Second Chances — Scott McLain and his father’s Navion

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

Scott McLain, EAA 231827, has fond memories of many airplanes he’s flown, but none more so than N8893H. A North American Aviation NA-145 Navion, 93H was purchased by Scott’s father, Steve, in an attempt to give the pair something fun to do together. That attempt was successful.

Steve completed some flight training but never did end up getting his private pilot certificate. It was Scott who flew the airplane into the Waukesha County Airport (UES), where his parents were based. The idea was for the father and son to restore the airplane together and to give them a powerful common interest that also happened to fly.

The Navion succeeded at that mission until Steve made the difficult decision to sell it. Scott and a friend of his flew 93H down to Texas, where a banker representing the buyer handed over the rest of the money owed for the airplane and a pair of tickets back home.

Scott figured he would never see that Navion again. However, one day it popped up in New Jersey when he checked the N-number on a whim. His father’s Navion had come back to him.

The Mustang’s Little Brother

The first Navions were produced by North American Aviation in the late 1940s. While some were acquired and used by the U.S. Army Air Forces under the designation L-17, the goal of the Navion was to be a perfect family airplane for the P-51 pilot returning from World War II who still wished to fly.

North American Aviation, like so many wartime aviation companies, had no way of knowing its conception of a flying society would not come to pass after WWII was won. The company saw its workforce decline from 91,000 to 5,000 by the end of WWII and needed to pivot from military aircraft to the civilian side.

Without much experience in building light planes, North American Aviation put its remaining engineers to work on the Navion. The airplane itself was a success, but the economics behind it were not. The company sold the airplanes for roughly $6,000 new, even though each completed airplane cost $10,000 to build. Despite the tough road to profit, North American Aviation built more than 1,000 Navions.

North American Aviation was producing the F-82, B-45, and F-86 for the U.S. Air Force by 1947, so when the Ryan Aeronautical Corp. called about purchasing the Navion program, it made sense for both parties. Ryan’s attention soon turned to military contracts as well, since the company was needed to help build KC-97s. So, the Navion moved again, this time to the Tubular Steel Corporation.

A short-lived venture called the Nation Aircraft Company followed, the last to build new Navions. Today the type certificate belongs to Sierra Hotel Aero, located in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

First Time Around

The McLains first heard about the Navion that became theirs when a pilot friend based in Madison, Wisconsin, found it in Carlsbad, California. Scott flew the last leg of the flight that brought it to Wisconsin, and then took it to the Anoka County airport (ANE) in Minnesota to begin the restoration.

When 93H arrived the first time, it was a bare aluminum airplane with blue stripes to match the blue panel and fabric inside. Scott and Steve set out to strip it and let that aluminum show wherever it could, save for the few spots that would remain painted.

That meant polishing the airplane extensively. With plenty of surface corrosion from its time spent outside in California, that polishing was no simple task. At the time, there were less-proven options for aluminum polish. Finally, the father and son found a product called Rolite, which was recommended by the owner of a shiny Ercoupe — it did the trick.

Photo by Connor Madison.

Armed with a pair of electric polishers, they got to work. As the Navion was based at Scott’s home airport, he was the one who did the bulk of the polishing, which he describes as the hardest part of either restoration. It was also quite time-consuming.

“I kept a log of polishing the airplane,” Scott said. “I had probably close to 900 hours of polishing the first time.”

Scott developed something of a reputation for all of his polishing. People who would travel by his hangar made jokes about how he was too busy polishing the airplane to enjoy it.

“People used to laugh at me in Anoka County,” he said. “I handmade a bed that was a recliner; it would go up and down so I could pull myself along underneath the wings to polish it. It never flew because I was always polishing it. They used to walk by on Saturday mornings and say, ‘Come on, Scott, what are you doing in there? Those things are made for flying, not polishing.’ I just kept my head down.”

As it usually does, all of that hard work paid off. Scott flew the Navion to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to pick up his father, and then the pair went to Oshkosh. The Navion ended up making enough of an impression to merit a feature story in Sport Aviation (July 1988), and 93H graced the cover of that issue in all its polished glory.

The SUN ’n FUN International Fly-In & Expo was the next stop, and the hard work paid off again there as the Navion became an award-winning airplane. This silenced the critics at Scott’s home airport.

“I think the peanut gallery calmed down a little when it was on the cover and we won an award with it,” Scott said.

Scott and Steve loved their Navion, but when an offer he just could not pass up arrived, Steve made the difficult decision to part ways with it.

“Dad sold it to a guy in Mexico who was an industrialist,” Scott said. “He had a collection of airplanes. He never even saw the airplane; he sent Dad the money, and my best friend and I flew it down to El Paso, Texas, where his banker met us with the balance of the money and a one-way ticket back to Milwaukee.”

