Flight test: Ryan Navion Su­per 260

A huge, mil­i­tary-in­flu­enced four-seater with com­fort, fine han­dling and what has to be the world’s fastest-ex­tend­ing un­der­car­riage

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words Dave Un­win Pho­tos Keith Wil­son

Com­fort and style from the 1951 Navion with ramp pres­ence and the fastest un­der­car­riage in the West!

Three sat­is­fy­ingly pos­i­tive clicks on the el­e­va­tor trim wheel and the ASI’S nee­dle seems painted onto the dial’s glass face. It al­most feels as if the Navion is on rails as it slides down the slope to­wards the wait­ing run­way. This re­ally is a fine-han­dling fly­ing ma­chine!

The test air­craft, N3864 is, to give it its cor­rect des­ig­na­tion, a ‘Navion’ B, built by Ryan in 1951, and owned by Mick Man­ders and Cavendish Avi­a­tion’s Steve Allen. I meet it on a beau­ti­ful Septem­ber morn­ing at Cavendish’s Earls Colne base and my ini­tial im­pres­sion is that, for a four-seat sin­gle, it’s enor­mous. At 2.6m to the top of the tall fin, it tow­ers over sim­i­lar types. If you like your air­craft to have ‘ramp pres­ence’ you’ll love a Navion! ‘Novem­ber six four’ was com­pletely re­built by renowned re­storer Gor­don Spooner sev­eral years ago, and for a 67-year old aero­plane it is in fan­tas­tic con­di­tion−and an ex­cel­lent ad­vert for Cavendish’s Ae­ro­coat process (a nano coat­ing de­vel­oped by Cavendish−see TB-10 flight test, Pi­lot Oc­to­ber 2016 for a full de­scrip­tion). It re­ally does look great.

The Navion was the first foray into the civil­ian mar­ket by North Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion (hence the NA in Navion) and it is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent some mil­i­tary think­ing has been car­ried across. Ba­si­cally, this thing was built to a spec­i­fi­ca­tion, not a price. For ex­am­ple, the large welded steel strut in front of the port wing root car­ries a step cov­ered with di­a­mond pat­tern deck plate that wouldn’t look out of place in the cab of the Fly­ing Scots­man! Another nice touch is that the land­ing and taxi lights mounted in the bot­tom half of the cowl­ing have ‘eye­lids’. (As de­liv­ered from the fac­tory in 1951, the land­ing and taxi lights were on the un­der­car­riage legs and the nose­bowl a very dif­fer­ent shape.)

Another ‘Mil.spec’ fea­ture that I like (be­ing an avi­a­tor of the old school) is that the cowl­ing hinges open good and wide on both sides of the en­gine and is held up by rigid stays. There is an in­creas­ing ten­dency for mod­ern air­craft to be quite tightly cowled and only of­fer barely ad­e­quate ac­cess to the oil dip­stick. Well, call me a bluff old tra­di­tion­al­ist but I quite like to have a good poke around be­fore flight, and have pulled enough bird’s nests out of

en­gine bays to jus­tify my cau­tion! And as we’ve got the cowl­ings open, this is a con­ve­nient point to men­tion the en­gine. The orig­i­nal 260hp Ly­coming has been re­placed with a 285hp Con­ti­nen­tal IO-520 air-cooled flat-six turn­ing a three-blade con­stant-speed Mccauley pro­pel­ler. Un­usu­ally, it isn’t sus­pended from a con­ven­tional welded steel-tube en­gine mount. In­stead, the mount is made as part of the lower fuse­lage.

Fuel is car­ried in a sin­gle 150 litre tank and a pair of ‘Tuna’-type tip tanks which can carry an ex­tra 75 litres each. On N64 th­ese are an af­ter­mar­ket item pro­duced by J L Osborne Inc and were not stan­dard equip­ment. Some late-model Navions had 128 litre tip tanks and were called ‘Range­mas­ters’: with 406 litres of fuel avail­able it’s not hard to see why!

