The Cessna 185, a variant of the C180, is a heavy-duty high-wing aircraft designed for rugged conditions. This guide is for those intending to purchase one.

4,400 Cessna 185s across eight variants were built between 1961 and 1985. A new C185 cost $108,000 in 1985 and currently averages $500,000 for a used one. It seats six with the ability to carry 1,775 lbs. At 7500 feet it will fly at 135 knots burning 13.5 gph giving it 4.6 hours of endurance.

As a pilot, I have long appreciated the more commonly known as the taildragger configuration. After all, I learned to fly on taildraggers. Among the aircraft I learned to fly on - and now use to teach my students - is the venerable C185…

Table of contents

HideShow

Background

In keeping with its proven formula, Cessna continued its latest iteration as a high-wing taildragger like its predecessors. With an all-metal alloy semi-monocoque structure and a cabin height of 47 inches, it offered spacious headroom, increased speed, added strength, and firm handling.

The Cessna 185’s outer appearance gives you very little to distinguish it from the Cessna 180 from which it was derived. There are two differences, however. One is the engine. The C180 came with a 230-horsepower Continental engine while the C185 came with a 300-horsepower fuel-injected engine.

The second difference, visible from afar, is the larger vertical fin on the Cessna 185. The C185 also has a three-bladed prop while most C180s have the 2-bladed prop. Other than that, they are almost identical. You could, however, never mistake the full-throttle engine sound as it announces its departure.

The cross-section of the C185 is as boxy as its predecessors and strengthened to be able to carry the extra weight. Cessna designed and fortified the structure so that an owner could add one of three options. A belly cargo pod that could hold three hundred pounds, large floats for water landings, or amphibious floats that allowed water and ground operation.

Clyde Cessna’s original strengthened box shape for the wing/fuselage assembly featured prominently and was the core strength of the C185. It also continued with the box construction for the wing with a two-spar cantilever wing, shaped by ribs and wrapped with aluminum sheets.

Aerodynamically, the wing had no taper from root to mid-wing. From mid-wing to the tip, the wing tapered but offered no sweep. The Cessna 185 does not have any dihedral and uses a strut to secure it to the fuselage, as is typical with all Cessna general aviation aircraft.

Specs

Specifications Cessna 185F
Produced 1961 - 1985
Fuselage Length 25 ft 9 in (7.85 m)
Height (Ground to Top of Tail) 7 ft 9 in (2.36 m)
Wingspan 35 ft 9 in (10.9 m)
Pilots 1
Capacity 5 passengers / 1,775 lbs (805 kg) of cargo
Cabin Length 9 ft (2.74 m)
Cabin Height 3 ft 11 in (1.19 m)
Cabin Width 3 ft 4 in (1.02 m)
Max Takeoff Weight (MTOW) 3,350 lbs (1520 kg)
Operating Empty Weight (OEW) 1,575 lbs (714 kg)
Fuel Capacity 528 lbs (239 kg) / 88 gallons (400 liters)
Baggage Compartment 170 lbs (77 kg)
Max Payload 1,775 lbs (805 kg)
(Full Fuel) Maximum Payload 1,247 lbs (565 kg)
Engine 1 x Continental IO-520-D
Cylinders 6 cylinder air cooled
Horsepower at 2850 rpm 300 hp (220 kW)
Propeller 3 Blade McCauley Constant Speed
Specifications Cessna 185F
TBO 1,700 flight hours
Fuel Burn at 75% power, 16 gph
Range at 75% power 660 nmi (1222 km; 760 mi)
Endurance 3.9 hours
Rate of Climb (sea level) 1,075 fpm
Vso, KIAS 49
Vs1, KIAS 57
Vy, KIAS 88
Cruise Speed, KIAS 145
Vx, KIAS 75
Vfe, KIAS 120
Vne, KIAS 182
Service Ceiling 17,900 ft (5456 m)
Takeoff Distance (50 ft obstacle) 1,480 ft (451 m)
Short field take-off 580 ft (177 m)
Landing Distance (50 ft obstacle) 1,430 ft (435 m)

Flight Characteristics

Cessna moved very quickly between the C170, the C180, and on to the C185, doing so to capitalize on the changing landscape of American travel and expansion in the wake of World War II.

While still cognizant of the fact that there were not as many paved runways in towns and rapidly growing cities around the country, Cessna engineers wanted the aircraft to be able to get in and out of unpaved fields.

The Cessna 185 was the quintessential workhorse with springy wheel struts and a shorter three-bladed prop to be able to navigate harsh landing conditions.

The C185 also used a dual lifting surface format, meaning unlike contemporary aircraft where the horizontal stabilizers are designed for downforce in straight and level flight, the C185 taildraggers had a force-up horizontal tail that aided in the total lift of the wings and reduced the induced drag of the main wing. To accomplish this, the center of mass for the aircraft had to be aft of the center of lift of the main wings and aft of the main gear.

If you are planning to purchase the Cessna 185 and have never flown a taildragger, it would be worth your time to get fully proficient in how taildraggers work. It takes no less than ten hours to introduce yourself to taxiing and take-off operations and some solid pattern work, as it’s worth noting that taildraggers do not have the same characteristics as tricycle-gear aircraft.