Call It a Comeback

Although he had a North American T-28A Trojan for a while in the meantime, Scott never forgot about his father’s Navion. He never stopped sporadically checking on it, either.

“We sold it, and I kind of had an empty hole in my stomach,” he said. “From time to time, I would always search on the FAA’s website for N-numbers. 8893H never came up because it was in Mexico, but I’ll be danged if it didn’t come up [this time]. It belonged to an attorney on the East Coast.”

The timing ended up being perfect. The attorney had just taken a new job and needed to find the Navion a new home. Scott was thrilled to be able to own the airplane once more. He told his wife it felt magical to have this reminder of his father, who had died a few years prior.

“I miss my dad,” Scott said. “He died about six years ago. We did a lot of things together in this airplane. Every time I look at it, it brings me back to when we were having fun at Oshkosh and at SUN ’n FUN.”

Much about the airplane had changed by the time it entered Scott’s life again. He was offended when he saw the paint job adorning 93H when it arrived back to him.

“They stripped it down of all, as far as I’m concerned, its dignity as a North American product,” Scott said.

That meant a lot of work was in store for Scott, who has great respect for North American and the Navion. Typically he does as much of a restoration as he can without outside help.

“I’m an A&P mechanic, and I always like to do the work myself because I get a sense of accomplishment doing it,” Scott said. “Also, I don’t have one of those funny-looking trees in the backyard with presidents’ pictures on the leaves.”

Restored Out of Respect

This time, though, Scott would need some help. Luckily, he knew exactly who to call. Chris Gardner and the folks at Sierra Hotel Aero, who currently hold the Navion type certificate, helped Scott get some dignity back on his Navion.

Chris’ father also owned Navions, one in the early 1960s and one in the late 1980s. Like Scott, Chris has a real love for the type that he describes as stable and forgiving in flight.

“I’ve always felt that it was an airframe that was way ahead of its time,” Chris said. “I think with a lot of today’s modern advances that it’s still a very competitive platform over even newer designed aircraft that are out there, both in its ability to operate in very short strips and also perform very well in climb and load-carrying capability. It’s just an all-around good, safe design.”

Sierra Hotel Aero initially only offered a baggage door modification for the Navion that it acquired an STC for, but leapt at the chance when the type certificate became available. Chris said the goal is to eventually produce new Navions and continue to support all of the existing ones out there.

“We’re out here, and we support the aircraft,” Chris said. “I know that some people think that it’s orphaned, but it’s really not. Sierra Hotel Aero is here to work with the owners and enthusiasts who want to keep the aircraft flying.”

Scott can attest to that. His Navion’s wings were de-mated; all new cables, landing gear, wiring, and pulleys were installed; and the fuel tanks were reconditioned after leakage was found. Scott said they’re now better than new and epoxy primed.

The aluminum fairings on the fuselage were reconditioned by an expert metalsmith. New cowl latch fasteners were installed, along with a smoke system. The interior was gutted, and old wiring and sidewall installation were replaced. The rear bench seat was rebuilt, and new custom-upholstered leather seats, side panels, and carpeting were put in. The baggage compartment was stripped out and entirely rebuilt.

The yokes on the airplane are custom-made, with the original North American Aviation logo made of a 10 percent pure silver powder protected by a clear, laminated surface. Sierra Hotel Aero was crucial in getting the yoke installation approved.

Scott decided to install push-to-talk switches on the yokes, which got new tubes installed. The windows were inspected and reconditioned using Scratch Off kits. New canopy rollers were installed as well.

One change Scott did not want to make was moving away from the classic rubber-padded rudder pedals in the Navion, so he decided to keep the handbrake and avoid adding a braking mechanism down below.

“I still love the original handbrake system in this airplane — many others have removed this system and installed the typical toe brakes found in modern aircraft,” Scott said. “For myself, I like the original rubber North American Aviation rudder pedal pads on N8893H. I have been told that that is one thing all North American Aviation aircraft share … the NAA logo being on the rudder pedals.”

An original Bendix B-4 autopilot and wing leveler remains in 93H and works like a charm after being repaired three years ago. The pods under the wings, which can each store up to 100 pounds of baggage, were done by Chris at Sierra Hotel Aero. Scott has plans to one day mount rockets and/or bazookas in those spots, as used on some L-17s during the type’s military service.

The Navion came back with a new engine, one Scott suspects was added to compensate for the Mexican heat it would’ve been flying in. When he took it down to Texas after his father sold the airplane it was equipped with a 250-hp Continental IO-470-C and a two-bladed McCauley prop. It returned with a 285-hp IO-520-BB and a three-bladed Hartzell propeller.