The wing has ap­prox­i­mately seven de­grees of di­he­dral and is un­usual in that−be­ing of mono­cocque con­struc­tion− it doesn’t have a main spar. In­stead the thick wing skins are car­ried by a plethora of ribs and stringers, while the main un­der­car­riage legs are lo­cated on stub spars. The wing uses two rather old­fash­ioned aero­foil sec­tions (they join ap­prox­i­mately 1.2m out­board of the wing root) and there­fore is quite thick, with large stall strips in front of the main un­der­car­riage legs. The big hy­drauli­cally­ac­tu­ated flaps are in­fin­itely vari­able be­tween 0 and 40 de­grees, and there’s a ground ad­justable trim tab in the star­board aileron.

In com­mon with the rest of the air­craft, the short wheel­base, wide-track un­der­car­riage is sturdy and well made. In­ter­est­ingly, as NAA were big on fur­nace braz­ing, the un­der­car­riage (and sev­eral other com­po­nents) were orig­i­nally con­structed us­ing this tech­nique. How­ever, once all the Naa-pro­duced parts had been used up, later mod­els were welded, not brazed. Along with the B model’s stronger, welded un­der­car­riage the tip tanks’ Sup­ple­men­tal Type Cer­tifi­cate al­lowed an in­crease in the orig­i­nal max all-up weight from 1,294kg to 1,409.

The un­der­car­riage is ac­tu­ated by an un­usual com­bi­na­tion of hy­draulics and pow­er­ful com­pres­sion springs. Dur­ing ex­ten­sion, th­ese coil springs force the un­der­car­riage down very quickly, aided by the hy­draulic sys­tem. On the re­trac­tion cy­cle, just be­fore the hy­draulics raise the un­der­car­riage com­pletely, the link­age goes over-cen­tre and the spring ac­tion is re­versed to add a bit of ‘up’ pres­sure, help­ing the main­wheels re­tract in­wards into the wings and the steer­able nose­wheel aft into the fuse­lage. The lat­ter con­nects to the rud­der when the un­der­car­riage locks down. None of the wheels is cov­ered when re­tracted (in fact the nose­wheel is slightly proud); small doors cover the main un­der­car­riage legs.

Aft of the port wing root is a very large door to an equally big bag­gage bay be­hind the rear seats. Ac­ces­si­ble in flight, it can carry al­most 82kg but, in a rare de­sign flaw, you can­not latch the door open with its stay when the canopy is fully back. I was in­trigued to spot a cou­ple of sand­bags

in the bag­gage bay; as Steve typ­i­cally only flies it with two POB, th­ese are a sim­ple way to keep the cen­tre of grav­ity from mov­ing too far for­ward. One fur­ther fas­ci­nat­ing fea­ture is the small aft-fac­ing ducts in the wing roots to ex­tract cabin air.

The Navion is some­times re­ferred to as the ‘poor man’s Mus­tang’, and the wings, fin and tailplane do look rather P-51-ish, par­tic­u­larly as the mildly swept-back fin has a dor­sal fil­let in front of it, while the tip tanks are strongly rem­i­nis­cent of the Cavalier F-51D. Ac­cord­ing to NAA’S brochure ‘the fact that the Navion looks like a Mus­tang is in­ci­den­tal to its de­sign. There was no stud­ied at­tempt to make the new plane re­sem­ble a Mus­tang. The con­fig­u­ra­tion and aero­dy­namic qual­i­ties of the tail­group and wings, which make it re­sem­ble a Mus­tang, proved be­yond a shadow of doubt dur­ing long mil­i­tary ser­vice that they were the best from the stand­point per­for­mance and han­dling qual­i­ties’.

