Accidental Classic

From the designers who brought you the P-51 Mustang, an airplane with a complicated past…and a controversial present.

So popular is the Navion that airplane lovers consider a complete restoration, like David Peters', the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (David Peters)
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In the summer of 1951, a herd of donkeys charged across the tarmac of Mexico’s Acapulco airport, tearing into a row of parked, private airplanes. Most of the aircraft, made of wood and fabric, were severely damaged. When one of the donkeys crashed into the left wing of an all-metal Ryan Navion, the collision was so fast and so violent that a main landing gear was lifted 10 inches off the ground. But though the donkey was badly injured, the Navion’s wing suffered only a minor dent.

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When Salvador Mariscal, Navion’s Latin America distributor, recounted the tale to Ryan’s Bill Wagner—perhaps the most prolific aviation PR man of the 1940s and 1950s—Wagner quickly issued a press release headlined “Navion Demonstrated As ‘Jackass Proof.’ ” 

Donkey collisions are perhaps the most obscure way the Navion has proved its durability over the past six decades. Between 1946 and 1951, Ryan Aeronautical and North American Aviation built 2,349 of the 2,469 Navions produced. (Several other companies, most notably the Tubular Service and Engineering Company—TUSCO—built variants that account for the other 120.) Today, an estimated 500 to 600 still fly, kept airworthy by members of the American Navion Society and other groups of enthusiasts who appreciate the curious history of this tough little airplane as much as its handling characteristics. “The Navion is an amazing aircraft,” says David Peters, operations manager at Classic Airworks, an aircraft restoration company. “It’s just a really stout beast. That, combined with its warbird lineage, initially attracted me to the aircraft…. The same care and thought that went into the design of the war machines went into the Navion.”

When Ryan failed to sell the Navion as a military trainer, the company shuttered the program and sold the type certificate to TUSCO, which restarted production in Galveston, Texas, in 1958. Three years later, Hurricane Carla slammed into the Gulf Coast. The worst storm to hit Texas in 40 years, it killed 43 people and leveled Galveston. The TUSCO plant was crushed, and the company never recovered.

Over the years, the Navion’s type certificate was held by various dreamers who hoped to restart production but didn’t have the money. In 1995, John Piper, grandson of Piper Aircraft founder William Piper, attempted a revival. Seven years later the effort ended in bankruptcy. When the type certificate came up for auction in 2002, Northwest Airlines crew chief Chris Gardner acquired the rights as well as truckloads of parts, tooling, and documents. Gardner had experience with the airplane; his father, Jon, had owned Navions, and had developed an external baggage door modification for the type. “I was really intrigued with the airplane because of the way it was put together,” says Gardner. “It was built a lot like a Mustang, and you could tell the same people designed it. When the type certificate became available, I knew that would make things a lot easier in terms of upgrading the airplane, because the airplane itself is a wonderful platform.

“My goal was to support the existing fleet, but my long-term goal is to one day build the airplanes again. That’s still a long-term dream.”

In 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration granted to Chris Gardner “Parts Manufacturing Authority,” a license allowing someone other than the original manufacturer to produce aircraft parts. Gardner soon discovered that certain aspects of the Navion’s design didn’t meet current safety standards, and one of the replacements he devised, an $800 fuel selector valve, became mandated by an FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD), issued on April 16, 2008. The FAA estimates that it will cost each Navion owner $1,800 to inspect the aircraft’s fuel system, remove the old valve, and replace it; owners have one year to comply.

The Airworthiness Directive has earned Gardner the enmity of the American Navion Society and many Navion owners, who view him as a profiteer. Sixteen went so far as to formally object to the FAA about the directive on the grounds that Gardner “is using the AD process to make money.”

“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.

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