These days, there is no shortage of aircraft marketed as backwoods utility machines. The short list includes Maule, CubCrafters, Aviat and American Champion. But in the world of working airplanes, Cessna’s long-discontinued 185 is often regarded as one of the most capable.
You don’t have to spend much time around a 185 to understand its reputation as the airborne version of a four-wheel-drive, three-quarter-ton pickup truck, easily able to haul heavy loads into and out of short, unimproved strips. With plenty of power and two front cabin doors, it also works well as a floatplane. And for all of that, plus a healthy offering of aftermarket mods, some owners just like the 185 for fun flying.
The 185 was a thoroughly logical development in the Cessna product line, which began with the taildragging 120, evolved to the 170 and 180 and then, when owners indicated the need for something bigger, the 185. It came along in 1961, a follow-on product to the Cessna 180, which enjoyed considerable popularity. But don’t forget, by 1961, the tricycle gear revolution was well established. The 172 and 182 were out there and so was the complex 210. The larger 206 Stationair soon followed.
Outwardly, the 180 and 185 evolved into virtually identical-looking airplanes, with comparable overall dimensions and major parts. The primary difference, of course, is the engine. The 180 had a 230-HP Continental, which was adequate but didn’t elevate it to the status of a super load hauler.
When the 185 debuted in 1961, it had a 260-HP Continental IO-470F and 84-gallon fuel tanks and could perform the rather remarkable feat of lifting more than its own weight: The useful load of 1680 pounds is about 200 pounds more than its standard empty weight, something bush operators prized. Locked securely in the utility market, the 185 was spared some of the cosmetic “improvements” applied to nosewheel Cessnas. It never got the swept-back tail, for example, or the rear window that was added to the nosewheel line. Buyers bought it for what it did, not for how it looked. Unfortunately, it also never got the fuselage “bulge” applied to some of the nosewheel line, leaving the cabin a little tight at 41 inches wide.
However, you could order a new 185 with Edo floats, a massive belly cargo pod that could accommodate 300 pounds or a spray application rig, to name a few options. Towing setups and flip-up doors for skydiving operations were also available.
Anyone who hauls stuff for a living always wants more power, so in 1966, Cessna replaced the IO-470F with a 300-HP Continental IO-520D as an option. The 300-HP Skywagons are called A185s.
The bigger engine improved the 185’s already exceptional performance. For a mere 10-pound increase in empty weight, the airplane received a 150-pound increase in gross, five more knots of cruise speed and some 200 feet was shaved off the takeoff ground roll, a boon for back-country operators. The engine was such a hit that it was made standard in 1967.
Also new that year was the addition of an aft baggage compartment, along with an optional stretcher door, both of which made loading bulky objects easier. From 1972 through 1979 you could order a full aerial application rig, with belly tank and spray booms. The package turned the airplane into the “AgCarryall.”
In 1973, a new cuffed leading wing profile was introduced. The so-called camber lift wing was created by Robertson as part of a STOL kit for the Cessna line and it reduces stall speed slightly, improving roll control at low speeds. Since it’s a leading edge mod, Robertson can retrofit it to earlier 185s. The cuffed leading edge is much prized among float operators.
The re-winged 185 became the A185F, which is by far the most numerous variant, accounting for more than half of all airframes. As of 2017, the FAA registry shows nearly 1750 185s of all models; 1224 are A185Fs.
More work-related options came along in 1975, including bubble side windows for photography and skylights. In 1976, flap-extension speed (Vfe) went from 96 to 120 knots and the fuel selector was changed to Cessna’s left-right-both arrangement. Lift handles were added to the tail to give ground handlers a safe means to muscle the airplane on the ramp without damaging the stab.
One change that was a mixed blessing was the reduction in usable fuel from 81 to 74 gallons, which cut into the airplane’s range.
The 1979 models had a new wet wing fuel system with 88 gallons, 84 of which is usable. The older bladder-style tanks were optional. While the bladders had less potential for leakage, they deserve careful inspection during prepurchase evaluations.
The original Skywagon had a two-blade prop, with the three-blade version surfacing as an option in 1978 and becoming standard in 1980. The three-blade can be retrofitted. Owners report no cruise speed loss. It also reduces vibration and noise, and climb is said to be better, plus it looks undeniably sexier.
The 185 enjoyed brisk if not spectacular production numbers until 1981, when only 389 were built. By 1984 and 1985, only 34 Skywagons were made as prices shot up and Cessna’s sales went the other way. That the average equipped price of a new 185 nearly doubled, from $55,670 in 1979 to $108,090 in 1985, probably didn’t help. Today, a good used one of early- to mid-80s vintage will bring between $165,000 and $180,000. Some sellers demand a lot more for one tricked out in modern avionics or floats.