With that in mind, remember that the Cessna 185 is a workhorse and a load hauler. It’s heavier, and just like driving a semi requires a new mindset, flying a C185 needs one too.

With a relatively heavy rear, pilots who are not used to flying the C185, seem to get into trouble due to an inadequate understanding of the aircraft’s characteristics. Many of the accidents and incidents also come from not having enough time in taildraggers.

The C185 is the perfect aircraft for three-point landings. The wing comes to a natural stall as the tailwheel and main gear are aligned. For this reason, perfect landings are a function of perfect power management on final.

With a 300-horsepower engine, I personally find that the Cessna 185 sometimes has a mind of its own. With strong left-turning tendencies there is no room for lazy footwork. Anyone not used to taildraggers, will soon experience leg fatigue.

There is a reason Cessna upgraded the size of the vertical fin, and that’s because of the weight and the power of the engine that the tail needs to manage.

Power-off stalls in the C185 are typical like most high-wing airplanes. The typical buffet before the break is gentle. Recovery is easy, but I have many students who are not prepared for the sudden torque that the high-performance engine kicks up when they jam the throttle back in to recover from a stall. The recovery can sometimes be more chaotic than the stall itself.

Power on stalls are a little tricky. If you do not have much time in a high-powered aircraft, it will do you a lot of good to practice with an instructor on board. The Cessna 185 is deceptively more powerful than it looks.

I find that the best way to get comfortable with a Cessna 185 is to fly around at minimum controllable airspeed in different configurations and get used to how it behaves. Good mastery of manifold pressure settings will go a long way in taking command of this aircraft.

Price

The price of the Cessna 185 varies with age and model. The older models, built earlier in the series are cheaper due to their sheer age and the somewhat outdated equipment (eg. avionics packages) installed on them. Cessna made improvements across each iteration of its base model.

The earliest model, the original (standard) C185, came with a 260-horsepower engine. It was soon displaced by the C185A. Both models were introduced to the public in the same year. The C185 came out in the first half of 1961 and the A variant came out in the Fall of the same year. Both were priced at $50,000 at that time.

The current prices for both the C185 and C185A, with recent annuals and an average of 4,000 hours on the airframe with less than 1,000 hours SMOH, fluctuates based on modifications between $160,000 and $190,000.

Cessna 185 aficionados love this plane for its rugged simplicity. They like the grit and how it responds with solid control feedback. Its exterior is rugged and can take on a wide variety of bush flying. Be it out in the snowy and rocky tundra of the north, grass planes of the midwest, or the waters of the Great Lakes, the 185 has the reputation of being a reliable vehicle that takes you off the beaten path.

A Cessna A185E amphibious aircraft manufactured in 1968 that has the more powerful IO-520D engine that generates 300 horsepower averages $375,000 in the used market currently. The low average total time on the airframe for this price point is 1800 hours and comes with upgraded avionics.

A Cessna A185F manufactured in 1981 and currently in mint condition with full avionics upgrade and recent paintwork has a price average of $700,000 provided it has about 1000 hours of total time.

Operating Cost

Operating costs are fairly uniform over the different variants of the C185. You can categorize all costs into one of two categories, fixed and direct. Just like owning a car, your fixed cost would be the monthly payments while your direct operating would be the gas in your tank.

With this over-simplified framework in mind, there are a few elements of cost that you have to include while others are optional when it comes to the Cessna 185.

Fixed costs will be incurred regardless of how many hours you put on the Hobbs. Two key costs you should be aware of when it comes to owning a Cessna  185 for private use. The first is that you will have higher than normal insurance costs. The second is that you don’t need to worry about 100-hour inspections.

As for insurance, just remember that your premium will be higher than owning a similarly-valued tricycle-geared aircraft. Taildraggers can sometimes fetch premiums at double the rate of their tricycle counterparts.

With floats and skis, your premium will also rise. While with more hours, your premiums will come down.

There is no mystery as to the reason behind this. Taildraggers are prone to accidents because they handle differently from tricycles. Check with your agent and get some tailwheel time in your log book before purchasing. This will get you proficient and cut your premiums as well.

When determining your cost profile one of the things you are trying to accomplish is to allocate the price of each hour of flight. That way, each time you take to the sky you can pay into it and not feel the bit when the bill comes due.

To do this your first step is to consider how much time you will put on your plane in a year. As a good rule of thumb, I use 400 hours of flight time. That may vary for you.

Fixed Costs

The main cost of a 185 that you will incur whether you fly it or not is the insurance premium. Budgeting $2,500 for insurance is fair, but it will differ for everyone, taking into account the hull value, the location, your flight time, and so on. Assuming 400 hours a year, that works out to be $6.25 per hour.

It is unlikely that you are renting this out or running a commercial operation with this and so your maintenance allocation will change since you would not have to do a hundred-hour inspection. Figure on $600 for an Annual and set aside another $600 for incidental maintenance. Together that adds up to $1200 or $3 per hour.

