Cessna 185 Guide and Specs : Is The Skywagon Best For You?

A few things are guaranteed to get your attention on an airfield; one of them is the sound of a Cessna 185 at full throttle about to launch. That distinctive snarl is legendary, and while it can only go on for 5 minutes before the pilot must reduce manifold pressure, it’s the sound of raw power unleashed.

When the first 185 flew in 1961, little did anyone realize just what an icon the aircraft would become to backcountry flyers worldwide. A six-seater, single-engined, metal high-wing aircraft with conventional landing gear, the 185 was initially hauled by 260 horsepower courtesy of the Continental IO-470-F series engine. Based on the Cessna 180, the 185 had a larger vertical stabilizer, a strengthened firewall, landing gear and axles, and a larger engine.

Until 1965, Cessna made minor changes to the 185 design, the most notable being a new 52 amp alternator to replace the original generator, some internal positioning changes, and different auxiliary fuel pump systems.

In 1966, the design changes became more serious with an optional engine change to the 300-horsepower Continental IO-520-D series engine. Aircraft with a larger engine are recognizable by the E designation in the model name. In 1967 the larger engine became standard on subsequent new aircraft, and the model number gained an A to become the A185.

Each year following saw more modifications and improvements to the design. The changes were continuous with sixty amp alternators, a split electrical bus, an extended rear cabin, an avionics upgrade, and a tailwheel lock. In 1973 a redesigned instrument panel and a new STOL camber lift wing accompanied a model change to the F designation. Then 1978 through 1980 saw a few more significant changes with a 28-volt electrical system to replace the original 14 volts, a wet wing of 84 usable gallons, and a three-bladed propeller as standard.

When production ceased in 1985, Cessna had built 4,400 aircraft; only a quarter of those were the earlier 260 hp models, and over half of the production run of 4,400 comprised the A185F.

cessna 185

1968 Cessna Skywagon A185E Specifications

Engines     Weights and Capacities  
Model: Continental IO-520-D   T/O / Landing Weights Normal: 3,350 lbs
Cylinders: Six   Standard Empty Weight: 1,575 lbs
Displacement: 520 cu inches   Max. Useful Load: 1,775 lbs
Horsepower: 285 / 300   Baggage Capacity: 350 lbs
Aspirated Fuel Injected   Oil Capacity – per engine: 12 quarts
TBO: 1700   Passenger Configuration: 5
      Crew: 1
Model: McCauley   Aircraft Dimensions  
Blades: 3   Wing Span: 35.83 ft
      Length: 25.58 ft
Fuel:     Height: 7.75 ft
Octane: 100   Internal Baggage Volume:  
Capacity: 65 gals (84 Long Range)   Wing Loading: 19.3 lbs/sq ft
Burn @ 75% Power: 15.6 gallons      

Cessna 185 Prices


When new, the price of the Cessna 185 was US$56,000 in 1979, rising to US$108,000 six years later.  Today, expect to buy a mid-1970s A185F with north of 5,500 hours, for around US$240,000. If you’re looking for a later model with lower hours, the price starts around US$400,000, and when seriously tricked out with all the gadgets, US$650,000 is near owner expectation. Not a bad investment, had you bought one in the ’80s!

Cessna 185 Performance & Handling

Cessna 185 pilots describe the in-flight handling of the aircraft as similar to any other Cessna single-engine aircraft, if not better. When you read through pilot accounts of flying the 185, the cruise portion seldom gets a mention. Yet, the article will be full of stories about takeoff, landing, and taxiing in a crosswind.

The elevator and rudder trim are manual, as are the flaps. Pilots trained on aircraft with electric everything adapt quickly, although reaching down to haul on that Johnson bar to extend the flaps can be disconcerting on your first flight.

The aircraft is stable in flight and handles turbulence well, with control pressures and roll-rates heavier and slower than you might find in a 182.  Heaviest of all are the rudder forces, and in this airplane, you use your feet a lot for takeoff, landing, and to counter the adverse yaw in turn, which seems more pronounced on the 185 compared to the 182.

