Round & Round

The Control-Line Modeler at Large

By John Thompson

April 2021

Nostalgia for the Navion

In posting an edition edition of the printed Flying Lines newsletter to the Flying Lines Back Issues in PDF page, I came across an article I wrote about what may be my favorite model airplane project out of the many I have built.

I've told this story often. But I thought I would post it in the digital Flying Lines world for those who haven't heard it. If it inspires some FL readers to pass along some tales of their favorite control-line modeling projects and/or nostalgic stories, so much the better.

What follows is from Flying Lines, December 1997/January 1998 edition:

I'm not normallly the sentimental type when it comes to model airplanes. I was born too late to remember the old-time stunters of the 1940s — to me they're interesting airplanes, nothing more. I'm not a collector of models. I build 'em, fly 'em, and when they're worn out or broken, I salvage the usable parts and throw 'em away.

But when FL editor Mike Hazel asked me to contribute to his "Favorite Planes" feature, he touched my one nostalgic nerve: The Sterling Navion.

I started flying model airplanes in about 1960. The first plane, as with many kids, was a plastic Cox PT-19. There followed for the next couple of years a succession of Guillows flying boards, Baby Ringmasters, Lil' Satans, etc. In those days, kids helped each other learn to build and fly. Several kids in my neighborhood built planes and flew them on the nearby Catholic school's concrete playground. A few of the older kids had big planes, and when one of them wanted to fly, we traipsed the several blocks to a bigger public schoolyard. There we often encountered the adults flying combat with their Ringmasters, and one super modeler (to us kids) with his sleek black Nobler. This same guy had a sport plane with a Dynajet on it; it was always the last thing flown in a day, so we could leave the schoolyard before the noise got us chased out. This motley amalgam of kids and grown-ups eventually became the short-lived Port Angeles (Wash.) Glow-Pluggers club. I think the club put on one contest in about 1964.

But my serious involvement in modeling resulted from a fateful decision made by my dad. Dad and I watched the model fliers in the big schoolyard. We also regularly attended the go-kart races at a local track. Man, did I love both models and go-karts! Dad pondered the question: What would be a good hobby for the two of us to do together: build model airplanes or race a go-kart?

I think financial matters finally came into play, and the models were definitely more affordable.

Through the hazy distance of time, I can't remember whether I had already been building the little models when Dad pondered this weighty issue, or whether his decision was what led to the PT-19.

In any case, the decision to pursue models together as a hobby led to the further resolve that we would, together, build a "big plane." This meant a .35 engine. It meant a McCoy Redhead .35, the sport engine of choice among the local modelers. During our planning the project, the price went up to $9.95, but we pressed on.

What plane to build? I was enamored of a gorgeous metallic green Sterling Navion flown by the older kid across the street. It was a semi-scale low-wing profile. So Dad agreed that the plane would be a Navion.

Thus, in 1962, the kit was purchased and construction began.

Being an impatient kid, accustomed to slamming 1/2-A kits together quickly, it seemed to me that the Navion seemed to take forever. Dad actually did most of the work. Then, as now, I was a clumsy builder — Who knows what an abomination would have resulted if I, at the age of 12, actually had built the entire plane! We pre-glued the parts just as it said in the directions, and assembled the whole plane with Ambroid. We used a small bellcrank to make the plane easy to fly — that was Dad's idea. The wings were covered with silk. I painted it: Aero Gloss metallic blue. Originally it was just blue with no trim; later I added a white canopy, and black and white stripes on the wingtips, stab/elevator and vertical stabilizer.

By the time the plane was ready to fly, the modelers were flying often in a city park on the outskirts of town, so that's where the first flights took place. I did the honors. I can still remember my nerves, and the graceful takeoff and smooth, slow flight of the big plane. I was terrified, and didn't try anything but level flight. But it was glorious, and a success.

Dad also flew the plane. As far as I can recall, he only flew it once, and got dizzy. Since he had never flown a model before, there may have been a minor crash, a broken prop. But no damage was done.

From that day on, the Navion was my pride and joy, and went to every flying session, no matter what other planes I had. I progressed to wingovers and loops, but never had the courage to try much else with the Navion. It was in more or less continuous use — to the extent that I flew at all — through my high school years. The club faded away, but a few of us kept flying occasionally. We flew (with permission!) in the turnaround of the local airport's main runway. The Navion was aloft one day when a West Coast Airlines DC-3 carrying passengers from Boeing Field in Seattle came in for a landing right over our circle. I swear that if I had done a wingover, I could have hit the DC's landing gear!

