“Follow your heart.” We’ve heard that advice time and time again, but sometimes, life just gets in the way. Such was the case for Richard Buchanan.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been an airport nut. I flew models, and I was absolutely crazy about anything airplane from World War II and Korea. A buddy and I tried to go into the U.S. Air Force when we were 16. My mom wouldn’t sign me up, and my buddy went without me. I got married and then went to engineering school at night. Before long, we had kids and, well, I guess I put flying on the back burner,” he explains of his diverted path.
That doesn’t mean Buchanan isn’t a determined, goal-oriented type. After a successful career using his engineering skills, Buchanan decided to give flying a second chance.
He recalls, “One day, when I was 56 years old, I told my wife I was going to Florida to get my pilot’s license and asked her if she wanted to go with me. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Sure!’
“I had a limited time, so I called the flight-training school and told them I had three weeks and I wanted to take my check ride. They were skeptical, but I told them if they gave me a full-time instructor, I would make it. I wanted the meanest, hardest, orneriest instructor there was because that’s what works for me. I worked from five in the morning until midnight every day, and we finished a half a day early!” gushes Buchanan.
“I believe I set a record, but it wasn’t so easy. After the first week, I just wasn’t getting it,” he continues. “I sat down and had a talk with myself. I had never been beat or quit anything before, and I wasn’t about to start now. Sometime in the second week, I started having fun. About that time, I changed flight instructors, and I had a great time! I’ve been flying ever since!”
Buchanan’s love affair with the Navion began back in 1992. “I flew to Oshkosh with a friend in a Swift. There were about nine to 10 other guys in the group. I ended up riding home with one of them, Dick McFadden, in his Navion. I kind of fell for the Navion. It just struck my fancy,” he swoons.
Always an airplane fanatic, Buchanan restored cars for fun. When he began looking for an airplane, he decided that he had to have a Navion and it would be better if it was a project. It took several years, but he eventually found a basket case in Boonsville, Texas. The Navion he found, with only 750 hours of total time, was one of the last airplanes that North American made before selling out to Ryan. Buchanan found out that his new airplane had rolled out of the factory on his fifth birthday, making it all the more special.
Buchanan’s new Navion had spent the last 20 years of its life waiting for restoration when he trailered it home to Clayton, Ga. Before he got started, however, he was diagnosed with cancer. For most people in his situation, a project like the Navion would be relegated to obscurity, but Buchanan was determined that his project would fly.
He took it to Classic Aero in Nebraska for a total rebuild. At the outset, Buchanan decided that only new parts would go into his airplane. What began as a stream of parts finding their way to Classic Aero became a flood as Buchanan got serious: a factory-new IO-550B for 300 new horses ready to go, a new three-blade McCauley propeller, a complete Garmin avionics stack and a 430 GPS navigator, Osborne tip tanks, STEC 60-2 autopilot, Cleveland wheels and brakes, fuel flow and engine monitors and numerous airframe modifications. Everything that wasn’t sheet metal was new and sparkling.
In the three years during the Navion’s restoration, Buchanan triumphed over his bout with cancer. He has a zest for life and flying that won’t quit. He made the test flight after 20 months at Classic Aero and then promptly flew it back East for avionics, interior and paint. His aim was simple.
Buchanan explains, “I wanted a distinctive paint scheme. It’s not actually an authentic L-17, but I like it. The interior is all leather and I did all the custom trim work inside. As for the paint, well, we ended up with two clear coats, I wet-sanded it and then sprayed three more coats of clear. Finally, I polished it twice. I guess you could say I didn’t leave anything to chance. I wanted a brand-new 1947 Navion!”
In order to build time in the Navion, Buchanan searched for another one to fly while his baby was being restored. “Basically, I bought another Navion over the phone. I called my wife and said, ‘I found an airplane.’ The only thing she said was, ‘How much do I need to send?’ I flew it until I finished my project and sold it to a friend. I’ve been flying my Navion almost every day for three years now!”
Buchanan has restoration in his blood. He has been involved in the P-38 Glacier Girl project since the beginning. After 12 years, they successfully restored the fighter, which had been frozen in the ice of Greenland since World War II. “We’re trying to convince the owner to complete Glacier Girl’s mission, to fly the P-38 to Europe. The chase plane would be a King Air, but if it happens, I would fly ahead of the P-38 in my L-17. We would try to go to the Paris Air Show or Farnborough show. I can’t describe how much fun I’ve had on the project.”
Working on and flying airplanes is so much fun that Buchanan built a grass runway on his land outside Clayton so he could be closer to his next project. Never one to do things in a small way, Buchanan now owns five Navions. Two are flying, two will be projects and the other will supply parts. “I found the one-of-a-kind Navion Model 72. This airplane had three lives, and I’m going to bring it back from the grave,” he enthuses.
The Model 72 began life as an experimental hack for the Ryan factory in 1949. It was modified into a two-place aircraft with a heavy-duty wing spar and stringers for the Navy primary trainer contract in the early ’50s. The Beechcraft T-34 won the contract. The Model 72 was the only Navion with adjustable rudder pedals and sticks instead of yokes.
Buchanan explains, “I found the airplane, and it had been modified back to a four-place. The owner had all the original components, and after several hours of negotiations, I hauled a pile of junk back to Georgia.”
For Buchanan, life isn’t going to get in the way of his dreams again as he forges ahead with all his enthusiasm and drive for the new project. He says, “I want to take the Model 72 back to original. In the year and a half I’ve researched the airplane, I even found folks that had worked on this airplane. I got brand-new manuals, brochures and everything for the airplane. I’m ready to start! I’m still having fun, and this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done!”