Given the performance of retracts equipped with the IO-520, the Skywagon won’t set any speed records, but few of them will do what the 185 can: Fly with full tanks, full seats and baggage. Load a Skywagon with full fuel, four 220-pound people and perhaps 50 pounds of bags, and the airplane will take off in just over 800 feet, climb at better than 1000 FPM and then fly 800 miles at 140 knots, outdistancing a handful of retracts and twins. Even at higher altitudes, the IO-520 has plenty left.
Fuel flows range around 14.5 GPH, rich of peak, depending on power setting. Installing GAMIjectors and operating lean of peak will pay for itself with fuel savings and engine longevity with only a moderate loss of cruise speed. We always wondered why Cessna never hung a turbocharger on the 185, as it would seem to have made a great deal of sense for the mountain operators. Tornado Alley Turbos will turbonormalize your 185, and owners report cruise speeds of 165-175 knots at FL200 while burning 14.5 GPH.
In stock form, the 185 is nearly a STOL airplane. With those big barn door flaps at 40 degrees, stall speed is under 45 knots so 55-knot approach speeds are doable. We’ve been told of skilled bush pilots plunking the Skywagon down in as little as 300 feet in a rough clearing or river sandbar.
As with any airplane, the technique is a high-alpha approach with flaps and power at a speed between 50 and 55 knots, followed by a full-stall three-pointer. Watch the aggressive braking, however, since the airplane can and will nose over with locked wheels.
Although the airplane handles well in the air, some owners say it’s not easy to land and won’t tolerate lazy feet on the rudder, especially in crosswinds, and the accident reports confirm the assessment. Yet as taildraggers go, it’s not overly twitchy and the deck angle allows seeing over the nose so S-turns aren’t necessary.
Wheel landings, while doable, require some finesse due to the 185’s spring-steel landing gear legs. If the pilot doesn’t convert a botched wheelie into a three-pointer, loss of control may follow. Most owners seem to prefer three-pointers, which are aided and abetted by the locking tailwheel, which also helps in crosswinds. Just don’t forget to unlock it before taxi turning, otherwise you risk tire damage on the tailwheel.
In the air, handling of a Skywagon is similar to another Cessna product, the Skylane. Trim, unlike that on most Cessnas, is through a jackscrew in the tail rather than via a trim tab, and the system’s low gearing means you move the wheel a bit before noticing the effect.
Cessna didn’t offer electric trim, but some autopilot installations include it and pilots who have it like it better than the manual system. Cessna never offered electric flaps in the 185, either, a real blessing in our view. Manual flaps are simply superior for ease of use—get them down or up quickly with no question of flap position. They’re also easier to maintain.
Like most Cessnas, the 185 is susceptible to a trim-induced stall on a full-flap go-around. If the nose-up moment isn’t dealt with via forward yoke and trim, the airplane’s angle of attack will exceed the stall value. It’s better to apply partial power, arrest the sink, then go to 20 degrees of flaps before applying full climb power and retracting the rest of the flaps.
A 185 can haul just about anything you can get into it. But the cabin volume is not all that great compared to a Cherokee Six or Cessna 206. There is no way that anything large will go through the 18- by 20-inch baggage door or the two cabin doors of a 185.
On the other hand, the right front door can be removed easily (a mod allows flight with the door off), as can the back seat, but that still doesn’t leave much maneuvering room in the cabin for large objects.
The optional fiberglass belly pod is 9 feet long and 14 inches deep and while huge objects still can’t be loaded, the pod is ideal for awkward cargo such as chainsaws, tools, skis and fishing gear. (Not to mention the smelly fish.)
Cessna’s marketing photos of the day show interiors with six seats and the airplane was billed as a six-placer. As is typical of such marketing claims, that’s a gross exaggeration. Calling the third row “seating” is generous, except perhaps for a child. The seat is limited to 120 pounds and most owners leave it in the hangar, opening more space for baggage.
An option on later 185s was a pair of articulating seats for the front row, with adjustable height and reclining seat backs. The back on the rear seat was split and it too could recline. The seating position is quite upright, with good head and legroom but not generous shoulder room in a cabin measuring 41 inches in width.
Cessna singles have a reputation for being maintainable as well as durable. That’s the 185 in spades. It’s a derivative airplane, being based on the 180, which was, in turn, a bigger version of the 170. Therefore, Cessna got the flaws hammered out in what was a good airplane from the beginning.
Owners tell us to watch these trouble spots: Tailwheel shimmy can be caused by wear of the bolt that holds the fork to the tailwheel spring. Airplanes with McCauley wheels and brakes aren’t as desirable as those with Clevelands, which can be retrofitted.