How­ever, NAA may have been a bit disin­gen­u­ous here, as the sales brochure also claims that ‘but for the fact that the Navion was de­signed for the fly­ing pub­lic, it is a mil­i­tary air­plane’ and that ‘pi­lots used to fly­ing mil­i­tary air­planes may find the Navion a closer coun­ter­part to the fine air­planes pro­duced for the armed ser­vices than any other per­sonal air­plane on the mar­ket’. There’s noth­ing like a lit­tle brand loy­alty, and there were a lot of B-25, P-51 and T-6 pi­lots out there – al­though, as it would tran­spire, not nec­es­sar­ily in the mar­ket for an aero­plane.

The tailplane is also of mono­cocque con­struc­tion and car­ries a mass-bal­anced two-piece el­e­va­tor with big, ca­ble-op­er­ated trim tabs in both sides. The rud­der trim tab is only ground ad­justable, and I was slightly sur­prised by this, but Steve as­sured me it was ad­e­quate. Get­ting in is, in my ex­pe­ri­ence of this class of air­craft, unique. Hav­ing climbed up onto the port wing­root walk­way (which is so high that you would not want to fall off) you slide the gi­ant canopy aft, step onto the floor be­tween the front and back seats, then walk to the front. All well and good, un­less it’s rain­ing!

The cabin is lux­u­ri­ous, with lots of room and com­fort­able leather seats. It very much re­minded me of a lux­ury Amer­i­can

car from the ’fifties. Even the lever in the roof which op­er­ates the fresh air scoop is beau­ti­fully made. All very in­ter­est­ing, but not as in­ter­est­ing as the pi­lot’s seat. This is as sump­tu­ous as the pas­sen­ger seats and of­fers a good range of ad­just­ment both lon­gi­tu­di­nally and ver­ti­cally. There are only brakes on the P1’s side (orig­i­nally the air­craft just had a lever that ap­plied brak­ing to both wheels si­mul­ta­ne­ously) and, de­spite the ‘Ryan’ data plate be­neath the fin, the P2’s rud­der ped­als are em­bossed with NAA’S logo. The com­fort­able con­trol yoke is−by mod­ern stan­dards−bereft of but­tons.

Al­though the panel is pri­mar­ily ana­logue, it is so large and well-de­signed that it of­fers a very un­clut­tered look. The pri­mary flight in­stru­ments are lo­cated di­rectly in front of the pi­lot in the clas­sic ‘sa­cred six’ lay­out, with the usual en­gine gauges on the right and the avion­ics in the

The panel is large and well de­signed — it of­fers a very un­clut­tered look

mid­dle. There’s a sep­a­rate fuel gauge and L/R se­lec­tor switch for the tip tanks, while the rest of the electrics are con­trolled by a row of ro­bust tog­gle switches. The fuses (and some spares) are car­ried in a neat fold-out panel.

An in­ter­est­ing fea­ture is the large hy­draulic pres­sure gauge which is quite promi­nently lo­cated right in the cen­tre of the panel. The hy­draulics are like the ‘power-push’ sys­tem fit­ted to the T-6 Har­vard, but are dif­fer­ent in that they must be turned off man­u­ally. It is im­por­tant to do this as the sys­tem runs at 1,175psi, and if you for­get you’ll knacker the seals. It is con­trolled by one of sev­eral large sil­ver plungers that sprout from the panel; the other, iden­ti­cal plungers op­er­ate the park brake, cowl flap and emer­gency hy­draulic valve, the emer­gency hy­draulic hand pump be­ing sited be­neath the panel. The fuel se­lec­tor is mounted on the floor.

Note that the op­er­at­ing plunger doesn’t turn on the hy­draulic pump (it runs con­tin­u­ously). When the plunger is pulled, the sys­tem builds up pres­sure by re­strict­ing the re­turn flow (a bit like a tem­po­rary pres­sure re­lief valve). Push the plunger back in and the sys­tem free-flows. It is good prac­tice to leave the hy­draulics ‘on’ all the time the air­craft is on the ground. This keeps pos­i­tive ‘down’ pres­sure in the sys­tem and guards against the un­der­car­riage ac­ci­den­tally re­tract­ing af­ter hit­ting a bump or rough ground.

