When an old friend hands you the keys of a powerful taildragger, best make sure you are not going to bend it

Words: Colin Goodwin  Images: Morgan Perkins

The order of priority of things one must not crash as a motoring journalist runs like this: at the top of the pile is the one-off factory prototype or concept car – especially if it is just about to enjoy a star-spangled unveiling at a motor show. (Telling the boss of Ford that a young motoring hack has just turned a million dollar one-off into a write-off, and that the fanfare unveiling at the Detroit motor show is now not going to happen will cause a snowstorm of P45s.)

Next on the hack’s Must Not Prang list is the historic racing car. It is not the way one wants to get one’s name into racing’s history books – ‘Chassis No.1, winner of the Mille Miglia with Juan Fangio, five Grand Prix victories with Stirling Moss and written off by a dickhead called Goodwin in 1992.’

Third is any cherished classic car, whether it is an old MGA or Nick Mason’s (Pink Floyd drummer and recent Pilot Profile subject) Ferrari 250 GTO. I once drove Nick’s GTO to buy some sandwiches. It was only worth about �5m in those days, whereas today its value is nearer �20m. Because I’m so used to driving stuff that falls into the categories mentioned above, I thought little of it. Mason also owns a Robin DR400, which he’s had from new. I would be absolutely terrified to fly it even though it isn’t worth as much as one of the Ferrari’s headlamps. The same goes for the Editor’s Cub, even though I’m pretty sure that I could handle both without too much trouble.

My old friend James May, the television personality and beer promoter, has just bought himself a 1979 Cessna 185E Skywagon. It came from Sweden, where it used to skim across lakes. It’s now had its clown’s shoes removed and replaced by wheels, plus a complete re-trim and re-paint. It looks rather lovely. May is extraordinarily generous with his toys and for years has allowed me to borrow his motorbikes and classic cars. His aircraft collecting started with a Luscombe that he bought, we then shared and I eventually took over. His next move was to a Super Decathalon that had been bought new by wing-walk impresario Vic Norman in 1999. With under 500 hours total time, it was virtually like new. I never dared asked James for the keys – not only because I was scared of scratching it, but because as it is a two-seater only its extra speed would give me something that I didn’t have with the Luscombe (or the Condor that has taken its place).

But the new Cessna is a different matter. It can seat four very comfortably and even five if that person is either a child, bends in the middle or doesn’t complain. James’s machine is also fitted with the optional long range fuel tanks with 81 US gallons useable. This gives the machine a massive range and also means that you have to be on a BBC salary to be able to afford to fill it up. It’ll be perfect for James and me to take our womenfolk to France for lunch. I’d also like to borrow it for our annual visit to the Dordogne for unlike the Luscombe it will be able to do the trip a) quickly and b) without stopping. Trouble is, do I dare borrow it? When my RV is finished James will be given a set of keys and be put on the insurance so that he can borrow it whenever he needs to get anywhere quickly and fairly economically. A new RV-7 with 180hp, CS prop and tidy panel is probably worth about the same as a ’79 185, so that will make me feel more relaxed about borrowing his aircraft.

Not flown anything like this

I’ve not flown anything at all like the Skywagon. I’ve lots of hours on taildraggers and I’ve flown many hours in the 172/182 family. But the 185 is quite heavy and this later model is fitted with the huge Continental IO-520-D engine, which is rated at 285hp max continuous power with 300 for takeoff. Obviously I need some instruction on the Cessna and I know just the man for the job: Bruce Hutton. Hutton is a West London Aero Club regular and is a former Fleet Air Arm jet pilot and an ex-airline man. He’s flown everything including Cessna 180s and 185s. I’ve not flown with him before but I’ve used him for years for advice and guidance.

At vast expense, May has purchased an original owner’s manual for the aircraft. It’s for an earlier mark but the important information is correct for the 1979 model. There’s plenty of it, too – everything from the crucial speeds, weight and balance to a highly detailed performance chart. All the systems are thoroughly explained, too. On Bruce’s instruction I have been poring over it for the last few days.

The plan is to fly out of White Waltham and carry out some general handling nearby, including a few stalls, while Bruce reacquaints himself with the 185 and I get used to its controls. Unlike injected Lycomings, you start the big Continental by leaving the mixture full rich and clicking the fuel pump’s toggle switch to start. You then crank the motor and gradually open the throttle until the motor fires and runs. As soon as it’s settled down you flick the fuel pump toggle back up to its off position (there’s also an emergency position in case the mechanical pump fails). The 8.5-litre six sounds fantastic and is beautifully smooth.