Mufflers tend to crack after a few hundred hours, so inspect them carefully. Airplanes built before 1981 had trouble with the trim because in cruise, the jackscrew needs 300 foot-pounds of torque to move. This stresses roll pins connecting the trim wheel to the chain drive sprocket. If the pins shear, the trim is stuck. Later airplanes replaced the pins with rivets.
Cessna offered shoulder harnesses as options for all seats in all of its singles after World War II; however, safety didn’t sell until the early 1980s and no one ordered them. The good news is that it means retrofitting them is easy; the hard points are under the headliner. From a safety standpoint, especially given the high rate of landing accidents and head injuries to occupants, for the 185, it’s a retrofit we strongly recommend.
As Continental engines go, the O-470 and O-520 series have delivered decent service. In many models, the engine installation is at the root of short engine life but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the 185. It has a roomy cowl and large cowl flaps, so overheating isn’t an issue. Advertised TBO is 1700 hours, which is realistic if the owner is prepared to do a mid-time top overhaul. If the top isn’t needed, consider it gravy.
Give Cessna credit for one thing: It has delivered on parts and support, even in the lean years when no piston production was alive. If flown often and worked hard, expect to replace landing gear boxes now and again, plus tailwheel parts.
The Skywagon is a typical Cessna single, so there are plenty of mechanics around qualified to examine one for prepurchase and to maintain it afterward.
Of particular note, however, is the possibility of corrosion if the airplane has ever been on floats, as many 185s have. Check the logs for this history. Like any corrosion, it can be expensive to repair, and it’s likely to be there in some form on any aircraft operated on salt water.
Being a bush and utility favorite, lots of mods are available for the 185, some of them also found on other Cessna singles. STOL kits are available from Horton (www.hortonstolcraft.com) and Sierra (www.sijet.com). We have received complaints from owners on STOL kits on the 185 in which the ailerons are drooped with full flaps resulting in loss of roll control during crosswind landings, possibly due to misrigging causing a lack of up aileron deflection.
Because VGs do essentially the same as a STOL kit without the weight, we would suggest a VG kit from Micro Aerodynamics (www.microaero.com), although a number of owners have installed both STOL kits and VGs.
There are engine and prop upgrades—including the 300-HP Continental IO-550—from Davis Aviation Services (www.davisaviationservices.com) and Wipaire (www.wipaire.com). We’ve gotten extremely positive feedback from owners on the IO-550 mod on the 185, particularly with the Hartzell Trailblazer prop. There is also the long-range fuel tank upgrade from Flint Aero (www.flintaero.com).
From Tornado Alley Turbo, www.taturbo.com, a turbonormalizing system will allow the 185 to operate in the flight levels. For 185s that do not have the retractable handles on the tailcone forward of the horizontal stabilizer, BAS handles (www.basinc-aeromod.com) will go a long way toward protecting the vertical and horizontal stabilizers and their spars and ribs from damage during ground handling.
Prospective purchasers should join two groups: The Cessna Pilots Association is worthwhile for those who own or regularly fly Cessnas, and the International 180/185 Club is a good model-specific organization.
The latter is more focused on 185s than the CPA and is worth the modest cost of dues, in our view. Cessna Pilot’s Association is at www.cessna.org. The International 180/185 Club is at www.skywagons.org.
Cessna 185 Calamities: Runway LOC
If there’s a spot in the wide world of strange places to land an airplane in which it is physically possible to do so (and take off), we think the odds are good that a Cessna 185 has landed on it. The odds are also, sadly, good that someone has crashed a 185 there as well. Our review of the 100 most recent Cessna 185 accidents and the ways their pilots found to wreck them had us thinking of the ageless quote from the late Hunter S. Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Pilots wrecked 185s nearly everywhere: on glassy-water lakes, hitting power lines, making takeoffs in strong tailwinds, but mostly, by losing control on landing and, by only a slight minority, doing so somewhere in Alaska. We’re not saying Alaska pilots can’t fly 185s, it just seems that there are a lot of 185s in that state and pilots there take them to the edge of their capacity and sometimes beyond.
We’ll start with the good stuff. To our amazement, there were only four engine power loss events due to either a mechanical issue or of unknown reason. That’s great—for aircraft used in the bush, we’re used to seeing on the order of 20 engine power loss events, mostly due to crummy maintenance.
We did see nine landing gear failures—about half were the result of a one-time hard landing or striking an object during skiplane operations. The others were the result of undetected fatigue cracking of some portion of the landing gear leg, usually at the base—inspect regularly.