College years arrived, and modeling ended. The Navion, various other airplanes both flyable and under construction, went into storage.

About eight years passed. In 1976, now married, with a small child and a job in Astoria, Ore., I attended a softball game my wife was playing in at the local junior high school. A guy showed up with a yellow Shoestring stunter and started flying on an adjacent field. I shot over there and introduced myself to Dave Green, and my modeling career resumed.

All the old planes came out of storage and I thrashed to get something ready to fly for our weekly Sundays at Camp Rilea on the Oregon Coast. The Navion was worn and tired, but it was an airplane.

I stripped all the covering off, replaced all the softened Ambroid around the soaked wing joint, re-covered it with silkspan, painted it black with orange lettering saying "Old Crow," and took it out flying.

The Navion flew for at least another year. Sport flying, learning to fly inverted, stunt, and our favorite Astoria pastime, "attic rat combat." Old, beat-up airplanes (Bill Varner's came from his actual attic, hence the name), were used in an informal version of Combat that involved towing balloons, milk cartons, even streamers! Many crashes could not kill that Navion. I just kept replacing the Ambroid at the wing joint.

By the time I moved to the Eugene area in 1977, the Navion was pretty much beaten beyond reasonable further use, but it remained in the boneyard underneath a table in my workshop for several years. I got the idea to clean it up, make nominal repairs, re-cover it again and paint it up in its original colors and hang it on the wall as a conversation piece.

Years went by. I was heavy into competition of all kinds, building dozens of planes and repairing others, and finally, the Navion was just in the way. I took it apart, salvaged the bellcrank, and discarded the rest.

But I never got over the idea of restoring that Navion to it's original state. Finally, I was nagged with the idea of building a brand new Navion just for display. I put the word out — does anyone have a Navion kit?

After a while, Bob Parker in Renton, Wash., found a kit. But he was aghast that I would actually build such a collector's item. So Bob and Joe Dill painstakingly reproduced the parts and provided me with a brand-new Navion kit, much higher quality than any kit Sterling produced.

I built the Navion with as much care as I have ever devoted to any plane. Not fancy, just trying to get everything right.

But, following the theme of recent years in regard to my attempts to use dope finishes, the final stages of the project were a disaster. I acquired Aero-Gloss metallic blue dope, but never was able to get a good finish. Multiple problems — including my own dumb mistakes (can you say,"incompatible thinner"?) led to a permanently blushed finish. The plane has more than 20 coats of color paint, and still is patchy and flat. But I forged ahead, added all the black and white stripes and a clear topcoat (which, of course, made the underlying color bleed through the white stripes!!).

Nevertheless, I bolted on a nearly new McCoy .35 redhead (acquired from the collection of old buddy Dave Green), the obligatory Top Flite 10x6 wood prop, the big wheels, etc.

This fall (1997), I took the new Navion out to the Eugene flying field. With a few Prop Spinners around to witness, I turned over the old (new) McCoy. It started on the first flip! As I walked to the handle, I was as nervous as I was on the very first flight of the original Navion.

The flight was precisely as I remembered the original Navion. Smooth, graceful, gorgeous round maneuvers, with a feel unlike any other profile I have flown, probably because of the low wing. Not quick responding (the elevator is fairly small), but accurate. It probably wouldn't make square corners. I did a few loops, a few outside loops, a couple of laps of inverted flight, and then let it run out of fuel and glide to a smooth landing.

I took the Navion home, cleaned it up and hung it up in a back corner of the workshop. The dope-finish disaster will prevent the Navion from hanging in the family room (Kathy is determined to get some kind of airplane to display there).

But, back in the corner of the shop, where the light's a little dim, the Navion is a beauty. It reminds me of my days as a kid flying model airplanes, it reminds me of the earliest joy of flying, and it reminds me of my dad.

It won't fly again, except in my mind, where it keeps on flying forever.

(2021 update: The Navion remains hanging in the back corner of the workshop, though it was recently cleaned up for the photo that accompanies this article.)

Questions or comments always welcomed. E-mail John Thompson

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This page was updated April 20, 2021