From the designers who brought you the P-51 Mustang, an airplane with a complicated past…and a controversial present.
- By Mark Huber
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
“They hate me,” Gardner acknowledges.
The Navion hasn’t always stirred such strong feelings, much to the disappointment of its manufacturers. As World War II came to a close and warbird production began shutting down, North American Aviation needed a project to sustain its skilled workforce, which had been building P-51 Mustangs, during the 18-month gap before it could begin manufacturing the F-86 Sabre. The Navion program was cobbled together in a mere 30 days when the company decided to market a liaison aircraft to the U.S. military.
Because of the tight 18-month window, the same talent trust that designed the P-51 and the T-28 would design the Navion. The aircraft shares the T-28’s seven-degree, 30-minutes of wing dihedral, and it has many of the Mustang’s pleasant handling characteristics and robust design features; its nickname is “the poor man’s Mustang.”
North American churned out 1,100 Navions in nine months. Those destined for the military were labeled L-17As, while those sold to civilians were called A models. Each airplane cost $9,000 to build, and sold for $6,100. With the coming F-86 contract and its profit potential of tens of millions, North American was unconcerned with losses generated by what amounted to a rounding error. There was also a chance that if the Navion were selected as the military’s new primary trainer, the program would eventually make money.
The Army Air Forces bought 83, but shortly after F-86 production began, North American sold the Navion line to Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego, which continued production from 1947 to 1953.
In 1950, Ryan introduced the B model, the Super Navion, which featured a 260-horsepower engine that could increase cruising speed to 170 mph. The bigger engine required a longer, reshaped nose cowling and a larger propeller; with the more powerful engine, the airplane could take off in as little as 400 feet. But Ryan did not adopt North American’s “loss leader” pricing, and sold the B for $14,000.
The Pentagon ordered an additional 163 L-17Bs from Ryan. These aircraft were primarily relegated to liaison duties, flying high-priority personnel and small cargo; some, however, were used in Korea for forward air control missions, providing coordination of air strikes by F-80s, the first U.S. operational jet fighter.
A limited contract for liaison aircraft was not the military grand prize Ryan envisioned. The company was hoping for the U.S. Air Force’s lucrative flight trainer contract. But in 1953, Ryan’s entry, a modified Navion B designated the Model 72, lost out to the faster T-34A Mentor, Beech’s militarized version of its Bonanza. The following year the Navy also selected the Mentor. The Bonanza proved more popular than the Navion with civilian customers as well. Pilots, mostly male at the time, who wanted their wives along on joy rides, bought the Bonanza, an easier airplane to climb into. “In the 1950s, if you were wearing a peg skirt, there was just no ladylike way to get into a Navion,” explains Navion owner Margy Natalie, docent program manager at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.