Navion Lives On

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The future of a high-performance single that traces its pedigree to the P-51 is now in the hands of a small Minnesota company. Sierra Hotel Aero, of St. Paul, bought the type certificate, engineering data and production jigs for Navion aircraft at an auction held Dec. 18. Sierra Hotel Aero spokesman Chris Gardner said his goal in obtaining the type certificate was to update the historic aircraft and keep them flying. "We're going to bring Navion into the future," said Gardner. The aircraft was designed by many of the same engineers who created the P-51 and it was produced by North American, starting in 1946, as the company's answer to what was supposed to be a post-war aviation boom. Not surprisingly, with its sliding canopy, fighter-like (to some) appearance and exuberant performance, it was a favorite of fighter jocks, including Gardner's dad, John -- a Vietnam-era pilot who bought his first Navion in 1960. Chris Gardner grew up around the airplanes and his company takes its name from the tail number of his dad's second Navion.

...Parts, Mods Primary Focus...

Sierra Hotel Aero has two primary focuses with the type certificate: providing support for the current fleet and offering modifications to improve the basic aircraft. Gardner said that of 2,800 Navions built there are about 800 flying and up to 200 that people are trying to get back into flying condition. With the type certificate, Sierra Hotel Aero can manufacture certified replacement parts using the original engineering data. It can also obtain supplementary type certificates (STCs) for modifications. Gardner said some Navions have been grounded because some otherwise mundane replacement parts, like landing gear switches, are not available. The company hopes to work with the owners of stranded Navions to get them back in the air. It can also handle major repairs and even zero-time the airframes, thanks to the type certificate. If there was one complaint about the original Navion, it was lack of power from its 185-horsepower engine. During production, power increased to about 285 horsepower on later models but owners still wanted more. Sierra Hotel Aero is working on an STC for 320 horsepower and it's also planning to offer speed mods like a more slippery canopy and gear doors to go along with updated instrument panels.

...New Aircraft Unlikely

Theoretically, with the type certificate, the company could build new Navions, but Gardner said that's not part of the plan. "That may be possible one day but I don't really have plans to build the airplane again," he said. In fact, Gardner picked up the type certificate from an Ohio company whose plans to resume production didn't work out. Navion Aircraft LLC, of Bowling Green, spent almost seven years looking for the millions of dollars in investment that would be needed to get the production line rolling again. After all that money would have been spent, there's the matter of competition. A new Navion would be up against the likes of Cirrus and Lancair ... not to mention Cessna, Beech, New Piper, and Commander, which just filed for Chapter 11 protection. Gardner said modernizing and maintaining the existing fleet would remain his focus. "It's a niche market but it's a market that definitely needs to have that support." Chuck Brown, of the American Navion Society, agrees that building new Navions is likely out of the question. "It's too complex of an airplane," he said. "They couldn't make it cost-effective even when labor was cheap."