We think Cessna made a mistake in changing the fuel system from an “off/on” arrangement to a “left/right/both/off” system. When pilots are given fuel tank choices, some inevitably mess up. Of the six fuel-related accidents, one pilot left the fuel caps off of his airplane—otherwise no one ran out of fuel—each just ran a tank dry and either didn’t try to change tanks or didn’t understand that by leaving the aux fuel pump on they would rich out the engine and it would not run. Not one of the pilots followed the POH restart procedure—which works.
Six 185 amphib pilots landed on the water with the gear down. All of the airplanes flipped. We were pleased to learn that only one of the events was fatal as the proportion of fatalities in such landings in other aircraft tends to be high.
The elephant in the room for such a remarkable utility airplane is the huge proportion of runway loss of control accidents (RLOC), almost always on landing and often following a wheel landing. Many pilots reported losing control just as the tailwheel came down after a wheel landing—right at the time aerodynamic control is deteriorating and there is not yet good rolling control. 185 pilots we spoke with recommended three-point landings so as to touch down with minimal energy and maximum control. If doing a wheel landing, fly final at the same speed as for a three-point landing and touch down so as to have minimal energy to manage on rollout—extra speed is not your friend.
We do have to express our concern for the pilot who decided to land on the airport ramp rather than on the single runway in a blistering crosswind. It was a legal, smart decision. Unfortunately, he still didn’t control the airplane well and stuck a wing into a building on the ramp.
I’ve owned my 1967 Skywagon since 1995 and have performed substantial modifications. I operate it from my airpark in mountainous (6400 feet MSL) Colorado.
For any Skywagon owner, several things should be reviewed by a knowledgeable A&P. Here’s the short list.
Later models had square fuselage inspection covers just above the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer. These allow unimpeded inspection of the rudder bell cranks and springs, which often are found to have elongated holes that you can’t see otherwise. The alternative is to crawl into the fuselage tail cone. Bulkhead mounting hole cracks can also be better seen. Replacement bell cranks should have bushings installed.
Owners should have these inspection covers fabricated and installed, generally approved via FAA form 337. Cessna stock covers and requisite doubler parts may not be available. Later models also have a square inspection cover at the bottom of the fuselage that allows better inspection and lubrication of the critical elevator trim jackscrew. This also should be installed for more complete, safer inspections.
The D-shaped bulkhead where the tailwheel spring end attaches is known to crack at the upper square corners. Newer models used thicker bulkheads.
Three-piece McCauley main wheels have been known to separate where the six bolts are threaded into the center section. I recommend these wheels be replaced with thru-bolt, Cleveland wheels and brakes, which are covered by an STC.
The 185 Skywagon came in three categories for float readiness, starting with nothing. From the second level onward, the airframe included a full primer coat of paint throughout the interior, stainless control cables and a V-brace behind the front windshield that keeps the fuselage from flexing with the wings. This is the preferred category. The last level included the fuselage “pork chops” where the floats attached.
As for empty weight specs, most arrived from the factory at about 3300 pounds empty weight and a 1600-pound useful load. The 185s are notorious for gaining weight—mine is no exception. It is amazing what a light stock Skywagon will do for performance. The “commando” bare interior is often seen.
I earned/own the STC for a 285-HP TSIO-520C engine and turbo, taken from a T210, using the T210/206 exhaust manifold and custom turbo mounting bracket, intake cross-over and relocated cabin heater inlet box. This allows easy access to flight level flying, plus additional power at the high density altitudes in my western Colorado neighborhood. I own the STC, but have not applied it to any other aircraft due to liability concerns. This is combined with a 86-inch McCauley seaplane propeller and it’s been tested to 28,000 due to the 185’s higher lift airfoil.
The hotter-running turbocharged engine in the T210/206 uses a much more efficient cylinder baffling system, although it makes spark plug and other maintenance more difficult. I added “gills” and a Martin Aviation baffling kit, which improved cooling for the normally hottest number-five cylinder by 30 degrees.
My airplane has an STC-approved Oilamatic engine pre-oiler that I use during the first start of every day, and I am sure contributes to my going well beyond TBO. I also use the ADC oil filtration system, change the oil every 25 hours and complete an Aviation Laboratories oil sample check, plus a borescope check done at the same interval.
I also have a Robertson STOL kit for full-length flaperons, combined with both wing and horizontal stabilizer Micro Aerodynamics vortex generators. After the VG installation, roll rate and angle of attack measurements showed a small decrease in stall speed, but a huge improvement in both aileron and elevator control through increased roll rates and angle of attack achieved at low approach speeds. I have a lift reserve/AoA system to ensure the lowest airspeed for achieving the shortest landing distances.
