Pilot report - Cessna 185 Skywagon

[Reprinted from PilotWeb]

A rugged, near-STOL weight-lifter with touring potential. Nigel Everett flies Cessna's aerial '4 x 4'.

WITH A STRIP of his own in the Welsh Marches, a shed with wide doors and a painted concrete floor in which you can see your face, and an interesting Cessna A185F which squeezes in with his mowers, my friend Jim Thorpe appears to be someone with about as much as any reasonable pilot could ever want.

The C185 was introduced in 1961 as a development of the 225 hp C180. The final A185F model came out in 1973 and was the most popular. The A prefix indicated Agricultural, with crop spraying modifications available; the A was the first with the 300 hp engine. The F model has a three-bladed prop and 'camber lift' wing.

When Jim first bought the aircraft in 1998 it had been used for some time as a Belgian parachute plane. These days parachute planes tend to be turboprops because of their outstanding capabilities in the climb, but before that the 185, with a 300 hp engine and high wing, was very popular with parachuting schools. Given a payload of around 1,500 lb including fuel and a rate of climb at mauw of over 1,000 fpm, you can understand the attraction of the Skywagon.

Having acquired the beast, Jim set about restoring it to something approaching new condition. Some £70,000 later he has ended up with an aircraft that boasts a full respray, a new windscreen, new brakes, rebuilt tailwheel and a zero hour overhaul of the engine by Flightpower. This included replacement of a variety of hoses and cables, new GAMI injectors and other accessories. The interior has been much improved by replacement of most of the interior trim, headlining and carpet. The four seats in the front and middle rows have been re-covered and new safety harnesses fitted with four-point inertia reels to the front seats and lap belts behind. The unrestored two foldable seats from the third row are not fitted at present. Many of the instruments have been renewed.

The Skywagon is a tailwheel aircraft which gives it a sturdy, old-fashioned appearance, and this is augmented by the fifties Cessna straight fin. To anyone familiar with the C152 or 172 it is immediately recognisable as a member of the Cessna family with its high wing, struts, stressed alloy skin and workmanlike air. However, Cessna never took the 185 much beyond its original form and apart from the three-bladed propeller there is little in the appearance of the CA185F to distinguish it from the first 185 of 1961. So while the C152 and 172 have evolved, with nosewheel, raked fin and rear windscreen, the 185 now seems to belong to an earlier generation.

The respray was carried out in pure white and an episcopal purple--an ideal livery for a bishop. The interior will seem very much like home to a Cessna habitué. There is the large deep panel, the plastic trim, the traditional Cessna control yokes and the substantial chromed door handles. Getting in, you slide the front seats well back, then forward again to reach the controls--access to the rear of the cabin is helped by sliding the front seats forward. I was reassured to find that a recent Cessna modification had been applied to the P1 seat, to lock it positively in the fore and aft sense. In the past there have been some unfortunate incidents where a Cessna seat has slipped back on take-off and the pilot has then instinctively tried to move the seat forward again by pulling on the yoke.

The cabin width is only 41 inches, which is no greater than the C172 and stout parties may find that staggering the front seat positions is helpful.

Behind the front seats there extends to the rear a much larger space than you will find in a C172. There is a newly carpeted space that currently boasts two further seats and a significant vacant area beyond them. Cessna optimistically claimed that the 185 was a six seater, but inspection of the seating in the third row of a 185, if you can find an aircraft with this still intact, will convince you that these are strictly for tinies. A careful reading of the Pilot's Operating Handbook shows a significantly limited loading capacity at this station.

The distance from behind the front seats to the rear of the cabin measures all of 62 inches and the rear cabin wall is removable to reveal a step up in the floor to a further baggage compartment. This offers 26 inches headroom and stretches back another 32 inches. In its parachuting days, all the seats apart from the pilot's would have been removed so as to allow the parachutists to lie about on the floor any old how, as parachutists do. When Jim bought the aircraft it had a top-hung door on the right-hand side so as to facilitate the egress of parachutists. In its present format, the rear of the aircraft is still available for the carriage of parachutists, livestock or whatever. Access to the rear of the cabin is via a small baggage door which I would estimate as being big enough for piglets, but not for pigs.

When I first looked forward inside the cabin I noticed two items of particular interest. The first was a long, black handle stretching horizontally from between the seats. This is the flap operating lever and it is pulled up in 10° increments until it reaches the original Cessna standard of 40°. At this point it is standing upright between the two front seats. Once upon a time all single-engined Cessnas had these barn door style flaps. They gave you massive drag, which greatly facilitated steep approaches and short landings, but it also seriously hindered go-arounds. On some lower-powered Cessnas, you simply could not climb with 40° flap deployed, and on others you could do so only with difficulty. So you had to remember to reduce flaps to 30° or less before initiating the go-around. Pilots who, in the heat of the moment, forgot this small requirement sometimes came to no good and therefore the later Cessnas have flaps that stop at 30°. The later Cessnas also have electrically-operated flaps, but my preference is for manual operation where possible for the sake of quick deployment and simplicity. I found that reasonable force was sufficient to operate the flaps on the 185 and if they should ever seem unusually immovable that will probably be nature's way of telling you that you are exceeding the appropriate flap limitation speed.