Takeoff in the 185 is not a time for delicate or subtle control inputs. It requires firm movements made in a timely fashion. Bear in mind that you have a mighty engine bolted to a relatively light airframe, and when you unleash those horses, the laws of physics take over.

Anyone who’s flown a taildragger learned quickly about P-factor, gyroscopic precession, torque, and spiraling slipstream. Once that tail comes upon takeoff, the first of those two comes very strongly into play, and the aircraft tries to exit the runway to the left. The earlier the tail comes up, the bigger the tendency to veer.

Even with full right rudder trim, you’ll need a heavy boot full of right rudder to maintain track through the takeoff and initial climb. Once airborne, even heavily loaded, you’ll climb at close to 1000 fpm.

Landing a 185 has its quirks, also. Beginners find that three-pointer landings are straightforward when the wind is straight down the strip.

Use the same technique as you would in a tricycle undercarriage aircraft, flaring just above the ground while pulling back power and elevator until the aircraft stalls into a three-point touchdown. Visibility will be poor, and you might use more runway until you get it right, but you’ll find it the easiest technique to begin with.

A wheel landing gives better visibility, and it allows you to pole forward slightly while using braking to slow the aircraft. With the wings still flying, you can better prevent bounces, and in gusts, you’re less likely to get airborne again, given the wing’s shallower angle of attack. Given the higher touchdown speed, it’s not necessarily the technique to use on short strips.

Bring in a bit of crosswind on landing, and you begin to earn your keep as a 185 pilot. It has quite a low crosswind component and, because of the previously mentioned forces, manages a right crosswind far better than a left.

Think of constant small control inputs and changes to keep everything straight, not allowing a diversion to gain momentum. You learn that making abrupt full-limit control inputs is accepted and necessary at times.

Most incidents in a 185 appear to occur below 30 knots and when taxiing. Remember that the center of gravity is behind the main gear, so it’s hard to stop once the airplane starts to swing. Ground loops are not uncommon, so taxi slow, keep it straight and turn gently. Use blasts of throttle if needed to maintain rudder authority. In a Cessna 185, you haven’t stopped flying until it’s safely tied down or in a hangar.

1968 Cessna Skywagon A185E Performance and Handling Specifications

Cruise Speed (Kts)     Stall Speed (kts) (Flaps up)  58
75% @ 7,000 ft 147   Stall Speed (kts) (Flaps down) 51
65% @ 10,000 140      
55% @ 10,000 129   Service Ceiling (ft) 17,150
Fuel Consumption (GPH)     Best sea-level rate-of-climb (fpm) 1010
75% 15.6      
      Take-off Ground Roll (ft) 745
Max Range (nm)     T/O Dist. over 50-foot obstacle 1330
75% @ 7,000 ft 470      
      Landing Ground Roll (ft) 480
Est. Endurance (hrs)     Ldg Dist. Over 50-foot obstacle 1400
75% power  3.5 / 5      
      Do Not Exceed Speed (kts) 182
      Max Structural Cruise Speed (kts) 148

Cessna 185 Maintenance Schedule

Cessna 185 Maintance

When it comes to maintenance, the 185 has no serious problems. Earlier models had issues with the roll-pin in the elevator trim drive sprocket shearing.

The shearing is due to heavy loading borne by the pin during trim changes in flight. Once sheared, the trim is unserviceable until the pin is replaced. Models from 1981 had rivets installed instead of the roll-pin, and the problem ceased. Also, make sure to lubricate the elevator jack screws often. They’ll last longer, and your wallet will thank you.

Depending on your usage, you may find the landing gearboxes need replacement every few thousand hours. These boxes are where your main gear legs are attached to the aircraft.

The aircraft with bladder tanks have an AD regarding potential water entrapment. The bladders could get a wrinkle that trapped water that would not be picked up during the preflight, yet in-flight maneuvers could dislodge a slug of water, stopping the engine.

Pilots are to bounce the wingtip up and down to ensure any water is dislodged and drained before a flight. Those who can’t bring themselves to take part in this spectacle replace the bladder.

