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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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.

But the orphan airplane that no manufacturer could keep in production remains popular with its owners. “You can find a Navion for $40,000,” says Peters. “You can’t even find a worn-out Cessna for that.” Today, a non-flying project airplane can be had for under $10,000, a flyable one with a tired engine or beat-up paint for $35,000, and a Navion that has been restored to near-mint condition for $100,000 to $170,000, depending on engine size and other modifications. In an age of $400,000 Cirruses, $600,000 Cessna 400s (formerly Columbia), and $700,000 Beechcraft Bonanzas, the Navion looks like a bargain.

In addition to the price, enthusiasts point to the Navion’s military lines, sliding canopies, high stance, beefy landing gear, good load capacity, and overall solid construction as reasons for the aircraft’s enduring appeal.

“It’s one of the best airplanes ever built, one of the most stable, and we think that it would do very well in an international environment,” says Gardner. “Third World-country operators would find this airplane very, very useful because of its payload, its short landing capability, and its stableness.”

“It’s very easy to see out of,” says American Navion Society president Gary Rankin, who has owned four since 1986. “The handling is very docile, and it lands slow. It has big tires and high gear, and can land on rough runways.”

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