The other internal feature that caught my eye was the pitch trimwheel. Situated centrally on the floor, forward of the seats and beneath the substantial flap-lever, this is a seriously large piece of equipment with a diameter of about twelve inches--faintly redolent of a hydroplane control on a submarine. It controls neither a spring nor a trim tab, which are common forms of trim on a light aircraft, but a screw-jack moving the horizontal stabiliser. The need for a wheel of such size became apparent later.

Pilots used to the C172 may also note the additional tailwheel lock, which may be left unlocked all the time if you choose, although some find the locked position helpful in maintaining a straight take-off run. There is also a cowling flap control, attention to which is essential from time to time.

Having discussed formation procedure with our C172 camera ship, we set out on the test flight.

Formidable power

Starting the 300 hp fuel injection engine from cold presented no problems. Hot starting any injection engine can be a little fraught, but I believe that this Continental, with its return flow system, is somewhat more biddable than your average Lycoming. Once started, the engine pays you back handsomely with a most satisfying throaty burble as it informs you that it is no mere plaything, but a formidable power source.

With the tailwheel lock off, the aircraft is very manoeuvrable, especially if the toe brakes are used differentially, and the view out when taxying is good by tailwheel standards.

The take-off was an interesting experience. Jim had briefed me on this procedure extensively. He advocates leaving the tailwheel lock off, getting the aircraft straight over the first few yards before opening up and then concentrating hard on keeping it straight. The tail is to be lifted as soon as reasonably practical and, thanks to the propeller being three-bladed, there is good ground clearance beneath the tips. You rotate at around 65 knots.

The difficulties on take-off, such as they are, are all to do with the torque effect of 300 hp pulling a fairly light airframe and the possibility of losing directional control. On a normal airfield this would not worry me overmuch, the aircraft has good differential brakes and a fairly long wheelbase so that directional control would be nowhere as critical as on, say, a Tiger Moth or a Pitts Special. But Jim's strip has its own special surprises. The into-wind runway direction on the day faced up a slope which reaches a gradient of as much as five per cent towards the top. The strip offers 800 metres and you reach the crown of the hill at about 500 metres. About 200 metres beyond the eventual end of the runway, along the extended centreline, you encounter high tension cables, which run at a diagonal to the runway. If you initiate a right turn as soon as is convenient after take- off, you can climb out parallel to the HT cables without having to worry about clearing over them. From this runway's threshold, however, it looks to a stranger as though the cables hang only about 50 metres beyond the crown of the rise, and the whole procedure seems rather doubtful. Whatever it may look like, Jim knows that the cables are in fact 1,000 m from the threshold, and that there is plenty of time for a 45° turn before you reach them. For that matter, in a powerful machine like the 185, flying straight out will take you over the top of the cables with plenty to spare. Nonetheless, the demands of my coping with this strip's special requirements on top of those of the strange aircraft had both Jim and me somewhat concerned. In the event, he followed through on the controls, which in reality amounted to Jim flying the aircraft while I made ineffectual noises.

Once we had got the hairy beast out of its labyrinthine lair, Jim left me to get on with formating on the camera ship, which, considering the advantage that 300 hp has over the 160 hp of the C172, presented no great challenge. At our formation speed of around 100 knots the aircraft was easily controllable and even with the high wing the view out was quite good thanks to the windscreen stretching back a little behind the wing's leading edge.

Having strutted our stuff for the camera, we departed for some general handling. This revealed a much more satisfying aircraft than its common cousin, the C172. At the bottom end of the speed range, right down to the stall, the aircraft remains fully controllable with the ailerons entirely effective and producing no unmanageable adverse yaw.

The A185s have Cessna's 'camber lift' wings which improve roll control at low speeds. I also boxed the horizon at low speed, raising the nose, then yawing sideways with full rudder and wings level. I lowered the nose, then yawed back to the original heading. No vices were revealed--but this was with a fairly light loading and a forward C of G.

I tried a side-slip which was unremarkable and Jim pointed out that the 40° flap setting made side-slipping redundant on this aircraft. Stalls with and without flap were entirely straightforward.

With 300 hp up front you do need to use the rudder to balance the considerable torque, but the rudder pedal forces required are moderate and I never felt the need of the rudder trimmer. No doubt this would come in useful on a protracted climb.