Vernier plungers are used for all the power con­trols, with the un­der­car­riage

se­lec­tor, flap switch, pitch trim wheel and in­di­ca­tor all to the throt­tle’s left. The un­der­car­riage and flap se­lec­tors are a lit­tle too close to­gether by mod­ern er­gonomic stan­dards, but they are very dif­fer­ent shapes and the un­der­car­riage se­lec­tor also in­cor­po­rates a safety catch.

Growls into life in­stantly

The big Con­ti­nen­tal growls into life in­stantly, and just a hint of power nudges us out of our park­ing space. This is a fine ma­chine to taxi, with smooth, pro­gres­sive brakes and pos­i­tive nose­wheel steer­ing, and as you sit so high up the field of view is ex­cel­lent. Pre-take­off checks are stan­dard: the pitch trim in­di­ca­tor is on the panel next to the ser­rated trim wheel, while a line painted on the port flap shows when 20° (take­off flap) is set.

With the main tank half full, empty tip tanks and no bag­gage, we are some 200kg be­low the 1,409kg max­i­mum all-up weight. The am­bi­ent con­di­tions are bet­ter than ISA as, al­though Earls Colne is 227ft AMSL, it is a cool, crisp morn­ing, with only a slight cross­wind. Even though I bring the power in de­lib­er­ately slowly the ac­cel­er­a­tion is ex­cel­lent, with only small in­puts of right rud­der re­quired to track the cen­tre­line, and as the nee­dle of the ASI sweeps rapidly through sixty knots, a hint of back pres­sure lifts the nose­wheel off the run­way, fol­lowed swiftly by the main wheels af­ter about 200 me­tres. A quick dab on the toe brakes stops the still­spin­ning wheels, then I fum­ble with the safety catch and pull the un­der­car­riage se­lec­tor out slightly, then up. The un­der­car­riage re­tracts very quickly, and with speed build­ing nicely I stow the flaps, push the hy­draulics plunger back in and set off af­ter the C182 cam­era ship. Best rate of climb is eighty knots, but even climb­ing at 100 for im­proved vis­i­bil­ity still has the VSI in­di­cat­ing around 1,200 feet per minute.

It’s a glo­ri­ous morn­ing for fly­ing. The last of the mist is still burn­ing off and the air is com­pletely calm as we head out over the River Black­wa­ter. Vernier throt­tles and close for­ma­tion work don’t re­ally mix, but the air is so smooth and the han­dling so pre­cise that we soon get a fine set of pic­tures in the can. Pho­tog­ra­pher Keith wants some shots of the un­der­car­riage cy­cling, so I close up and ask Steve to lower the wheels. The pow­er­ful spring/ hy­draulic sys­tem seems to prac­ti­cally shoot the wheels down. There are very def­i­nite ‘thumps’ through the air­frame as the legs lock into place and later, when we are back on the ground, Keith confirms he’s never seen an un­der­car­riage ex­tend so fast.

Pho­to­shoot com­plete, I fly par­al­lel with the coast­line and ex­am­ine the con­trol and sta­bil­ity more closely. I al­ways like to start my ex­plo­ration of a new type’s han­dling with a cou­ple of steep 360 de­gree turns in both di­rec­tions, and the com­bi­na­tion of ex­cel­lent vis­i­bil­ity and sim­ply su­perb han­dling make th­ese ma­noeu­vres a joy to per­form. In fact, the han­dling is so pre­cise that I man­age to hit our wake on only the se­cond at­tempt. The big, wrap­around wind­screen pro­vides an ex­cel­lent field of view and, as Steve had pre­dicted, I do not no­tice the ab­sence of rud­der trim. Par­tic­u­larly wor­thy of com­ment is the el­e­va­tor trim; it’s geared just about right, and I love the nice pos­i­tive ‘clicks’ as its ser­rated wheel is ad­justed. This re­ally is one of the best pitch trim­mers I’ve ever han­dled.