The mufflers on the 185 are prone to cracking, requiring regular and careful inspection at each 100-hour.  The other common issue is tailwheel shimmy. Caused by wear on the bolt that holds the wheel fork to the spring; this is not discernible with weight on the tailwheel. Jack the tail, and you can feel the slop, requiring bolt replacement.

Many 185 have been, or are, on floats. For that reason, corrosion can be more of a problem than usual for an aluminum airplane. 

Cessna 185 Modifications and Upgrades

A 185 owner is spoiled for choice when it comes to modifications. A popular mod is the engine upgrade to an IO-550-D. While the engine puts out 300 hp, as does the IO-520, it will do it continuously, unlike the standard engine. Wipaire https://www.wipaire.com/, in Minnesota, provides the upgrade and claims an 8-10% increase in torque, greater engine life due to lower rpm, an 8-10% increase in cruise speed, and an 8-10% shorter takeoff roll.

Installation of a turbo-normalizer is another mod for those looking to utilize the flight levels. Tornado Alley Turbo at https://taturbo.com/ supplies a complete turbo-normalizing package for the 520 and 550 engines aircraft that provides sea-level power up to 24,000 feet while improving lower altitude speeds.

STOL kits such as the Sportsman leading edge cuff, installed by Bentley Air in Oregon http://www.bentleyair.com/, lower the stall speed, improves climb and slow-flying characteristics, and some say helps in cruise. Other aerodynamic mods include vortex generators to increase aileron and rudder control authority at low speeds.

To prevent damage to your aircraft from ground handling, make sure you install handles to the rear fuselage. Bas Inc in Washington (https://basinc-aeromod.com/) provides a great kit to fit retractable pull handles.

Finally, if you’re going to fly the backcountry, there are many mods to install bush or tundra tires and larger tailwheels. If you have loads to carry, a cargo pod may be installed on the aircraft’s belly.

Cessna 185 Where To Find Replacement Parts

With almost 4,500 aircraft built over 24 years, many 185 are ‘parted out’ upon being retired from service. Second-hand or reconditioned parts are readily available from large aircraft wreckers across the country. Also, the 185 is a basic aircraft; therefore, generic parts are widespread. Items such as filters, wheels, tires, and brakes are off the shelf and stocked by large aviation suppliers like Aircraft Supply, Aircraft Spruce & Specialty, or Wag Aero.

There are also many FAA-PMA-approved manufacturers across the country manufacturing mods and upgrades for the 185. Finding replacement parts for the 185 is not an issue.

Cessna 185 Common Problems

The maintenance and handling issues have been discussed. Leaving only operational and design issues. Beware ground handling damage from uninitiated helpers wanting to push on the aircraft’s tailplane. Damage to the horizontal stabilizer’s leading edge is typical, and the tailplane is mounted to the trim jacks, which are not hugely robust. Use a handle at all times.

Hot engines are prone to vapor locking. Be sure to purge the lines with a wide-open throttle, mixture at idle cut-off, and the electric pumps running for ten seconds.  Then follow your standard start procedure, but be ready to catch the engine with the electric pump if it starts to die again just after starting. A danger with these engines is overpriming, which causes fuel to gather in the cowling and ignite. Know your procedures, and keep cranking on the starter to suck the fire back into the engine or blow it out once started.

The doors and catches on the 185 are fragile. Do not allow passengers to slam them. They will slam them, and the costs are huge to repair. Some owners forbid passengers to touch the doors, reserving that for themselves.

The aircraft is nose heavy with light loads and tail heavy with heavy loads in the rear. Be very aware of your weight and balance at all times, and remember that your CofG moves aft with fuel burn. People have lost their lives in 185s by running out of forward trim and stick movement when heavily loaded and lowering flaps to land.

Cessna 185 Insurance Options

Cessna 185 Skywagon

The standard aviation insurance all aircraft owners take is liability coverage, while hull coverage is optional. Liability coverage covers damage caused by the aircraft, including passengers, while hull coverage covers damage to the aircraft itself. The greater the experience of the owner/pilot, the lower the premiums.