The STC’d XP Modifications 14-inch tailwheel gives a better view over the cowling, plus it’s of rugged construction and the big tire rolls over anything.
My cargo pod is a Cessna stock replica built by Aeropod and it has an STC. Unless this is used, you simply can’t overload the aircraft. It just doesn’t have enough cubic inches of space unless you are hauling liquids. It takes about 30 minutes to install or remove the pod, with most of the time taken up with installing and safety wiring the cowl flap extension hardware. Large cargo pods like mine are only available on the 185 model, but smaller and newer ones are available for 180s. I carry a weight and balance sheet showing all installation configurations of the cargo pod and custom seating.
The best modification I made for passenger comfort is the second-row articulating passenger seating (with headrests) from a C206. This provides passengers more legroom and comfort than most 185s. I never use the stock third-row bench seating.
Bottom line: My Skywagon can fly higher, faster and slower than nearly any others I have seen. My wife and I have flown it all over North and Central America.
In the north, the 185 is the local equivalent of a pickup truck. Ours is used to access and supply our lake cabin and our son’s trap line. Cargo has included boats, motors, lumber, fuel drums, groceries, furs and moose meat. The airplane is used year-round, operating on Edo 3430 floats in summer and Airglide 3600 wheel skis in the winter.
Conventional gear makes for much easier changeovers from wheels to floats and if you want to run skis, 180s, 185s and Cubs are about the only game in town. Aircraft with training wheels make lousy ski planes, in general.
With the 300-HP engine, performance is good on either floats or skis: On wheels, the thing is phenomenal. Useful load on wheels is typically around 1500 pounds. Usually you’ll run out of space before you get her over gross.
We run the McCauley Black Mac 86-inch three-blade prop, which pulls like crazy, but makes an ungodly racket at full 2750 takeoff RPM. When you visit the big-city airports where decibel is a dirty word, best dial her back to 2550. You’ll still only need 600 to 700 feet of that 10,000-foot runway. One great performance enhancer on the 185 is the manual flap system.
On floats, heavy loads, glassy water and hot days can conspire to make getting off the water difficult. Even once you’re at flying speed, you can’t rotate, because the heels of the floats dig in, causing more drag. So, the drill is to get to flying speed and then pull on full flaps. She’ll leap right out of the water. You level off, milk off the flaps, build up some speed and climb out.
The 185 is a tailwheel airplane with lots of power, a big billboard tail and springy landing gear. If you are new to tail dragging, doing 10 hours first in a Citabria or a Cub would be money well spent. It will also be worth the effort, because the Skywagon will take you to all the places you can’t get to in your Cirrus.
We plan on a block fuel burn of 15 GPH on typical trips of an hour. For 300 HP, cruise speed is nothing to brag about: 130 knots on wheels, 115 knots on skis and 110 knots on floats, all at 65 percent power. However, uptown 185s (without oversize tires, bubble windows and a coat of mud) do much better.
The 185 has been very reliable over nearly 14 years and 2000 hours of ownership. This is despite the fact that ours does a lot of off-airport work and is operated in temperatures down to -40 and below. It’s also despite the fact that ours, like most of the breed, spent a lot of years as a commercial bush airplane and was rode hard and put up wet more than once.
Given that these airplanes are now 30 to 50 years old (ours was built in 1966), checking for cracks, wear, tear and corrosion is a big part of the annual. Pay particular attention to the landing gear boxes and the gear legs themselves, especially if the aircraft is operated on skis. It is a sobering sight to watch the airplane take off on skis from rough snow. Those chunky spring steel gear legs will be flapping around like limp spaghetti.
Another potential trouble spot is the pair of jackscrews used to trim the horizontal stab. They need to be lubed regularly, but are hard to get at (and thus ignored) unless you install the service kit that provides access panels in the fuselage. BAS tail handles are another great mod. For float and ski planes, where lower cruise speeds limit engine cooling, the cowl louver STC (available from the 180/185 Club) is also well worth the trouble.
Parts have not been a problem, with good availability from the aftermarket, used part dealers like Skywagon City and, yes, from Cessna, itself. People gripe about wait times and cost on factory parts, but try going to Ford to get stuff for your 1966 F-100!
For a utility airplane, the 185 suffers from two major faults. First, the cabin is narrow and the back seats are tight on legroom as well as width. Big guys in parkas need to be friendly. Second, the baggage door is postage-stamp sized, and the cargo needs to be schlepped in and out through the front doors. This is the one time you will envy your buddy with the 206. Fortunately, the doors and back seats are easily removable. Membership in the International Cessna 180/185 Club and Cessna Pilots Association is highly recommended.