Har­mony of con­trol is out­stand­ing, with rel­a­tively light, au­thor­i­ta­tive ailerons, a well-damped, slightly heav­ier el­e­va­tor, and a rud­der that is pow­er­ful with­out be­ing too heavy. I sup­pose the peo­ple at NAA had plenty of time to get the sta­bil­ity and con­trol right, and it shows. In many ways the ride is more rem­i­nis­cent of fly­ing a

light twin. I’m slightly sur­prised at how lit­tle rud­der is needed even when turn­ing quite tightly, and won­der if per­haps there is some kind of spring-in­ter­con­nect sys­tem be­tween the rud­der and ailerons. (I sub­se­quently learned that there is.) An ex­am­i­na­tion of the stick-free sta­bil­ity re­veals it to be pos­i­tively sta­ble di­rec­tion­ally, just barely neu­tral lat­er­ally and pos­i­tive lon­gi­tu­di­nally, with the air­craft re­turn­ing to its trimmed speed from a ten-knot dis­place­ment at 120 af­ter only two long-wave­length, lowampli­tude phugoids.

Slow­ing down to ex­plore the stall proves very in­ter­est­ing−for such a big ma­chine the stalling speeds are re­ally low. Flaps up, it quits fly­ing at about 65kt, while a full flap stall oc­curs at around an im­pres­sively low 45kt. There isn’t a stall warner fit­ted but there’s plenty of buf­fet ei­ther flaps up or down which gets in­creas­ingly in­sis­tent as the al­pha in­creases. It’s in­ter­est­ing to

For such a big ma­chine the stalling speeds are re­ally low

note that the ailerons re­main ef­fec­tive even when the wing is stalled, while the aero­plane also has a ten­dency to roll it­self ‘wings level’. Even a de­par­ture stall is a com­plete non-event.

The stall with flaps and un­der­car­riage down gives me the chance to ex­am­ine the un­der­car­riage ex­ten­sion time more closely and it re­ally is very quick. You power up the hy­draulics, check the pres­sure, se­lect ‘un­der­car­riage down’ and al­most in­stantly feel very def­i­nite ‘thumps’ through the air­frame as the legs lock into place. I’ve never seen ‘three greens’ light up so quickly! Re­tract­ing or ex­tend­ing the un­der­car­riage only pro­duces very sub­tle changes in pitch trim, but there’s a big change with full flap.

Ac­cel­er­at­ing out of the fi­nal stall I se­lect flaps and un­der­car­riage ‘up’, climb swiftly to 4,000 feet and set the air­craft up with Steve’s rec­om­mended cruise power set­ting of 21 inches of man­i­fold pres­sure and 2,300rpm. The ASI even­tu­ally set­tles on 123kt for a TAS of 131 while burn­ing around 45 lph. It will go faster but burns a lot more fuel in the process. A TAS of 150 at 6,000ft will con­sume nearer 60 lph.

Head­ing back to Earls Colne in a gen­tle cruise des­cent with the big mo­tor rum­bling qui­etly and the Navion lazily lop­ing along as solid as a rock, I sud­denly re­alise what the Navion re­minds me of – the 1978 Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal I drove while liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia.

Back in the cir­cuit, the Navion is very speed-sta­ble and the best way to fly it in such smooth con­di­tions is just to hold the con­trol yoke gen­tly be­tween thumb and fore­fin­ger and prac­ti­cally fly it on the trim­mer. As men­tioned ear­lier there’s no flap po­si­tion in­di­ca­tor so, hav­ing pow­ered up the hy­draulics and checked the pres­sure gauge, I look over my left shoul­der for the line painted on the flap. With prac­tice, I’d prob­a­bly just count “one potato, two potato” or do it purely by feel. About sev­enty knots on fi­nal feels right, bleed­ing back to sixty over the fence while car­ry­ing a lit­tle power. My ex­per­i­ments at al­ti­tude had con­vinced me that, with full flap se­lected, a sug­ges­tion of power all the way into the flare was the way to go, as full flap cre­ates a lot of drag.

