Story by Ron Kilber
"Family Flight" (1972) is one of those movies I vividly remember from when I first viewed it 27 years ago. The film starred Rod Taylor as a businessman and Navion owner who set out with his family on a routine flight from Southern California to points east. Unforeseen weather pushed the Navion into the Mexican desert where they were forced to make an emergency landing. With extensive damage to the Navion and no runway to depart on, they were left with what seem insurmountable obstacles to overcome if they were going to survive.
Ever since I saw "Family Flight", I've been in love with the Navion. I just admired the way it looked -- low wings, high off the ground, proud tail and a sliding canopy. It conjured images of fighter planes, only it was an affordable civilian model. When Taylor loaded his passengers into that Navion and began his taxi to the runway, the charm and utility of that scene evoked thoughts of the perfect traveling machine -- big enough to make a statement, roomy enough to live out of, strong enough to last a long time and safe enough to never get hurt in. I wanted one then. And to this day I still want one.
Now, September 23, 1999, the closest I'm to owning any Navion is in the left seat piloting Creighton Frost's 1946 model as we prepare to depart Chandler Municipal Airport in monsoon weather that is still lingering over Arizona. Usually, the moist season, beginning in late June or early July, is behind us by early September. But as everyone knows, anything can and does happen these days, including the biggest hurricane to reach the U.S. East Coast this century.
Ingress to the cockpit is made from the front of the wing on the left side of the plane by placing a foot on the protruding steep and a hand on a fuselage handle. From there, it's an easy step to the wing-walk to slide the canopy open. With the propeller right there by you as you enter, the Navion brings new meaning to the cardinal rule that a pilot should never allow passengers to board or exit the airplane with the engine running.
Creighton reads the checklist off to me, and I'm dazzled by all the antique controls, knobs and switches not only on the panel but many other places, too. The on-the-floor fuel selector has three positions: Off, Auxiliary and Main. The à la 1930s starter pedal is forward and between the rudder pedals. The avionics master switch is on the circuit-breaker panel to the left of my knee.
With the magneto switch in the Off position, I depress the starter pedal until the propeller rotates four blades, then I turn the mags to Both. Instantly, internal combustion takes over where the starter leaves off, bringing 1200 RPMs smoothly to the six-cylinder, 185-horsepower Continental engine -- without a fuss.
I really enjoy a roomy airplane. Creighton is a big man, but even so there's still space for a smaller person between us if there was a bench seat. To put my elbow out the side, I have to actually lean left a little. And if you take the back seat out, there's room on the floor for a double mattress. I knew a Navion owner, based at the Bellevue Airport in Washington, who configured his plane that way for travel and airshow attendance.
Another thing enjoyable in any airplane is visibility. The Navion's is excellent. Even though the nose is as large as any Cessna 182, there's no comparison for what I can view not only directly in front of me, but beside and behind, as well. Good visibility evokes a feeling of safety and peace of mind, dispelling any mystery of who or what may be in the way.
I grew up on yokes and tricycle landing gear, so when I release the breaks, I'm instantly at home as we taxi to Runway 4L. Control is positive and solid as we dominate the taxiway to the run-up area in easy-chair style and comfort. There are bumps and depressions we see in the taxiway, but we don't feel them.
Let's Go Flying
After a quick run-up, I'm cleared for take-off, and in no time I'm rolling on Runway 4L. Just as quickly, I gain 60 mph and rotate, gaining altitude in the direction of the Superstition Mountains. Once clear of the traffic area, I head southerly to the San Tan Mountains and level off at 2,500 feet MSL to stay clear of the broken-to-overcast ceiling today.
Besides a low speed (under 100 mph) for flap and gear operation, there's nothing unusual about the Navion. It's surprisingly tame, very stable and easily controllable. The predictable flight characteristics are a pure delight for any weekend pilot as me, but I have to admit that the sliding canopy adds a lot of character to this beautiful airplane. My visibility in all quadrants is excellent, and sitting higher-than-usual in a very spacious cockpit provides an extra sense of control and big-ship feel. I find myself every bit in love with this airplane as when Rod Taylor flew a Navion in "Family Flight" almost thirty years ago.
