Plane & Pilot
Friday, October 1, 2004

Cessna’s Big 185

The perfect machine for those moments when the amount of fun is as huge as the load you’re hauling

Cessna’s Big 185When Cessna makes single-engine airplanes, it makes them with wings on top. It’s a given—that’s just the way things are done at Cessna. There are many advantages of a high-mounted wing: Downward visibility is good, and it’s easy to get in and out of, not to mention the fact that cabin space isn’t taken up by messy spars and other protrusions.
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When it first came out of the factory, the option of choice wasn’t the cigarette lighter or a coupled autopilot. It was the factory float kit. Skis, 84-gallon fuel tanks, stretcher doors and even STOL kits were popular items at the time.

All of these things combined gave the Cessna 185 Skywagon the reputation as one of the best bush planes around. By the end of its 14-year production run, 34,048 Skywagons were built, 480 of which saw service in military garb as U-17As and U-17Bs.

Today, the Skywagon shares the same reputable heritage that all other Cessna singles embody. It has become a truism in life, wearing a mystique, an aura that’s so compelling that even those who have tons of conventional-gear time in other airplanes are impressed.

And Tullius obviously agrees. He has added a Skywagon to his collection of classic aircraft.

What has impressed Tullius, and almost everybody else, is the Cessna 185’s large size. Tall folks don’t have to duck when they walk under the wing, while average-sized people can use the small step in order to get into and out of the cockpit—yes, it’s a long stretch to the ground. It was made to haul plenty of stuff and passengers almost anywhere.

Most Cessna 185s are basic VFR machines, and a few are even IFR capable. Although the Skywagon’s ability to fly in weather and its docile handling characteristics has made it a favorite among heavy-hauler fanatics, the C-185 really made its mark because it can carry up to six people and their gear or any combination thereof into and out of very tight, far-flung locations. Its 1,700-pound useful load allows for storage inside the spacious cabin or underneath the fuselage in a cargo pod.

The Skywagon is a bush pilot’s dream, even from the beginning, and the backcountry has now become its home. The wilderness of Canada, Alaska, South and Central America, Asia and Africa are more likely to hear the roar of a Cessna 185 Skywagon than any other airplane. Cessna Skywagons with over 10,000 hours are common; they’re better than a Timex watch.

But what makes Cessna 185s better is its aftermarket modifications. Robertson, Horton or Sportsman STOL kits are available for those looking to revamp their Skywagon. Wing modifications, such as leading-edge cuffs, stall fences, vortex generators and wingtip extensions also are available. And for those who want floats, you can choose between straight or amphibious, depending on whether pavement interests you at all. Skis, huge tundra tires, cargo and fuel pods, extra-large doors, patroller windows and baggage extensions are among the upgrade options. Of course, you can install any of the modern avionics and gadgets, as well.

Another popular modification to the Cessna 185 is to add a Continental IO-550, 300-hp engine. With 15% more horsepower and a Hartzell Scimitar propeller, the huge, draggy, fixed-gear airplane will cruise 15 to 20 mph faster, climb 20% faster and have a 20% lower takeoff roll. By any measure, a fully tricked-out Cessna 185 Skywagon is an incredible performer.

The Skywagon has seen its share of ground loops, landing accidents and other typical general-aviation accidents. The most interesting statistic on the list is the large number of accidents where the pilot attempted to land with the gear down with amphibious floats. I’m sure you might think it’s pretty hard to land an aircraft with fixed conventional gear and have an accident, since you landed with the gear down. Nevertheless, it’s true. If you put the gear down when you land on the water, you get nothing but trouble and perhaps a swim. Beware of the Skywagon gear-down accident history.

Despite some of its general misgivings, Tullius is perfectly happy with his own Skywagon. After buying one, he refurbished it and added new avionics, a better interior and a paint scheme reminiscent of his days as a race-car driver and team owner. It now lives in his hangar in Sebring, Fla., with his collection of World War II-era Stearman, Ryans and WACOs. If you peek into his hangar, you’ll notice that his love for taildraggers are well-represented—and his Skywagon is on the top of the list of planes that he enjoys to fly, so much so that Tullius still hasn’t gotten around to telling his own son that he bought the Skywagon for him to gain conventional-gear experience and haul his family around. Tullius says he’ll eventually tell him…in due time.

SPECS: 1978 Cessna 185 Skywagon N44TU

Labels: Piston Singles


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