On the first ap­proach all looked good, but I’d for­got­ten just how high up the pi­lot’s seat is when com­pared to sim­i­lar types such as the Bo­nanza or Co­manche. Con­se­quently, I was just start­ing to feel for the ground when the ground felt for me. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good ei­ther, as

the wheels met the ground slightly ear­lier than in­tended. Full power, ro­tate, pos­i­tive rate, gear up. This time I re­mem­ber the safety catch and have the flaps and wheels stowed and the hy­draulics off as if I’d been fly­ing Navions for years. This may sound odd, but you know how with some types you sense that, al­though an air­craft is not yet your ser­vant, you’re not quite its mas­ter? Well, it seemed to me that N64 wanted to be my friend. It’s very well man­nered.

Con­fi­dence fully up, as we pass abeam the thresh­old I en­gage the hy­draulics, lower the un­der­car­riage - thump, thump, thump - and then drop a bit of flap. This time I wait a lit­tle longer be­fore se­lect­ing full flap, then slowly draw the throt­tle al­most all the way back, pause and then add just a pinch of power. I’m re­warded with a real ‘squeaker’, and still make the first turn off with min­i­mal brak­ing, even though there’s prac­ti­cally no wind.

I re­ally liked the Navion. It’s a solid, steady per­former, that can carry a good load a short dis­tance or a smaller load a long way. It’s clearly from a time when gas was 25 cents a US gal­lon, and it’s ir­refutable than many air­craft do more on less. Yet it has tremen­dous charm, good han­dling, is very com­fort­able and of course has im­mense ramp pres­ence. And if you can af­ford the fuel, one sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage is that with up to 300 litres to play with you don’t have to stop so of­ten to re­fuel, so a long trip can ac­tu­ally be quicker over­all. Yes, it’s not as fast as the Cir­rus SR22 or Cessna TTX (both of which I’ve tested re­cently for Pi­lot) but it’s cer­tainly as com­fort­able. It’s also a bit of a bar­gain. A new SR22 or TTX costs se­ri­ous money, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween a new G6 or TTX and a re­stored Navion would buy a lot of av­gas! As we walked away Steve con­fided that “the Navion is the only air­craft my wife likes fly­ing in” - and that pretty well sums it up.

Thump-thump-thump: ex­tended by pow­er­ful coil springs, the Navion’s un­der­car­riage wal­lops down with re­mark­able speed

Touch­down shot il­lus­trates how good the view over the nose is

Left to right: cen­tral floor-mounted tank se­lec­tor; Naa-logo rud­der ped­als on the brake­less star­board side (note the dust gaiters — a qual­ity touch); and the emer­gency hy­draulic lever, which sprouts from un­der the panel

Clas­sic panel lay­out: flight in­stru­ments on the left; comms, electrics & hy­draulics in the mid­dle; and en­gine & fuel in­di­ca­tions rather a long way off to the right

Con­ces­sions to moder­nity, N64’s Garmin nav­comm units share the panel with 1940s/50s switch gear Flap-shaped flap switch, wheel-shaped un­der­car­riage knob, in­tu­itive trim wheel — all good er­gonomics... and even the some­times con­fused throt­tle, prop &...

Seat­ing is ev­ery bit as wide and com­fort­able as it looks

Clock­wise from above: tip tank filler cov­ers sug­gest they might have been in­tended for a Bo­nanza; tail bumper spring; Fowler flaps

One air­craft you cer­tainly do mount, via a stoutly con­structed step An af­ter­mar­ket ex­tra, the tip tanks each carry 75 litres of fuel

Cen­tre hinged cowl­ing pro­vides un­usu­ally good ac­cess to the big Con­ti­nen­tal six

P-51, yes - but there’s also a touch of Mooney in the Navion’s plan­form

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