For a private pilot with 750 hours total time, 250 hours on taildraggers, and 25 hours on type, the 2020 cost per year for US$1,000,000 liability coverage is in the range of US$384 to US$585 per year. Pilots with less experience can expect this range to rise to between US$470 to US$630 per year.

If the insurance includes additional hull cover for US$110,000, the annual premium for the experienced pilot will be between US$1,945 to US$2,440 per year.

Cessna 185 Model Resale Value

Large, powerful, single-engined fixed-gear aircraft are not common, and the 185 is revered as an iconic, capable, and fun heavy-duty bush plane; it also performs well on floats.

Good quality, low-hour 185 aircraft are in extremely high demand, so expect them to be at a premium asking price. Older models have a price average of US$240,000 with airframe times around 5,500 hours. Newer models average US$400,000 with 2,000 hours or less on the airframe.

Cessna 185 Owner Reviews

Owners love them, with one stating that if he won the lottery tomorrow, he’d still fly a 185.  They report that the aircraft is easy to fly, climbs above 1,000 feet per minute with light loads, and has a respectable cruise. Every owner commented on the aircraft’s simplicity, reasonable maintenance cost, outstanding STOL characteristics, and stability as an IFR platform.

All speak of the need to maintain currency and to never, ever get complacent with the Cessna 185. Takeoff, landing, and taxiing are the times most likely for you to come unstuck and damage something. One owner with over 2,000 hours on type mentioned that he constantly reminded himself of the need to stay ahead of the aircraft.

Yet, the aircraft has become a real collector’s item for its versatility, load-hauling, speed, and all-around great fun to fly.

Cessna 185 Similar Aircraft

DHC-2 Beaver

Similar aircraft are few and far between, hence the demand. The Cessna 180, the smaller sister of the 185, is an option. Otherwise, if you’re looking for a single-engined bush plane to carry six people and lift a good load, the DHC-2 Beaver is one to consider. However, it’s older, flies slower, lifts considerably more, and sells for a similar price.

Cessna 185 Clubs You Can Join

There are two clubs to consider. The International 180/185 Club, at www.skywagons.org, and the Cessna Pilots Association, at www.cessna.org

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What does STOL mean?

Answer: STOL is an acronym for Short Take-Off and Landing. It refers to an aircraft’s capabilities, allowing it to operate out of, and into, shorter than standard runways.

Question: What does service ceiling mean?

Answer: An aircraft’s service ceiling is defined as the height at which the aircraft cannot climb at a rate greater than 100 feet per minute.

Question:  What is the meaning of the term TBO?

Answer:  TBO means Time Between Overhaul, which is the manufacturer’s recommended running time, in hours or calendar time, before overhaul.

Question:  To what does TTAF refer?

Answer: TTAF stands for Total Time Airframe, which refers to the number of flying hours the airframe has accumulated since new. Thus, it is an indication of age and use.

Question: Aircraft Gross Weight refers to what?

Answer: Gross Weight is the total aircraft weight, including pilots, passengers, fuel, oil, and cargo.

Question: What does max structural cruise mean?

Answer: Maximum structural cruise, or Vno, refers to the airspeed above which the aircraft should be flown only in smooth air. Above this speed, turbulence or rapid control deflections increase the chance of structural damage.

Question: What are FAA-PMA Approved Parts?

Answer: FAA refers to the Federal Aviation Administration, and PMA means Parts Manufacturer Approval. It is an approval granted to a parts manufacturer to manufacture specific aircraft components.

Question: To what does the term IFR refer?

Answer: IFR means Instrument Flight Rules. When pilots are flying IFR, it means they are under the control of Air Traffic Control. It is a rating or approval that a pilot must achieve to enable the operation of a multi-engined aircraft or flight under instrument flight rules.

Question: What is an STC?

Answer: An STC refers to a Supplemental Type Certificate. An STC is an approved modification to an aircraft, engine, or component. All aircraft, engines and components have type certificates that approve their use. That is why an approval to modify them is classed as ‘supplemental’.

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