By lifting both cheeks off the seat I can see out forwards but Hutton prefers the proper weaving technique. “You can’t see what’s under the nose if you don’t do it,” he explains “Nosewheel pilots will think you’re showing off; experienced taildragger pilots will see that you know what you’re doing.”

There’s a checklist in the glovebox that May also got from the USA. Hutton has already re-written some of it, as it’s missing a lot of important information. We’ve not yet left the ground and my choice of hand-holder is already paying off. This is the first taildragger that I’ve flown that has a lockable tailwheel so we’ll take advantage of the device both on taking off and landing.

A reputation for biting

The 185 has a reputation for biting. But then so has the Luscombe and both James and I managed to get on with that okay, after being taught properly how to fly it. “You’ll be fine,” says Hutton. “What you have here is a lot of power to deal with. Everything must be done smoothly, especially applying power. There’s a lot of torque from that big propeller and slipstream that will both make the aircraft want to turn left. Crack open the throttle too quickly and it’ll be difficult to stop her swinging.”

Even with full fuel and two of us on board, the big Cessna is off the ground in no time. I detect a slight bit of footwork from Bruce as we leave the turf, bang on the centre line. A three-bladed prop was an option in 1979 and I wish this one had it because this two-blader in fully fine pitch makes an enormous amount of noise. Obviously the sooner one can back off the throttle and coarsen the pitch, the better for the neighbours.

You can tell from the owner’s manual that this aircraft was designed to fly high because the cruise performance charts run up to 15,000ft, and there’s also mention in the book of words of an optional oxygen system. Bruce and I find cruising at about 20in of manifold pressure and 2,300rpm gives us an acceptable fuel burn of around 13 US gallons per hour. We’re at around 3,000ft but going higher and leaning off would help still further.

This aeroplane is going to be fantastic for touring. There’s a great view out and once we’ve got the power setting where we want it she’s smooth and very stable. A pal once demonstrated to me how a Cessna 172 would virtually come down on its own through cloud in a balanced stall, mushing its way down. I reckon the 185 would do the same trick because when Hutton and I put her into a full-flap stall she just mushes without dropping the nose or any hint of dropping a wing. The book says the stall speed with 40� (full) flap is 59mph, which agrees with what we see in practice.

But drifting around the sky is the easy bit: now comes the tricky thing of getting back on the ground. Although the 185 is much quicker than anything I’m used to – we’ve been covering ground at about 150mph – slowing it down isn’t difficult. (Brief trips in RVs have shown me that I’ll find my new toy a lot more challenging in that respect.) There’s more to think about than usual, with a prop control and cowl flaps. Turning base leg for White Waltham’s Runway 03, I don’t make life easy for myself by pinching the circuit. First two stages of flap on base leg, with the final stage ready for when we’re on final.

Do you get nervous when you’ve got an instructor next to you? It can reduce me to a hopeless blitherer. Fortunately the 185 is beautifully stable once you’ve got it in trim and we descend nicely at 80mph. (Hutton later apologises for being a bit anal but that is what you need from an instructor. There is no point in having a sycophant next to you in the cockpit or someone who sits quietly watching you make mistakes and flying poorly.)

Touch down a little early, and…

Despite having taken note of where the horizon sits in the landing position when we were on the ground earlier, the 185 touches down earlier than I expected and does a significant bounce. Hutton is ready on the column to ensure this doesn’t get out of hand, and then we open the taps for a go-around. And now I see his point about the amount of power that we have in front and the effect it has. I’m taken by surprise as the nose surges up as I push the throttle and staggered by how hard I have to push forward on the yoke. I carefully retract the flaps and slowly get myself back in charge of the aircraft.

Our next circuit and landing are better, not least because I now know what to expect. The Skywagon is renowned as a great bush plane; more than capable of getting in and out of tight strips. It’s one of James’s main reasons for buying a 185 because although a complex single like a Saratoga, Commanche single or even a Bonanza would have the pace and long legs, simple strip flying would be out of the question. I’m a long way short of the confidence required to land the 185 on the sort of strips that I am happy to in the Condor and was in the Luscombe, but I dare say it will come with a bit of practice.

Richard Grace, son of Carolyn Grace and the man who fettles May’s aircraft for him, says that once you’ve mastered the Cessna 185 you’ll be able to fly a Spitfire. I’ll never know, but certainly being able to master a heavy and quite powerful taildragger is another useful skill. A few more sessions with Hutton are required before I’ll be confident enough to go solo in the Skywagon. I doubt I’ll ever get my tongue around the complicated Swedish call sign, but hopefully it’ll soon be on the G register.