Scott prefers to do interiors himself, even learning how to tan and cut leather to fit seats during restoration. However, Flightline Interiors provided help on the Navion this time around. During the first restoration, Scott was worried his wife, Lori, would have him sleeping outside due to all the damage the tough leather work did to her brand-new sewing machine.

With a paint job tailored by Scheme Designers, 93H was stripped and outfitted with the new design meant to pay homage to the original manufacturer of Scott’s airplane.

“I decided to take some different colors,” Scott said. “The paint scheme is a combination tribute to all the men and women who have served our country, and the pilots and mechanics of North American Aviation.”

The unique design features a checkerboard pattern on the airplane’s nose and tail as a tribute to the P-51 Mustangs that North American produced for the war effort. A swoosh on the tail indicates the airplane is civilian, despite most of North American Aviation’s production consisting of military aircraft.

Colors used on the Navion include some that were widely used on North American Aviation airplanes throughout the years, including yellow, dark green, gray wisp, black, and white. Squadron blue is used on the stars and bars, as is appropriate for warbirds of that era.

The Fun Part

Scott takes great pride in the current status of 93H and takes great joy in flying it as well. Even getting into his Navion after his preflight is a rush.

“Climbing aboard via the flap step really is cool in a sense that it reminds me of my T-28A,” Scott said. “A couple of steps up onto the wing gives you a sense of a real sturdy and rugged airframe.”

Visibility out of the cockpit is great, and the large tires on the Navion make taxiing it a smooth ride. The handbrake makes it a bit different than many GA aircraft, although Scott enjoys the process just fine. The sharp-looking heavy duty hoses connected to the Cleveland brakes are effective and provide plenty of stopping power.

Once the preflight is finished and it’s time to taxi out and take off, 93H really gets moving. The larger Continental engine lifts the airplane off the ground quickly, as Scott estimates a takeoff distance of several hundred feet.

Photo by Connor Madison.

In the air, the Navion cruises at 155 mph and typically burns between 12-14 gph. Scott said it’s not far off from most of the larger airplanes he’s flown.

“All in all, the feel of this airplane is that of a typical large airplane,” Scott said. “[It’s] smooth on the controls and very stable in turns as the interconnect control system pretty much ensures you are in a coordinated flight.”

The large, hydraulically actuated flaps on the Navion are infinitely variable between 0 and 40 degrees, which makes for a nice pitch angle that gives the pilot good forward visibility while landing. Large dihedral wings with concave-bottomed tips and convex wing root bottoms with anti-stall strips on the inboard leading edge make for an easy landing experience.

“Once again, N8893H shows its pilot why we keep coming back to this historical North American Aviation-built wonder,” Scott said of landing his Navion.

Preserving Personal History

Much of N8893H has been updated as part of Scott’s restoration, but one piece of the airplane that hasn’t changed is the panel. When the Navion first arrived to Scott and Steve, it came with pretty standard steam gauges and a standard three-in-one gauge for oil pressure and oil temperature.

Aside from a Garmin GTN 750 that was added by the attorney owner on the East Coast, it hasn’t changed throughout all those years and all those owners, even including placards Scott had done by an engraver in Minnesota.

“The whole exterior has been restored, and the whole interior except for the panel,” he said. “I’m torn. I don’t know what to do there. That was Dad’s. I’m just not sure if I should disturb it.”

Paying tribute to both North American Aviation and the Navion design was important to Scott, who has so much respect for the company that made his airplane and the airplane type itself. Even though he’s put so much work and time into the Navion, Scott is well aware that doesn’t make it his — at least not forever.

“The way I look at it, I’m just the keeper of the keys for a snapshot in time,” he said. “That’s all I am. Just to try to keep it up and keep the tradition going. Nobody’s perfect. I try to do the best I can on everything.”

Ti Windisch is a staff writer at EAA and enjoys learning about various types of aircraft. Outside of aviation, he can often be found watching, writing, and podcasting about the NBA. Email Ti at twindisch@eaa.org.

N8893H Ownership Map

N8893H Specifications

Aircraft Make & Model: Navion

Length: 27 feet, 6 inches

Wingspan: 33 feet, 5 inches

Height: 8 feet, 8 inches

Wing area: 184 square feet

Maximum gross weight: 2,850 pounds

Empty weight: 1,930 pounds

Fuel capacity: 80 U.S. gallons

Seats: 4

Powerplant Make & Model: Continental IO-520-BB

Horsepower: 285

Propeller: three-blade Hartzell

Cruise speed/fuel consumption: 155 mph/12-14 gph

Power loading: 10.5 pounds/hp

Wing loading: 17.1 pounds/square foot

Range: 595 miles

Service ceiling: 18,000 feet

Rate of climb: 1,250 feet/minute

Takeoff run: 400 feet

Landing run: 468 feet

VNE: 190 mph

VSO: 47 mph

VX: 75 mph

VY: 95 mph

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