engine options. Hence, the varied usable loads and airspeeds. Also, not all Navions are certified for five seats.
The 195 is a visual representation of an aviation era; that radial engine is unmistakable, the windows and long body are from another time. I think it’s the most photogenic plane outside of the war bird community. The Navion, on the other hand, is more subtle in its representation. Its round and over-sized design also reflect the car designs of the time. It gives a strong nod to the WWII aircraft, as it is designed by the same engineers who made the P-51 Mustang. Much of production went to the U.S. Armed Services for training. When airborne, a Navion looks like a war bird. While a few of the 195’s were also used by the military, it’s only an anecdote to their story.
Some folks, my wife among them, have questioned whether or not my kids will get too squished in a Navion, which surfaces early memories of sleeping buckled in with my brother in the back of a Champ. They’re kids: squish ‘em for a few short years before the first leaves the nest. Honestly, both the 195 and the Navion offer a roomy bench seat in back.
Flying a Solution
The 195 comes to life and demands full attention to taxi, after which it seems to rumble into the sky with neither effort nor aggression. It’s a comfortable dream to fly, trims up nicely, and if it were not so exciting to sit in that iconic treasure, the rumbling of the radial engine would lull you to sleep.
The Navion is rarin’ to go and get off the ground as soon as you push the throttle. As one passenger of mine exclaimed, “it’s like an elevator!” Originally manufactured with an adequate Continental O-470, the most popular engine now seems to be the IO-520 with 285 horsepower. This is what mine has, and if I am already climbing at 1200 feet per minute without effort, I can’t imagine what the IO-550 upgrade would feel like! In all my orientation on 90 degree Fahrenheit days, I never once used 600 feet of runway.
Known as a stable platform, even in turbulence, a Navion feels smooth and quiet. It has a spring coupled system assisting coordinated turns, either making me better or lazier. For Cessna flyers, a power failure is almost a non-issue, as long as you have a place to land and can tune out your racing heartbeat. Without power, the Navion is a heavy object falling without much sense of any lift at all. Approach this emergency more like a helicopter: pitch for the earth to trade off excessive airspeed for essential lift to soften your landing.
The biggest challenge in a Navion is slowing to 100 mph to extend gears and flaps and then descend slowly to the runway. On final, full flaps are like a full-brake and pitches every occupant forward to suddenly look at the intended point of landing, reminiscent of a carnival ride. I spend a lot of time flying low-wing aircraft, so I find Navion landings familiar. Because of the way they sink, one needs to keep adequate power ‘til roll out and remember the height of the fuselage. With landing gear engineered for unimproved strips, it makes every landing feel unfairly smooth. Sure, that gear is robust, but let’s not make it work any harder than it has to.
Flying the 195 is as familiar as any other Cessna, until landing. Every successful landing is a sheer joy and sense of accomplishment! Regular tail wheel flyers may find it less exciting. For non-tailwheel readers, I’ll just state the basic principle that one doesn’t land a tailwheel like you’re accustomed to, as it’s more like “flying” it gracefully onto the surface with perfect flying pitch and managed power. The 195 complicates this a tad with such a long tail and the pilot seated just at the center point to hardly notice pivoting. You are never done until you have come to a complete stop and this will, or should, keep every pilot not just attentive but on their toes until stopped. While the 195 has me determined not to have my tail in front of me, Navion’s were not designed with toe-brakes so you need a handbrake to do your job. That’s okay, we should all use our pedals and power smartly and not lazily rely on toe brakes. Using the handbrake requires very little transition, you’ll find it as soon as you look for it!
So, to make my short-story long, I work for a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) where I noticed a Navion in for annual maintenance. It looked cool and had three seatbelts in the back row. I tracked down the owner and asked if my wife and I could simply sit in it, so I could show her what we were considering. He was excited to talk about his Navion and noted he hadn’t been flying it. After I noticed a different Navion fitting our criteria fly off the market quicker than it came on, I decided to ask this local owner if he would consider selling. Shortly, terms were met.
The biggest regret I have is that I had to make a choice. At the end of the day, I wanted to try the Navion; it meets 100 percent of my criteria and is within my price range. All of my interactions with Navion owners have been helpful and often jovial. They are a loyal bunch but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to meet many in person. Since we came to terms, I have been fixated on backcountry strips and even my kids are accustomed to watching Navion videos in lieu of bedtime stories. The “195ers,” as they call themselves, are a blast. They are a work-hard/play-hard group, also in love with their inanimate possession. Well, okay, it’s not fair to call an airplane inanimate. We all know planes move and many of us know their respective plane has a soul. Now I understand how people end up with more planes than they can fly.
As you can tell, I waited to publish this article until after my purchase was complete; I’d have hated for you to get to my Navion before I did!