This Navion is equipped with a controllable-pitch propeller -- not a constant-speed variety now standard throughout the world. In other words, there's no governor to keep engine rpm constant. When circumstance demands, I manually adjust power and engine rpm using the throttle and prop control. It's interesting to learn and discover that which is taken for granted with constant-speed propellers, here, pilot intervention makes up for the missing governor.
I wonder why the design engineers preferred the manual propeller. Was it for cost or was it to avoid, perhaps, more maintenance-intensive governors? While this propeller requires a little more on-your-toes alertness, I actually prefer the added flexibility attained with the manual propeller. Certainly, there may be added advantages over the constant-speed variety should a malfunction occur in mid-flight.
On High Final
One of few challenges facing the Navion owner is slowing down first before landing. Flaps and gear can only be used when indicating 100 mph or less. Just so that I don't upset Chandler's traffic in the pattern today, I only extend the gear after I reduce speed and turn my base leg for Runway 4L. On final, full flaps and a step approach allow me to assuage my altitude.
The Navion's gear is pelican-long and rhino-strong. I'm sure both features account for the much lower airspeed mandated for safe operation. After all, a longer moment arm on heavier gear induces more drag -- and more joint friction -- perhaps resulting in no gear operation at all. I can well imagine the Navion's engineers scratching their bewildered heads when they wondered why the gear never came down when there was too much airspeed. Their solution? Specify airspeed to 100 mph or less, and go to sleep.
An engine-driven, manually-controlled hydraulic pump provides the means to lower and retract the landing gear. In the event of an oil leak, springs help to extend the wheels, as does a hand-operated oil pump under the panel help to retract. The same hydraulic pump powers the flaps.
Flaring is easy and comfortable as if I were flying a much lighter airplane. In fact, I feel like I'm landing not a 2800-pound Navion, but a 1,000-pound lighter Piper. With the awesome short-field capabilities resulting from the Navion's bigger-than-ordinary, 45-degree flaps, it's easy to make the first intersection after landing. The Navion's flight characteristics certainly do provide a wide margin of safety on landing and on takeoff. And things feel real solid, a trait resulting from a substantially overbuilt design, which doubled not only for the civilian market, but the military, too.
I've flown a few airplanes that are faster than the Navion, however, on any day of the week I'll trade squirreliness and a little less speed for better, safer handling. And the toughness and roominess are a bonus.
Fuel capacity consists of a 20-gallon tank on each wing and another 20-gallon auxiliary tank under the back seat. With a fuel-burn rate of 10.3 gallons per hour against 51 usable and a 45-minute reserve, multi-state hops are easy with an endurance that stretches to 440 nautical miles.
Creighton Frost is N91655's proud owner. He's no stranger to aviation, having first earned his Air Force silver wings in 1953 at Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas. He joined the military in 1951 during the Korean War conflict while a music major at Arizona State College (now NAU). As a pre-teenager during World War II, he washed airplanes, helped mechanics and cleaned hangars without compensation at the airport in Mankato, Minnesota -- just so he could be around airplanes, his first love.
While earning his Air Force wings, Frost trained in the T-6 Texan and B-25 Mitchell. There's little mystery of his fondness for the Navion, which was produced by North American Aviation, the same manufacturer of the T-6 and B-25.
Frost's first assignment after flight school was in a KB-29P refueling tanker out of Walker AFB at Roswell, New Mexico. His ship was equipped with the state-of-the-art Flying Boom, which made the hose and reel obsolete, and to this day still dominates aerial refueling technology.
In 1956, Frost went into the reserves flying the SA-16 Albatross in air rescue missions, first in Mississippi, then Arizona, all the while working in the insurance industry.
During the Cuban Missile crisis, the Air Force recalled Frost to fly more air rescue in the SA-16. It was then that he decided to make a career in the Air Force, which took him to Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, still in rescue and still in the Albatross. Vietnam gave Frost his most harrowing times dodging ground-to-air bullets, and his luckiest surviving a direct hit to the fuselage.