You would also have to hangar the Cessna 185t. Don’t tie it down in the elements. Keeping it in the hangar would cost you about $3600 a year, or $9 per hour for 400 hours, and could possibly reduce your insurance premium.

If you have a monthly payment that you are making toward a loan on the aircraft, this would be a good place to add that if you are so inclined. For instance, if your payments are $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, that would add $30 per hour to your cost of a flight.

Don’t bother adding depreciation to the hourly costs. It is something charter planes and jets do, but for private planes, it's not necessary. But if you have tax considerations, then talk to your accountant about how you need to treat depreciation for those purposes.

Your fixed costs add up to $48.25 per hour for 400 hours.

Direct Operating Cost

Direct Operating Costs capture anything that you spend when you use the aircraft. Fuel, for instance. If you let it sit in the hanger, the aircraft does not consume fuel. That is a good example of DOC.

Getting a good handle on how you cost the consumables of your aircraft is the first step in good aircraft operation management. It determines how well you will be able to keep the aircraft in good working order and properly financed during the span of its life.

To get a good measure of how much fuel you burn in an hour, first remember that your first hour of operation always consumes the most and your last hour of operation always consumes the least.

The Cessna 185 burns about 16 gallons per hour, but that is up at 3000 feet, at 75% power. Just keep in mind that the average burn rate will go up if you are in the pattern for the entire two hours, and will go down if you are on a long-distance trip up at ten thousand feet.

At $7.6 per gallon (the price I pay at my local airfield as of the time of writing), 16 gph will translate to $121.60 per hour.

Engine oil is another major DOC. The C185 has a 12-quart capacity and burns about a quart of oil every two hours of flight. Don’t operate the engine below 9 quarts (read before the first flight of the day.) That works out to be half a quart every hour. At $10 per quart, that’s $5 per hour.

There is also the overhaul cost of $40,000 that it would take to overhaul the IO-520D. In this case that would need to be done every 1,700 hours. This works out to be $23.50 per hour that you should set aside each time you fly.

With all these costs laid out, the total Direct Operating Costs (DOCs) for a Cessna 185 including $121.6 for fuel, $5 for engine oil, and $23.50 for the overhaul fund adds up to $150.10 per hour, excluding any element of fixed cost.

As such, adding that to the Fixed Costs from the previous section, that added up to an hourly cost of $48.25 per hour, your total cost in this simple example is $198.35 per hour. It's a pretty fair estimate of what it would cost you to own and fly the airplane.

Speed

Speeds are a lot more important for taildraggers than for tricycle gears. That may sound unrelated to the conversation but it is a point worth noting. As a taildragger pilot and one who will be exposed to a sensitive aircraft that needs you to be up on your stick and rudder skills, knowing your speeds is important.

The Cessna 185 touches down exactly at the point of stalling. That is the reason most older pilots who cut their teeth on taildraggers insist on hearing the stall horn before they touch down. The angle the C185 makes in a three-point landing is exactly the point that the wings stall.

The stall speed in the landing configuration for the C185 is 49 knots. It doesn’t vary that much in the clean condition, just up 8 knots to 57 knots. The key is to cross the threshold with the least amount of excess energy with full flaps and maintain the approach speed which should be 5 knots above the stall.

In slow flight without flaps, the C185 rocks and buffets at just under 57 knots. It takes a lot of work to fly the C185 in MCA. When you reach the critical angle of attack, without any power coming from the props, the plane still wants to yaw left.

In slow flight with full flaps, get behind the power curve to maintain altitude and step on the ball hard. Without much of a horizon in view, it's hard to see the directional change from an uncoordinated flight, but your DG is going to be in a constant turn. Keep that in the corner of your eye.

If your stall breaks while still uncoordinated, you will set yourself up for a spin that comes out easily enough but is not recommended. Practice this with an instructor.

The key thing to remember with the Cessna 185 is that energy equals speed. And energy is derived from your manifold pressure. The more manifold pressure, the higher the energy supplied to the engine, and the greater the speed.

In an engine-out emergency, your best glide speed is 70 KIAS. Clean up the plane and trim it for that speed. It will give you the best horizontal distance and allow you to find the best landing spot available to you.

Fuel Burn

The Cessna 185 is typically flown between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Like most taildraggers, the C185 remains a staunch bush aircraft and a heavy hauler. Because it is a constant-speed prop, you can extract more power for a longer time as you ascend.

Fuel burn averages between 12 and 13 gallons per hour for 57% power settings when you are up at 15,000 feet. Set the manifold pressure to 17in and the rpm to 2550. This will give you a True Airspeed of 136 knots.

At 10,000 feet, you can boost your manifold pressure to 21 in and set the rpm to 2550. This will give you 70% BHP while burning 15 gph. At this, you will be flying at 144 knots (True Air Speed).

A good economy fuel burn can be achieved on the Cessna 185 if you fly at 15,000 feet and set the manifold pressure to 14 inches and the RPM to 2200. This will give you 70 knots (TAS) and 7.7 gph. At this setting, you will have 8 hours of endurance.

About THE AUTHOR

Joe Haygood

Joe Haygood

After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.

Read More About Joe Haygood