From low-speed flying at around 75 knots, we set 75 per cent power (25 inches and 2,430 rpm at 4,000 feet and 7°C) and she quickly accelerated to around 135 knots IAS which trues out at about 143 knots. Well, that is certainly going some for a utility style aircraft with fixed undercarriage--and those 300 horses combined with the constant-speed propeller turn this machine into an impressive tourer. There is, of course, a price to be paid for such speed in terms of fuel consumption and the POH gives a consumption of 16 usg per hour at this setting. However, I was reassured to realise that the TB 20 Trinidad, a much more modern tourer with a 250 hp engine and retractable gear, returns much the same consumption at a cruising speed not much higher. As with all tourers, you can reduce the consumption by flying higher and with a lower power setting. Thus 65 per cent power (20 inches and 2,550 rpm at 10,000 feet and -5°C) will give you 141 knots TAS on 13.7 usg per hour.

Good instrument platform

At these cruising speeds I discovered the need for the big trimwheel. Yoke forces in pitch are considerable on this aircraft and you need to be assiduous in use of the trimmer. In spite of being very low-geared, at the higher forces met at higher speeds the trimwheel becomes surprisingly stiff to operate and if it was any smaller it would be virtually immovable.

The high pitch forces suggest that the 185 is a stable aircraft and this makes it a good instrument platform. This adds to its attractions as a tourer, although its use for IFR work is limited after 1 January 2001 unless some FM immune avionics are fitted (see the FM Immunity article in Pilot of September 2000). Most regular IFR pilots would probably like to see an autopilot fitted as well.

Duly impressed, I returned to base for a landing. Jim had briefed me on the cardinal importance, as with all taildraggers, of keeping her straight on the landing run. He also counselled winding in lots of nose-up pitch, leaving a trickle of power on until touchdown and holding the yoke all the way back. These warnings sounded unexceptional for a taildragger and I was more concerned about the instructions for the go-around. With full 40° of flap and full 300 hp of power the pitch-up forces are liable to become unmanageable. Even with the 30° of flap that we proposed to deploy, the forces would be severe. The proper drill, therefore, is to feed in increasing amounts of power while progressively reducing the flap setting and taking off the nose-up pitch trim. If you arrive at full power at the same time that you have reduced to 10° flap and got the trim back to take-off setting, all should be well. However, while feeding in power, reducing flap and winding away on the trimmer, you must always remember not to lose directional control, and the torque forces will be changing all the time as power is fed in. Keeping one eye on the ASI throughout all this is, of course, vital.

I felt confident that on anything other than a bad day I could cope with it all, but doubted my ability to deal adequately with the particular demands of a go-around within the
constraints of Jim's strip. So I planned a full-stop landing, agreeing on Jim taking over if a go-around became necessary, which it would if I should bounce badly on the spring-steel undercarriage and/or start to lose the direction. As it turned out, I just burbled in at seventy knots, winding away on the trimmer, and my full-stop landing proved unexceptional. It did leave me impressed once more with the excellent controllability of the aircraft at low speed.

We swapped seats and Jim demonstrated two short landings, the first leading to a go-around with 40° initial flap setting. His right hand was a blur, like that of an organist performing Berlioz, but the aircraft was fully under control and entirely safe for the whole of these demanding manoeuvres. We missed the HT cables by miles.

I thought of the 185 as being a flying pick-up truck, but that would be U.S. vernacular. The Australians would talk of a 'ute'--short for utility. The nearest I can get in British English is a '4 x 4'. That is to say, while you could haul pigs or turnips about in it, you might just as easily find it in North Kensington on the school run. While it may not be obviously suitable for such a role, it does project the prized 'landed gentry' image. The comparison is especially apt as regards the fuel consumption of a 4 x 4 or a Skywagon. Out on the road, or touring, the consumption per mile is not too bad. But if you choose to use it for short runs, circuits or just wandering about, the consumption per hour will begin to bite. Apart from its high operating cost as a local runabout, there are only two other significant drawbacks that I can divine.

It is moderately tricky to operate, and any pilot not used to flying fairly powerful taildraggers will need some special training before flying solo, especially if operating from a strip like Jim's. Even at a large regional airport, care will still be called for, as hard surfaces are less forgiving of loss of direction than are grass runways which often allow an aircraft to skid along sideways somewhat. But once you have mastered the 185's little ways it should present a constantly rewarding challenge.

And finally, it does need careful consideration of balance requirements. You have a long thin fuselage here combined with considerable weight-lifting capacity. If you load it
without doing your balance calculations, you may easily end up flying with the C of G behind the aft limit, in which case you will be at great personal risk. So if you never really mastered balance calculations at groundschool and don't want to learn now, the Skywagon would be best left alone.

G-BYBP left me with an abiding impression of versatility. It shines as a near-STOL machine, ideal for popping in and out of confined places and also as a load carrier, whether of four large adults and loads of fuel and baggage or of one or two plus almost anything that they choose to cram in behind them. Finally, and surprisingly, it turns out to be a tourer of considerable potential. Add to these capabilities, its rugged and powerful nature and its moderately challenging demands on take-off and landing, and you get an idiosyncratic aircraft that is practical, highly desirable for posing and a great pleasure to operate.

Nigel Everett

Note: PlaneCheck often has some nice Cessna 185's for sale