After retiring as a Lt. Col. in 1977, Frost became a Saber Liner instructor for Flight Safety International and then a DC-9 captain for Midway Airlines in Chicago until he retired in 1990. Since then, he's been a Boeing 737 Simulator instructor for America West Airlines at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.
Somewhere along the way, Frost married and has four children. He has also owned many general aviation aircraft including the Cessna 180, 195, 206, 310 and, of course, his current Navion.
A Bonus with the Navion
A few weeks ago, Creighton and I flew his Navion from Chandler to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. It was just a short hop to drop in on a fixed base operator. When it was time to return to Chandler Muni, Ground Control cleared us to Runway 8L. Our timing couldn't have been worse. There were not only seven passenger jets in line in front of us, but many were lined up for landing on final, too. Once we made it to the number-one position for takeoff (about 15 minutes later), there was one Southwest Airlines 737 remaining on a two-mile final. That's when the controller asked Creighton if he could accept an immediate take-off.
"Phoenix Tower, Navion N91655, affirmative", Creighton responded immediately.
"Navion N91655", cleared for immediate take-off on Runway 8L".
In an "I can do this" moment, Creighton fire-walled the throttle, and in short order we built speed while the 737 barreled down on us from behind.
Once we rotated and gained footing in the air, the controller directed us to off-set right 15 degrees.
That put us flying along side Runway 8L. The 737 touched down, and surprising to me, I watched the fast-moving jet overtake us even while it was slowing on the runway and we were climbing. What a great overhead view of a landing passenger jet.
Naturally, we were safely out of the way of the landing 737. Otherwise, the captain would simply have aborted the landing and gone around the traffic pattern to make another attempt. He would've also been one mad captain at one bad Navion.
There can be a bonus for any Navion pilot today. Many air-traffic-control employees today are one or two generations removed from the 1940s. When we radioed Approach Control on the way to Sky Harbor, the controller had us repeat the aircraft type, presumably because she was unfamiliar with the type of our aircraft. "Navion" may have connoted "Navy Brass", and while other GA traffic waited for slots, she cleared us immediately as if we were Air Force One.
Also, after we radioed Ground Control when we were ready to leave Sky Harbor, taxi clearance arrived immediately for the active. GA pilots at Sky Harbor complain of the long delays before taxi clearance ever arrives.
If not for age, it's not surprising controllers here may not be familiar with the Navion. Only seven units are registered in Arizona, four of which are in the Phoenix area. It may well be that no Navion has landed at Sky Harbor during all of 1999 -- maybe longer.
The Navion in its day was an incredible machine available to anyone who could afford a top-of-the-line airplane. Today, the Navion remains a tough competitor in the used four-place, retractable market, yet its price is a fraction of new stickers coming off the assembly floors. And the Navion's lines are just as beautiful now as they were in 1946.
While "Family Flight" provided only vicarious experience for me 27 years ago, today, N91655 provides real adventure with a real sleeping beauty. It may well be true that Creighton Frost's Navion has less hours now than did the one Rod Taylor flew when he made "Family Flight" in 1972.
Specifications and Performance
Weights and Loading
Source: Creighton Frost
All specifications are based on manufacturers' calculations. All performance figures are based on standard day, standard atmosphere, at sea level and gross weight, unless otherwise noted.
N91655 had its beginning on December 13, 1946 as NC91655 (note the pre-50s use of "C") on the factory floors of North American Aviation at the Los Angeles Municipal Airport. Original logs indicate a 20- and 35-minute test flight on January 17 and 20, 1947, respectively, attested by initials "J.Z."
On February 3, 1947, NC91655 was flown to Miami where its assumed it remained until purchased in 1950 by an owner in Lake Harbor, Florida. The Navion changed hands and locales (including Tidioute, Pennsylvania) a few more times until Frost finally acquired it in December of 1997 from a friend of the King Radio family.
With only 900 hours on the airframe, Creighton thinks his prize might well be the lowest-time Navion in the world. That's only about 16 hours of air time for each year since new. Not only that, it may well also be the most original. Besides Cleveland brakes, a different panel and left-and-right rudder pedal brakes, no other changes or modifications have been made to this Navion. All ADs, of course, have been complied with.
A Post-war Beginning for Navion
Although the Navion had its beginning about the time U.S. military contractors ceased producing big iron when World War Two ended, its DNA had been lurking in P-51 Mustangs, B-25 Mitchells and T-6 Texans produced by North American Aviation (NAA). NAA introduced the Navion in early 1946, making it one of few all-metal designs available during the time. In fact, it was NAA's only entrant into the general aviation market place. At the time, the Air Force wouldn't be established until September 18, 1947, and Captain Charles E. Yeager wouldn't break the sound barrier until October 14, 1947 -- both events nearly two years away.
The Navion is one of few four-place retractable singles that was available immediately after WWII. The Bonanza had not yet entered the market, and I can't recall now another all-metal make, so the Navion may well have been the only airplane of its class around, perhaps at least for a year or so anyway.
Little more than 2,300 Navions were produced all told, first by NAA, then followed by Ryan Aeronautical Corporation, builder of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Finally, Tubular Service and Engineering Co. (TUSCO) acquired the Navion rights in 1957 and began modifying existing units with more horsepower and speed kits. Eventually, TUSCO's Rangemaster version evolved without the famous sliding canopy. Cabin-door entry and a 100-gallon fuel capacity extended speed and range to more than 1,800 statute miles.
After 1964, various owners of the Navion design produced little more than 50 to 60 copies.
According to the latest data available from the U.S. and Canadian Aircraft Databases, there are just under 1,000 Navions registered in all variants. Of these, about 35 are of Canadian registry. It's not known how many Navions reside in foreign countries, but it can be assumed some or even many do.
Return of the Navion Sleeping Beauty
General Aviation has a new aircraft manufacturer on the not-so-distant horizon. Navion Aircraft LLC (NAC) based in Bowling Green, Ohio will introduce a modern version of the fifty-plus-year-old type certificate using a new engine nacelle and cowling, resulting in less drag and more aerodynamic efficiency. According to company claims, "It will be a great plane made better".
To learn more of the company's plans to bring back the venerable Navion, I spoke with John Piper, Vice President of Operations and the grandson of the late William T. Piper, Sr. who founded Piper Aircraft Corporation. According to Piper, the new Navion is well positioned in the general aviation marketplace for advanced flight-training programs, private ownership and small charter/rental operations.
NAC acquired the type certificate in 1995, and ever since, the come-back team has been making preparations to begin production activities in 2000 with initial deliveries beginning in the fourth quarter of 2001.
Why introduce such an old design? According to Piper, Cessna faced an identical decision when they decided to re-introduce single-engine models several years ago. In the end, they stayed with what had been working for them for decades. As for Piper and his team, they have enthusiasm and conviction for an already proven, successful formula. By updating the rugged, original design with improvements in technology, the result will be a Navion capable of near-200-mph cruise speeds. That's what the marketplace demands, claims Piper.
Besides John Piper, NAC's management team includes its president, Rob Nitschke, and chief engineer, Paul Everly.
NAC can be contacted by regular mail at PO Box 47, Bowling Green, Ohio 42402-0047.
Telephone: (419) 838-8400
American Navion Society
Navion owners not only enjoy the benefits of the American Navion Society, but The NAVIONEER, too, a publication of the club headquartered in Grand Junction, Colorado. The magazine-format newsletter includes a club calendar, introduction of new members, a message from the president, feature stories about Navions and owners and a member forum. Finally, a good source of benefit are the many advertisements of suppliers providing parts, modifications and information to keep any Navion flying for a long time to come.
The club's address is PO Box 148, Grand Junction, Colorado 81502.
Telephone: (970) 245-7459
Ron Kilber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a private pilot and flying enthusiast living in Arizona. His stories have appeared in many aviation publications.